Long friendships have a way of shifting the space-time continuum. Once a close friendship has transcended years, decades — enough fashion cycles to see flannel and baggy jeans come back into style — that friendship can defy the traditional laws of physics. Sometimes it takes effort to untangle the order of past events, for example. This wedding, that funeral, some epic road trip: With a collective recollection, time can move in any direction and each recalled moment can occur differently with every new telling. A good friendship is a multiverse.

Time spent apart can also elasticize. In college, a friend’s summer abroad can feel like an eternity. But by the time you’re in your early 40s, you might not even remember the last time you saw each other.

That’s the particular quantum anomaly my friend Shaun and I were experiencing a few weeks ago on the phone. It had been too long since we’d gotten together for dinner, we agreed.

“A couple months at least,” one of us muttered.

Then we were both quiet for a second as we thought about the last time we’d actually hung out. My brain rolled back through the calendar. It wasn’t in winter or fall. Over the summer, right? No, it was before then, too.

Shaun is my oldest friend. We met in middle school while competing in, of all things, a geography bee. As the other contestants melted away faster than the Thwaites Glacier — just east of Mount Murphy, on the Walgreen Coast of Antarctica — we were among the four or five kids who answered correctly enough to become finalists. He eventually won. We were roommates in college. We were in each other’s weddings. We’ve been there for each other through a variety of traumas and triumphs, and we’ve stayed friends as we both built families and careers. He’s earnest to the point of quirkiness, and one of the most loyal people I know.

These days Shaun lives about 45 minutes away. We text each other a few times a week and chat on the phone every now and then. But as we thought back, we realized that it had somehow been more than a year since we’d seen each other in person.

I was stunned. Then I was disappointed in myself. How could it have been so long?

The truth is, we both travel for work. We’re both trying to be good husbands and fathers, and that takes a lot of time, too. We also each have our own separate interests and circles of colleagues and friends. A few times we made plans for lunch or dinner, but then someone was out of town, or a kid was sick, or the weather was bad and it seemed easier to just do it a different day.

It sounds counterintuitive because we think of friends as the people who provide respite from the obligations of life, but maintaining friendships can take work. It’s something a lot of adults — especially men — struggle with.

Several studies over the last few years have shown that men are experiencing what’s become known as a “friendship recession.” It’s essentially an epidemic of loneliness. Surveys show that men in general have fewer close friends than women, and men today have fewer close friends than men 30 years ago. Since the early 1990s, the percentage of men who say they don’t have any close friends has multiplied several times over. Men are less likely than women to reach out to friends to talk about their personal feelings, too. Not coincidentally, men are also nearly four times as likely as women to die by suicide, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These trends started before Covid-19, but a global pandemic sure didn’t help.

I couldn’t help but wonder: Why is it so difficult for men to make and maintain friendships? What’s driving this loneliness?

It might be easy to dismiss any fret over the loneliness of men. After all, our society was built mostly by and ostensibly for men. And it’s still mostly men in control. Men are also, statistically, responsible for much more violence and much more likely to be the oppressor than the oppressed. Men, as a group, are not always the most sympathetic characters.

Still, this is a topic that should concern everyone.

Several studies over the last few years have shown that men are experiencing what’s become known as a “friendship recession.” It’s essentially an epidemic of loneliness.

At its worst, male loneliness can result in mass devastation. Think mass shooters, serial killers, barely visible tinderboxes vulnerable to the most dangerous types of terroristic influence. But even when it’s nothing close to that bad, we’re still talking about millions of sad men — sons, brothers, fathers, husbands, neighbors — living out unfulfilling, lonesome existences. And then sometimes deciding not to live out that life after all.

To be clear, discussing the loneliness of men doesn’t invalidate the very real, stressful and often lonely experiences of women or marginalized groups. It’s certainly possible to be concerned about more than one problem at a time. Plus, the loneliness epidemic facing men is different — and not only because a wide swath of society doesn’t have much empathy for men.

Male loneliness isn’t a side effect of the way our society is structured. It’s a direct effect. Stoicism is a virtue in our culture. We often celebrate an exacting control of emotion. We might schedule our lives around watching two trained men get into a ring and try to knock each other out, but only a masochist would enjoy watching those same two men get into the same room and cry.

Look at the way literature and cinema has depicted traditionally successful men. There’s wealth and power and sometimes even the love of a family. But very few of them are surrounded by genuine friends, people they trust and depend on. The only exceptions: tales about war or team sports, or detective stories. Nearly every good detective has a colorful cadre of trusted associates that help solve the mystery. For the most part, though, our stories don’t have room for a lot of friends.

And yet, even happily married men need people outside their family to talk to, about both the banal and the painful. The need to trust and be trusted is inborn in our species. For proof, look no further than the copious number of American veterans who return from combat and report feeling a deep, abiding loneliness. They don’t necessarily miss the most terrible, traumatizing elements of war, but they do miss the camaraderie, the bonds forged through those shared experiences. There’s a certain strength and confidence that comes from knowing others have your back, and that you have a purpose in protecting them.

The most obvious reason why most men might have such trouble with friendships is that whole discouraging vulnerability thing. Society’s message to men is generally something along the lines of “Suck it up.”

But that’s nothing new. Men have been encouraged to bury their emotions for much of modern history. If anything, our society is more open and less judgmental about the way we choose to live our lives than ever. And yet, male friendships have plummeted.

There have been a few big changes in our lives in the last 30 years, of course. The internet, and social media in particular, has completely transformed our social lives. It’s never been easier or faster to chat with someone, whether that’s via text or direct message. We’ve never been more connected to one another. But that ease of communication and the constant streams of potential distractions have led to even less of the earnest, rewarding interaction humans require. And the interconnectedness has undoubtedly made the world more polarized, more fractured. In a twisted irony, the more we’re able to connect, the lonelier we’ve become.

Add to that some of the socioeconomic developments of the last few decades. The economy is approaching Gilded Age levels. In a lot of cities, it’s harder than ever to buy a home. More men are living with their parents. More Americans say they feel a general sense of doom. None of these things are great for friendships.

It sounds counterintuitive because we think of friends as the people who provide respite from the obligations of life, but maintaining friendships can take work.

But even if it’s especially pronounced here, America certainly isn’t the only country where men are lonely. One of the most extreme examples is Japan, where there is an entire class of mostly male social outcasts called hikikomori, which translates roughly as “extreme recluses.” They’re known to isolate in their homes for weeks — sometimes months — at a time. Plenty are young, but the Japanese government estimates that there are more than 600,000 hikikomori between the ages of 40 and 64. Economists are concerned that the phenomenon is exacerbating an already dire demographic crisis.

In hopes of reintegrating some percentage of them back into society, a Japanese nonprofit has created long videos of live-action women, hoping to help hikikomori practice small human interactions like making eye contact.

It’s not clear from any of the current research what society writ large might need to do to stave off this friendship recession — but being able to discuss this problem without anyone rolling their eyes certainly seems like a good start. If reasonable, rational thinkers don’t ever want to address the issue, the only people purporting to help lonely men will be the most toxic, destructive elements of society.

On a personal level, the answer is will and intentionality. Almost every study ever done on the subject indicates that people with more close friends tend to be happier and healthier. Humans are social creatures. Historically, we’ve solved our biggest problems with collaborations built on trust and reciprocity. Good friends can make the good times in life even better. In the bad times, they can help ease the suffering. And the echoing silence of needing a friend and not having one can be devastating.

Like eating well and exercising, the best way to maintain close friendships is by making it a habit, a regular practice. Maybe that’s a monthly meal with the friends you’ve had since your haircut was deeply embarrassing. Maybe that’s a weekly pickleball game with a neighbor or one of the other dads from your kid’s school. Making friends can be intensely awkward. But so is going for a run if you haven’t done it in a while. Learning to trust and proving to others that they can trust you has to be a priority in life.

If it’s too uncomfortable, take a lesson from the fictional detectives who’ve cultivated those rosters of trusted cohorts. They always find some reason to visit their friends. They’re constantly proving that they’re there for one another. Even if you don’t have any capers to solve, deciding to see more of your friends is usually pretty great.

As for Shaun and me, the first thing we did was get together for dinner at a great barbecue joint between our respective hometowns. We also made a plan to do that more often, an intentional decision that we aren’t only going to see each other when life seems to be spiraling.

In a mesquite-scented wooden booth at the restaurant, we caught up on life. We talked about our families. We talked about work. We swapped a few new stories, and a few old stories, too. And we each mentioned some traveling we’d done — forever the same kids who met in that middle school geography bee.

We also experienced another violation of the laws of time and space. Sure, the clock has continued to tick since we’d last seen each other. It’s possible there’s a little less hair and maybe a little weight lost or gained. But it didn’t take long before we suddenly felt like absolutely no time had passed at all.

This story appears in the April 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.