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“Close” and the “epidemic of loneliness” that plagues male friendships

“Close” and the “epidemic of loneliness” that plagues male friendships

are men ok In all likelihood, they will never tell you.

According to a 2021 survey by the Survey Center on American Life, only 21% of men say they have received emotional support from a friend in the past week, compared to 41% of women. Likewise, only 25% of men say they’ve said “I love you” to a friend recently, compared to 49% of women.

It’s part of an ‘epidemic of loneliness’ that director Lukas Dhont set out to explore in his new drama ‘Close’ (in theaters nationwide now), which is Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and follows two inseparable teenagers.

“We live in a society that tells young men that there are things we value more than tenderness and vulnerability,” says Dhont. “We are teaching young men to stop caring about authentic connections and to be more distant with emotions. It’s an incredibly brutal thing.”

What is “Close” about?

Close begins with Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) on their summer holidays: running, cycling and napping together in the idyllic Belgian countryside. They think nothing of their close connection — they share beds for sleepovers or rest their heads on each other’s shoulders — until they return to middle school, where they are teased and called homophobic slurs by their classmates. Embarrassed, Léo avoids Rémi and joins an ice hockey team. Meanwhile, Rémi becomes deeply depressed.

Dhont was inspired to create the film after reading psychologist Niobe Way’s 2013 non-fiction book Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendship and the Crisis of Connection.

“When Niobe (interviewed) all these 13-year-old boys, she noticed how lovingly they spoke to each other,” says Dhont. “I really connected to it. I was also a young boy who felt the power of friendship, but then began to fear intimacy as I went through puberty. It was something I always thought was very connected to being queer. I realized after (way) researching that it wasn’t that I was queer, it was that I was a man.”

How we think boys should behave

Society’s general uneasiness about close male friendships is rooted in antiquated notions of gender and masculinity.

“Women are socialized from an early age to be more caring and relational than men, who are often taught to perceive intimacy as feminine or weak,” says Daniel Cox, director of the Survey Center on American Life. “There are all sorts of societal norms that take men and women in very different directions when it comes to friendship, what its function is, and what to expect from a friend.”

Part of the problem is that young men are encouraged to develop ‘shoulder-to-shoulder friendships’ in team sports or group activities rather than one-on-one relationships.

“Girls and women feel more comfortable in personal conversations,” says Dr. Geoffrey Greif, a professor in the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “Some parents might say that watching their[boys]play sports and compete with another guy might be more typical. On the other hand, if you see them having long, private discussions, it would be rather contrary to gender expectations.”

Homophobia creates a “deep stigma” around male friendships

Although the parents don’t blink at Léo and Rémi’s friendship in “Close”, other students taunt them for hugging and sitting together.

“We’re conditioned to see that closeness as something sexual,” says Dhont. “We’re so used to seeing that intimacy in a platonic way that we immediately sexualize it.”

Nick Fager, mental health consultant and co-founder of Expansive Therapy, attributes such fears of male intimacy to pervasive, often unconscious homophobia.

“Loving friendship between boys is usually allowed in our culture up to a certain age, but homophobia is rampant and creates a deep stigma around boys who love each other,” says Fager. “Boys then have to choose between staying in the tribe and surviving, or keeping their hearts open to their friends and being cast out.”

Young men need to see that vulnerability is okay

According to the Survey Center on American Life, the number of people who say they don’t have close friends has quadrupled since 1990. Young men, in particular, are 12% more likely than women to rely on their personal support rather than reaching out to a friend.

But close friendships are paramount to our mental and physical health: A 2018 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that boys who spent more time with their friends as children had lower rates of obesity and blood pressure as adults.

“Research says that people with good social networks live longer, happier and healthier lives,” says Greif. “If you feel like you can’t turn to a friend for support, you’re going to experience greater social isolation.”

As a father, Cox tries to instill meaningful friendships in his two sons and show them that “it doesn’t all have to be superficial: you can talk about deep and important things and not worry about making fun of them. ”

“Bromantic” Hollywood comedies also tend to downplay male friendships instead of giving them the weight they deserve. But movies like Close can help show young men — queer and straight — positive examples of male intimacy.

“You have to have role models and really see how men are vulnerable with each other,” says Fager. “If there aren’t examples of male love and vulnerability around them, and they’re just being told that intimate friendship with men is healthy and normal, the message won’t stick and the wound will perpetuate.”

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