Think back to January and the New Year’s resolutions that crossed your mind, even if just fleetingly. Like most men, you may have pondered getting more exercise, maybe eating better, or, if you smoke, quitting. In all probability “reconnecting with friends” didn’t even crack your top 10. And yet, experts think strengthening your social ties is a vital habit for every married man to add to his repertoire. In fact, many think it is the single most neglected issue in men’s health.

Smaller Circles
A recent study showed that Americans have one-third fewer close friends and confidants than just two decades ago�a sign that people may be living lonelier, more isolated lives. Additionally, the number of people who say they have no one with whom to discuss important matters has more than doubled. The percentage of people who talk only to family members about important matters increased from about 57 percent to about 80 percent, while the number of people who depend totally on their spouses has nearly doubled.

Researchers speculate that shifts in communities and families due to urban sprawl and two career households have contributed to this sharp decrease. Specifically, it appears we can blame more time spent at work and commuting, which diminishes time spent on activities that lead to close relationships. Increased interaction with technology (the Internet, television, cell phones) may also be a factor since it can diminish the need for face-to-face interaction with friends, family, and neighbors.

In Sickness and in Health
So why should you care? How does the eroding social fabric of American life affect you? Well, experts think it could affect your quality of life in the short term and your actual health in the long term.

• Loneliness has been identified as a major risk factor in increasing blood pressure and may increase the risk of death from stroke and heart disease, according to researchers at the University of Chicago.

• Other large-scale, long-term studies found that people with limited social networks were two-to-five times more likely to get sick and die prematurely.

• One noted Harvard researcher suggests that, on average, if you belong to no social groups and decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half. And if you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining!

Men: More at Risk?
Some social scientists and physicians believe dwindling friendships and social ties may threaten men more than women for several reasons. Women tend to spend significantly more time and energy investing in relationships than men do. While women are more likely to connect, men tend to compete. Experts theorize other barriers to close friendships among men may be traditional masculine stereotypes and underlying fears of homosexuality. And there’s no denying that in our culture friendship has become feminized while male bonding has become tinged with negative connotations. Nevertheless, men’s friendships serve to buffer stress and reduce depression in the same ways that women’s friendships do. That’s why they should be a real priority to every man and in turn, every marriage.

Making the Connection
Male friendships usually evolve in a very different way than female ones. Male friendships tend to focus on activities and companionship rather than self-disclosure and emotional expressiveness. While women gain intimacy and trust by talking, men gain it by doing. This is why sports have always been a popular way for guys to connect. A regular game provides friendly competition, reaffirms gender roles, and has a repetitive structure that helps prevent friends from drifting apart.

For some men, though, connections are made through a shared appreciation of film or nature, through their children or even pets, or through spiritual faith. Though the workplace would seem an obvious locale of common interest for men to form bonds, establishing real trust can be challenging for men in a competitive job environment. Whatever or wherever they may be, find the connections that work for you.

Nurture existing friendships and look for new ones. Explore your local place of worship or health club or library. Take a class or start a group based on a real passion of yours. Most of all, make the time. All of us have seen promising friendships fail to materialize because there was not enough of a commitment to spending time together. It takes the dedication of scheduling a standing commitment�to lunch, to tennis, to a watch the next action movie your wife’s not interested in seeing.

The Basics
Here’s some friendship 101 that bears repeating:

• Open up to close friends. Remember, real men can and do express emotion.

• Listen to your friends when they have problems. Be there for your friends when they are shaken by a job loss, divorce, or other life challenge. Offer support always and advice when it’s wanted.

• Don’t make the mistake of expecting one friend to work in every situation. Have different friends for different activities, such as going to the movies, trying out a new restaurant, or playing a round of golf.

• Never take friendships for granted. Like a good marriage, friendship needs nurturing and patience. Don’t wait for friends to ask for a favor. Acts of friendship are like money in the bank.

• Finally, remember that developing deeper and more genuine male friendships will enhance your marriage. It is never a good idea to expect all your emotional needs will be met through one person. It is unrealistic. Having several friends to turn to during challenges in your marriage is crucial. They can take some pressure off your primary relationship overall.

Friendship is like the air we breathe. We need it to survive but sometimes we take it for granted. Remember, there can be serious, life-threatening consequences when men neglect friendships. So for your health and your marriage, add “making a friend” to that to-do list. Doctor’s orders!

Author's Bio: 

eHarmony Marriage is a new, online alternative to marriage counseling. It's a private, personalized program that is designed to help you enjoy a stronger, happier and healthier relationship. We use your answers to our marriage questionnaire to focus on your areas of greatest need. When you visit eHarmony Marriage and take our questionnaire you'll receive a FREE Marriage Action Plan to show exactly how we can help you.