It had been a rough day that had capped a rough week, after a run of rough months—you know the feeling—and I was sitting with my friend Harry, drinking beers in our building’s courtyard for the first time this spring, talking about the ways we couldn’t help one another. I have lived with Harry for nearly nine years. I was cursing my career frustrations (which, for me, can quickly devolve into near-existential self-doubt). He was coming to terms with soon having to once again undergo a surgery that had sent him into a deep depression last summer. Yet while describing how pained we’d felt and expected to feel again, we both acknowledged that our friendship—perhaps as close as we had with anyone else—wasn’t the same as having a partner, someone with whom you have a full, mutual responsibility for each other’s happiness, to which you would devote as much of yourself as you could. “It’s not like I can hold you,” I said.
Not until later did it occur to me to really ask myself why. We’d both stayed mostly single, spending much of the pandemic without meaningful physical contact. But we hadn’t been alone. We’d been beside each other on the couch, among the only people in the world that the circumstances rendered reasonable to touch. And sure, we high-fived, maybe hugged before we left for a stretch of time with our families. But we certainly hadn’t cried in each other’s arms.
Why, though? Why couldn’t I hold Harry?
I tried to push past the unhelpful response my mind first offered up: “Guys just don’t.” Was this some form of unexamined, internalized homophobia I hadn’t kicked? A fear of being seen as gay so deeply embedded in me that it no longer cared about context? (Which of the zero potential dates in my quarantine was I worrying would be turned off?) I’d been aching for the comfort of contact to soothe the sadness and anxiety and fear and loneliness I’d been living with. Yet if I knew I needed it, but kept myself from seeking it, was this pain actually self-inflicted?
According to NYU professor Niobe Way, who has studied the “crisis of connection” in boys’ friendships, this was far from a problem with just me. Since after World War II, and especially during the heights of homophobia in the late eighties and early nineties, which I was born into, American males have been reared to fear being seen as feminine. “Teenage boys become obsessed with who they are not,” Way told me. We undergo a change, and we start imitating and parroting certain “manly” archetypes. We stop seeking the comforts of self-expression and physical touch and intimacy that we once had access to, leading us to seek not community but isolation in times of stress, as we repress who we naturally would be. This not only limits our expressions of joy—by, say, preventing many of us from feeling comfortable dancing—but also our cures to sadness. One boy told Way well before the pandemic, “I’ve had to rot in my loneliness.”
This feeling is not inherently gendered. In an essay describing her time living alone and without touch during the pandemic, Glynnis MacNicol described a similar sense of erosion, of “consuming a lot of yourself without any intervention.” But it is one that the culture may put men at greater risk of experiencing, at least in more normal times.
Way said something about what had happened within me and society that gave me hope: “We created it, so we can change it.” I started believing this more when I read about the cuddlers.
I was introduced to the cuddlers by a series of studies that involved interviewing 30 heterosexual guys enrolled in a sport-degree program at a university in the U.K. All but one of these young men had at least one close male friend with whom they were not only emotionally open, but with whom they often felt comfortable cuddling, even maybe kissing. This flabbergasted me. These guys held each other. It was so common that no one cared, or even noticed. They did still sometimes perform as manly men—in particular to their girlfriends. But with these close male friends, they shared and offered as much of themselves as they could, including their bodies. One of them recalled a night during which he was upset about something going on with his grandfather. His close friend Stewart joined him and, he said, “stayed in my bed till the morning.”
When I first read about the cuddlers, I couldn’t quite imagine myself as one of them. I tried to picture Harry joining me in my bed after I’d heard my 90-year-old grandmother was diagnosed with COVID, but I couldn’t. I envied them, and so I dismissed them. I assured myself that they were of some younger, freer generation. But when I went back and looked, I saw that the interviews occurred around the time I turned 24. The oldest subject was 22. I could’ve been them. I could’ve had the comforts they had.
But I didn’t live in a place where the was expectation that close friendship included contact—or at least more contact than those hugs where you pound someone on the back a couple times to stop any tenderness from settling in. And I was still me, someone who didn’t know how to ask for—well, for what?
Michael Addis, a psychology professor at Clark University who has studied how men suffer in silence, told me that I probably needed to ask myself some more questions, and regularly so. Particularly: Can I be the person I want to be here without having to be a man—without having to follow the rules of masculinity? If I really wanted to experience friendly, prolonged physical contact more than I wanted to mime American masculinity to an empty apartment, Addis suggested the most direct way might be to expose myself to it while reminding myself that it wasn’t so bad, as we do to heal most phobias.
But this wasn’t like dipping my hand in a box of spiders and repeating, “The poison is only in my mind!” This wasn’t a solitary act. I would need to also have another conversation with Harry, in which we would get specific about what we were comfortable with. Addis asked me to rate certain acts on a seven-point scale, and rattled off a list: “How about a hug as we’re leaving—a two-second hug? How about a five-second hug? How about a kiss on the cheek? How about a kiss on the lips?” Quickly things seemed less abstract, more practical; they felt almost conquerable. And besides, as Addis said, “It’s not like there’s a right answer, right?”
I could see myself getting to a mindset where I could ask to be held or I could offer to hold. A pleasant mania—you could call it optimism, even—set in. This wouldn’t help just me, but also Harry—and whomever else I built this bond with. When I talked with Billy Baker, who recently published a memoir about his years-long attempt to fix his friendships, he told me about how that effort filled his life with the kinds of relationships it had lacked. Though Baker hoped a guy friend would readily place a comforting arm around his shoulder, he didn’t crave much more touch from his pals; indeed, the only prolonged contact he’d had with a longtime mutual buddy was a near-fistfight over wiffle ball. Still, he had what he wanted. Baker told me, “I’m hooked up, and that’s because I put myself in so many fucking vulnerable positions for so many years.” That could be me, I thought.
But now I’m vaccinated. Harry and I and so many of us are refamiliarizing ourselves with the old norms and, in doing so, returning to what was once enough—without having once-in-a-century circumstances urging us to consider how we could have more.
The other day, I heard my grandmother likely had weeks—and possibly only days—left to live. So I packed my bags and a suit and booked a train to my hometown. Before I left, I shouted to Harry. He crutched to his bedroom door, said to send his love, and we nodded goodbye.