Why strong friendships are key to men's mental health

Story highlights

  • Philadelphia physician has been attending a men's "friendship lab" for 20 years
  • Lab helps him learn how to let his guard down and share problems with other men

(CNN)For decades this Philadelphia physician lived a life inside his head, rarely expressing himself with his heart. He says his inability to open up wasn't good for his first marriage, or his second.

"I did not want to get divorced again, did not want to go through this thing with a broken family with kids," he says. "That was really very painful the first time."
    This father of five, who wants to remain anonymous for his children's sake, looks back on his life and the mistakes he made.
    "I frequently made assumptions and would mentally go over things in my head at home, all the time assuming that for example my wife was thinking or feeling something without asking her or checking in. I was living in sort of a delusional land for a while."
    He says he felt frustrated about how to develop more intimacy in their relationship. Things got so bad that his second wife asked him to move out of the house.
    "It was really a horrible experience," says the man, now 71. "It was lonely. I could be in my head all I wanted but it was deafening silence, lack of any kind of closeness... that actually helped me define what I really wanted primarily in my life, which was my relationship with my wife."
    That was more than 20 years ago. It was a turning point that saved his marriage.
    He and his wife went to a marriage counselor, but that wasn't enough to bring him out of his shell. Nor was one-on-one counseling.
    So a therapist, psychiatrist Dr. Rob Garfield, recommended he join his "Friendship Lab," a therapeutic group of 5 to 7 men who learn how to become more comfortable opening up about their problems. They meet every other week with Garfield and his co-therapist, Jake Kriger, at the Men's Resource Center in Philadelphia. The two developed this model of group therapy 20 years ago.
    "These are the same guys in their own community that can be functioning fairly well but personally feel disconnected," says Garfield, author of the 2015 book, "Breaking the Male Code: Unlocking the Power of Friendship."
    Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Garfield, right, spends time with his son Isaac Garfield.
    Several of the men in the group have been members for more than 10 years. It helps participants learn to trust one another, communicate and open up.