Close Male Friendship Key to Better Health

Close Male Friendship Key to Better Health

Close Male Friendship Key to Better Health

Encouraging closer male relationships could be one of the keys to improving men's likelihood of reaching out for help and improving their health, according to the latest psychological research presented at the 27th International Congress on Applied Psychology (ICAP).

Men's health expert Kerry Cronan says that: "The idea of masculinity is entrenched within our culture, that men should be tough, fearless and self-reliant and that they should not be seen as vulnerable."

"When it comes to health and relationships, these beliefs can inhibit men from being honest and open, and it can also prevent them from seeking help."

Mr Cronan's recent study suggests that nurturing male-to-male relationships and encouraging open and honest discussion and support, helps breaks down the barriers of masculinity.

"Our masculine cultural ideals inhibit men from getting emotionally close with other men, potentially affecting their ability to experience intimacy and depth in both their friendships and romantic relationships."

According to Mr Cronan, men are afraid of being emotionally close - or platonically intimate - with other men.

"In many cultures, touch does not signify the same taboo attitudes as it does in Western societies. Outside of the sporting field or a drunken night out, men in our culture are generally afraid of any form of affection or closeness with each other."

"We established a men's group which was about giving them the opportunity to feel supported and the chance to complain and voice their opinions and emotions. It was really successful in removing false masculine expectations and encouraging closeness among participants - outside of these groups men find it difficult to validate their feelings in the same way," he said.

"We need to talk more about men's emotional needs - especially vulnerability - to break the taboo around masculinity."

The research forms part of a symposium at ICAP 2010 in Melbourne and includes contributions from national and international experts in the field of men's health. The symposium links men's experience of vulnerability to risk-taking behaviour, harmful alcohol consumption, body image concerns and experiences of emotional and physical violence.

"Traditional ideas about being a man have served men badly," said Professor Bob Montgomery, President of the Australian Psychological Society. "The more traditional view of masculinity a man holds, the less successful he is at intimate relationships, even sexual relationships, and at family relationships. The stiff upper lip approach to your feelings is bad for your relationships as well as your health."

People seeking assistance from a psychologist can call the Australian Psychological Society's find-a-psychologist service on 1800 333 497 or access the service via the website at

The 27th International Congress of Applied Psychology (ICAP) 2010 was held in the Southern Hemisphere for the first time, bringing together more than 3000 delegates from 60 countries, including prominent psychologists, researchers and keynote speakers. The Congress is held every four years and was brought to Melbourne in 2010 by the Australian Psychological Society (APS) and the International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP).

Interview with Kerry Cronan and Ryan McKelly

How do men benefit from having a close group of male friends?

Kerry Cronan: Basically it is not just having a close group of male friends but bringing about a challenge to what is a myth of our culture that men have to be distant from one another. This is really allowing them to have an ease with one another if they can break away from the traditional male ways of behaving, which is not really being very gentle or close to one another, keeping that distance. Boys are taught when there young not to carry on like that or they are called 'a sissy'.

Ryan McKelly: It adds to a broader human experience, men experience a full range of emotions as woman do, but culturally they are limited to what they can express. Being more intimate with each other also allows them to improve their own relationships with themselves and they are able to express and experience a much wider range and live more fully. That thankfully that does impact on their relationships.

Men believe they have to be seen as masculine and tough- do men see having a close male friend as weak?

Kerry Cronan: It's not just in friends, that is were it impacts mostly but it is men's general relationships with one another that they tend to be closed off. Underneath the hard front they're very afraid of one another and that impacts on them significantly in terms of their psychological health. They need to unburden themselves from that protective barrier or layer and really get a sense of their deeper needs in terms of being free to be close to people, whether they are male or female. Particularly they inhibit it in their ability to be at ease with close male relationships.

How can this view be changed and male closeness encouraged?

Kerry Cronan: Basically, it shows when males come to therapy in terms of excessive alcohol drinking or suicidal behaviour. It also shows in how unnecessary angry juvenile males are because they don't know how to be close with one another, this is also feeding off into females, they're becoming rather aggressive too.

Does this mean women should be encouraging 'boy's night'?

Kerry Cronan: Not necessarily, depends on how the boys night goes (laughing).

Ryan McKelly: One of the dangers in saying "go have time you're your mates" is that it doesn't necessarily mean that men are changing or really embracing intimacy. I have heard female clients in relationships say "that it is a burden to me to be the only one that my boyfriend or husband will open up too, I really wish he would have other places to do this". In separations and divorces we know that men are worse psychological because often they have only been intimate and open with their female partner and not so with their friends.

'Boy's night out' isn't enough and that is what Kerry is alluding to that we need to be more serious about it. It doesn't mean 'hey, I hug my mates now, I'm a new man' but really being willing to be vulnerable and share the joys and herds in life. 'Boy's night out' having some pints, that isn't enough. To be able to see men opening up to each other replays in other relationships including father and son.

In saying that, how can women encourage their partners and mothers encourage their sons to open up?

Kerry Cronan: I don't think it just happens. I think this is where the psychological impact is very important, for example in men's therapy groups they are able to explore this sort of thing, in depth, in a safe environment, so they feel they can change their behaviour with those other males present in the group. It is not an easy process to change and if we encourage loose sort of approaches to this it will result in more confusion rather than getting into the right dimension of how men should relate to one another.

Ryan McKelly: There is no doubt that it is an extremely difficult process for men, I don't think anyone would say that this is something men can get used to on an easy basis. It takes time and it takes practice. You have to take risks; I think that is the part of vulnerability that makes it so threatening for men. Men are raised to believe that being vulnerable is a weakness and opening ourselves up to being hurt or rejected and we fail to appreciate the benefits to it; empathy and deep compassion are all things we can experience as a result of it. I think it is making men and woman aware of all the benefits.

How can woman support it? Part of it is by taking the shame out of it. Men certainly play a role with each other but woman do as well. There are women out there that also help reinforce stereotypes on occasion. As a culture we need to pay attention to how we respond when men do show emotion or some level of vulnerability even in the public eye. How do we treat athletes and politicians when they do that?

Kerry Cronan: Woman can't expect their men to be knights in shining armor, all the time.

Whilst many other opinions and views change over the years, the view of men always needing to be protectors has never changed. Do you agree?

Kerry Cronan: Yes. We live in a very different society now and certainly there is a protective element to male strength that woman find important, that is not the only issue that they need to see as important in their relationship with their male partners. They essentially need to get down to their ability to be free to care for one another. Men find that caring reception, the receiving of care, very difficult because they think they need to be the ones out to protect everybody and sometimes woman play along with that and I don't think it helps their relationships.

Do you believe Australians need to applaud the likes of Kevin Rudd for his emotional resignation speech?

Kerry Cronan: Exactly, yes.

Ryan McKelly: I'm not the first to say this, but the woman's movement was a wonderful thing for woman as a whole the only problem with it is that men have not responded in kind. Women have learned to adapt and expand their available gender behaviours in the workplace and elsewhere, men have not done the same thing. I don't think it is a matter of throwing away all these other things that make men who we are but it is adding, it's giving them more skills and more tools and being able to express other emotions other than anger. It is adding, much like the woman's movement has helped we need to see a similar movement with men.

Kerry Cronan: One of the difficulties woman find is that it is puzzling because they know that their male partners love them, in a romantic relationship, although it is not consistent, it seems to move in and out all the time. The intimacy seems to be related to having sex, but it doesn't seem to be related to any other sense of caring. Men have trouble in receiving care, it comes down to being gentle enough to accept the care and response from their partners, it doesn't always come easy to the men and the women say "why don't they want me to care for them? Maybe I'm not good enough!" After a while they start to say to themselves "I am good enough" the women's movement has taught them that, they need to believe that, when that happens the whole process of separation happens and it is very painful and I think in a lot of instances it doesn't need to happen.

Ryan McKelly: Women have seen the vulnerable and emotional side to their male partner. It's not that men are incapable of it, it is just the context in which men are allowed to express and to experience it culturally are few and far between. It would be great to be able to expand those whether it is via friendship or anything else we really need to focus on that.

Kerry Cronan: Psychologists see this in the therapy change. When couples come there is an opportunity to talk to men particularly about where the opportunities are of change. Also to provide education to men about what are the areas where the change is needed and more so in men's group, which is where the great opportunity of very affective change happens. If a man changes by himself in therapy he goes out by himself into the wild world where he still feels threatened. When he has other men that he can refer to and relate to, then that gives him the sense of opportunity even though he might not find it easy to relate to other men who haven't gone through that change he has a support group that have an understanding, he can rely and feel comforted by this.

In the therapy group that I ran for men the wives where complaining about the men being on the phone more than they were!