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Intimacy Won't Kill You, Tough Guy

But a lack of it might.

Let's break this down in super simple terms.

Troubling Trends For Men

  1. Male friendships are on the decline. The American Survey Center recently reported some disturbing trends around friendship. According to their decennial survey on the subject, 15% of all men reported having zero close friends. That's up fivefold from ten years ago. And it's worse among single men, a full 20% of whom say they don't have a single close social contact. I'll add that this data tracks with my anecdotal experiences; several men who've come to me recently for burnout coaching have reported that their friendships are very limited in both quantity and quality.

  2. Loneliness will cut your life short. As U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy explained it, isolation and lack of social connection "are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking fifteen cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity." Worst of all, loneliness has been found to be a key predictor of suicidal ideation and behavior. That important link helps explain why men, who make up only 49% of the population, account for 80% of suicides in the US.

I could go further on this and quote a bunch of other studies on topics like depression, addiction, and divorce. But I don't think I need to. It's really quite straightforward.

Loneliness is a killer.

Intimacy is a savior.

But wait a second... Why do I keep referring to "intimacy"? Isn't that something we only have with a romantic partner?

Nope. Intimacy is not strictly about sex. The inimitable Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, recently broke this down perfectly:

"I think we take for granted how much in society, men who say sex is the thing they're not getting, are actually struggling with a lack of companionship, of intimacy, of being in a space with a person sharing, you know, everything from serotonin to endorphins to what what humans need to feel, you know. And I hope we can change that conversation just a little bit more."

If you didn't watch that video yet, go check it out. And pay attention to the audience's reaction at the 3:30 mark of that clip. When he mentions the idea of a man asking to be held by another man, the discomfort of the audience is palpable.

It seems to me that they had to let out a nervous laugh, that they hoped he was making a joke, because if not, well... Well, what?

The Truth About Men & Intimacy

I mean, if it's true that men actually have a broad range of intimate needs--for things like affection and emotional displays--well, that makes them less manly, right?

Nope. Nope. Nope. Those are not truths.

Rather, what we're hearing are the ancient echoes of our hyper masculine (not to mention homophobic) culture.

The worn-out tropes of the "Tough Guy" persona that men are supposed to uphold? They don't protect men. No. "Sucking it up", "going it alone", and "suffering in silence" are paths that lead men into loneliness. And that loneliness ultimately diminishes both the quality and duration of their lives.

Let me say that more succinctly:

Denying their needs for intimacy causes pain and death for men.

The Case for Intimacy

In case you still don't believe me, let's look at this from another angle, through the lens of happiness research.

Arthur C. Brooks is a renowned social scientist who writes for The Atlantic Magazine. In a February 2022 article titled The Seven Habits That Lead to Happiness in Old Age, he outlines a series of findings based on the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest‐running study of human happiness in the world.

Brooks found that there are seven keys to creating a good life in our elder years. The first six are perhaps obvious:

  1. Refraining from smoking

  2. Limiting alcohol intake

  3. Maintaining a healthy weight

  4. Having a daily exercise routine

  5. Using coping mechanisms, such as spiritual or therapeutic practices

  6. Being a lifelong learner

Here's #7:

Do the work to cultivate stable, long-term relationships now. For most people, this includes a steady marriage, but other relationships with family, friends, and partners can fit in this category as well. The point is to find people with whom you can grow, whom you can count on, no matter what comes your way.

I added the italics to emphasize that we can create intimate connections across the entire landscape of our lives, instead of laying all our intimacy needs at the feet of a partner or spouse.

Oh yeah, here's one last bit of research for you from that Harvard study: If you could only pursue one of those seven habits for building a great life, the one to choose is intimacy. According. to their 80+ years of research, it is the single most important trait of people who live long and happy lives.

Fine, Now What?

If that all makes sense to you, begrudgingly or not, then what? Do you just go to the intimacy store or order up some intimacy skills on Amazon? Unfortunately, no.

Instead, you have to make a choice over what's more scary: the risk of a shortened & less happy life vs. taking the risk to create more intimacy.

Let me take a second here to acknowledge that the latter path, as enticing as it might be, might feel difficult. We've been discouraged from doing that our entire lives.

Trust me--I get it. I lived through the choice of denying intimacy, which included a period of time when my own life didn't feel like living anymore. Ultimately, I decided that the risk of being uncomfortable as I awkwardly started building new intimate relationships was worth it. Over time, I was proven right beyond my wildest imagination. Intimacy was the path to happiness, not to mention health, freedom, wealth, and joy.

Eventually, I wrote a book to capture that journey, so that other men could navigate it more easily than I did. Expansive Intimacy: How "Tough Guys" Defeat Burnout is a blend of stories, research, and lessons learned that can help men grow beyond the cultural strictures that keep men lonely and at risk of shortened lifespans. It's already helped a bunch of men and I hope you (dear, reader) will find it useful for a man in your life, maybe even yourself.

Because today, the true "Tough Guy" move isn't for guys to take it on the chin. It's to embrace the intimacy that will help them be around a lot longer for the people they love.


Jim Young is a Burnout & Intimacy Coach who helps men and organizations defeat burnout. His work focuses on helping CEOs, Founders, and Senior Executives create healthier, more connected lives that positively impact the people they lead and love. He maintains room in his practice for a small number of clients who are ready to do Expansive Intimacy Coaching.

Jim is also the author of Expansive Intimacy: How "Tough Guys" Defeat Burnout. A free preview of the book can be found here. You can get a copy of his free eBook, which offers dozens of skills and practices for developing intimacy, by signing up for his newsletter.


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