On Loneliness and the Superficial Friendships of Men
Andrew Reiner: Toward a New, More Emotional Masculinity
The first time it happened, it was during the empty space, what Paul calls the “vacuum crisis.” One winter night about 12 years ago, the then-48-year-old was alone in his apartment, biding the hours between dinner and bedtime with his usual domestic chores, which distracted him from the struggles he’d endured over the past year. His chores helped keep his mind off something that had plagued him for much longer—four words that have haunted him since he was a child and left him feeling “fundamentally defective.” All these years later, he could still hear his estranged father’s voice, seething with disgust: “What’s wrong with you?”
Whenever things had gone wrong for Paul—from his lonely childhood as a military brat to his brief career as a naval officer to the unraveling of his first marriage—his father’s accusatory question fired deep within his neurological synapses and erupted full bore in his ears.
Before this night, though, he had never felt so hopeless, so lonely. What triggered him on this night, then? Paul doesn’t remember, and given what he had been through, anything could have been the catalyst.
A year earlier his second wife—who, he said, had abruptly quit their marital counseling and had unilaterally depleted their shared bank accounts—moved their three children four hours away. The lawyer had been so financially draining that he could only afford to board in an older woman’s home. Moving into this one-bedroom apartment had been a slow climb upward. He had been drinking heavily that night and crying, too.
“The first time I did this I felt so very empty,” he said. “I really needed to have some kind of contact with another person. But how do you do that?” he asked me when we spoke. “There’s no one you can call.”
Paul did have three or four good friends from his undergraduate days at the Citadel whom he still spoke with regularly. While he could talk with them about the facts of his recent divorce, even his monetary woes, when it came to his deeper emotional life he couldn’t get beyond the ethos that his military instructors had drilled into him: “Fuck it—just drive on.” He couldn’t bring himself to push back against his father’s words raining down upon him: “Stop being so sensitive.”
“There was always a tension inside of me,” he said. “Growing up, I was really a sensitive person. I felt much more comfortable talking with my aunts, my grandmom, and my mom than with the males in my family. But, as I got older, I was taught that that was not how I was supposed to be.”
On this particular evening, even excessive alcohol couldn’t temporarily drown his fear of confronting these admittedly “ancient” and “dysfunctional” phantoms. As Paul recalls it now, he still doesn’t know why he did it. “I hadn’t planned it. Not in a million years would I ever have imagined doing something like this.” Yet he succumbed to a compulsion that, all these years later, still leaves him wincing a tiny bit. Paul walked across his apartment to a spindly, floor-to-ceiling vertical beam near the dining room. “I wrapped my arms around that thing for all it was worth.”
He doesn’t know how long he hugged the beam. But he remembers, despite his drunken state, the revelation that shone through the miasma. “I remember thinking, Wow, this is actually working. I’m feeling a little better—and it’s so fucking pathetic that it’s working.”
Over the next month, he hugged that beam as many as seven times. Why? Because it worked. “I needed some kind of contact—even if it was just something pressing back against me.” Ultimately, he told me, hugging that beam “got down to a very basic need.”
It was perhaps the first time he had allowed himself to admit that he was in need of deeper emotional connection. During one of the beam-hugging experiences, Paul thought, This is so necessary and so pathetic, all at the same time. Where am I? What is going on with me as a person? When Paul felt the overpowering need to hug the beam again, he gave himself mini pep talks. “Yes, this is pathetic and weird,” he told himself on these nights. “But no one else has to know about it, so it can only be so stigmatizing, right?”
The extremity of Paul’s story lies in his act, not his despair. In this one small yet defining act, Paul made himself vulnerable to himself, a subtle yet profound gesture Paul turned into a hinge moment. Had he suppressed the experience afterward and ignored it, nothing would have been gained. But he leaned into it, literally, over and over, and as a result he broke through to a place of reluctant acceptance about his desperate need for touch and affection, regardless of whether it was animate or not. “Just own it,” he told himself during these brief hugging sessions. “For now, it helps.”
Hugging the beam forced Paul to take a hard look at himself and surrender to his need for deeper, honest connection. “Interestingly,” he told me, “things started to get a little better for me after this.”
Before that fateful night twelve years ago, Paul behaved like a lot of men in his situation, drinking too much, working as late as possible, wallowing in all the ways that other people had let him down. When it came to his personal relationships—friendships, romances, and family—he was left staggered by the same two questions that haunt many men his age: Why is it harder to maintain these relationships than it was when I was younger? And why is it so hard to make new friends and romantic partnerships?
Unlike Paul, who slowly rebuilt his life, many men never get beyond these questions. They stay stuck in the mindset that their platonic and romantic relationships either work or they don’t. Research now undeniably shows, however, that this all too common script, which discourages introspection and a work ethic aimed at relationships, doesn’t serve them in the long run. It sets many guys up for a lifetime of emotional isolation that leads to disastrous long-term effects, both for them and for the people in their lives.
The kind of emotional isolation Paul experienced isn’t rare or even new, and it can impact our health. More than two hundred studies worldwide, involving more than three million individuals, have found that loneliness is more toxic to our long-term health than cigarettes or obesity. Like a carcinogen, loneliness puts us at greater risk for heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, and immune system impairment, not to mention a number of mental illnesses, from dementia and depression to chronic anxiety. Robert Putnam examined the effects of emotional isolation in his 2000 book Bowling Alone, which explores our decreasing desire to create and maintain social capital (extending ourselves to strangers without expecting anything in return), a core, disturbing trend that has accelerated since the early 1970s.
Sociologist David Riesman was the first to chronicle this trend in his seminal book, The Lonely Crowd. He observed in 1950 that the ascendancy of post–World War II consumerism and corporations turned Americans’ focus outward, or “other-directed,” causing us to base our sense of self on other people’s perceptions of us. His words proved to be eerily prescient: “The other-directed person wants to be loved rather than esteemed.” That is, people who spend a lot of time seeking validation from others—which is taken to new heights in this nascent age of social media—equate this “fitting in” with a form of love on some deeper level. They consider being connected and accepted the same as being loved, even when it’s validation from acquaintances and virtual strangers.
For many men, this means seeking the approval of other men they admire through hypermasculine behavior that reaffirms their perceived status as worthy men. A 2006 report chronicling “changes in core discussion networks over two decades,” found that over a twenty-year period the number of friends in whom Americans confide has shrunk as much as 33 percent. More specifically, the report found that the number of close friends for many adults had decreased from 3.5 in the 1980s to 2 in 2004.
While American social scientists have been studying social isolation within this culture for decades, their research still has a blind spot. Little of it has focused on the epidemic hitting men hardest. Many researchers, such as Julianne Holt-Lunstad, have blithely maintained that both genders suffer equally from the plague of loneliness. Initially, that might appear to be true, because women check off this box in studies in far greater numbers than men. But other studies dating as far back as the 1980s—which rely on such gold-standard diagnostic yardsticks as the UCLA Loneliness Scale—have argued otherwise. This helps explain why research conducted with 4,130 German singles found that single men were lonelier than single women, who are happier, less lonely, and more psychologically balanced.Perhaps not surprisingly, researchers discovered that these men bore the misery and shame of their situation with a “stoic, masculine pride” rather than try to remedy their lack of social connection.
A recent report conducted by UK-based Samaritans vouched for this gender discrepancy. Australian researchers have taken these findings further, because, when it comes to men’s emotional health, they do two things exceptionally well. First, they believe that protecting men means exposing the very things that prevent them from emotional well-being, rather than keeping the dysfunctional parts of masculine identity cocooned. And, second, they understand the value of asking men the right questions to properly gauge their emotional state. A 2017 longitudinal study among more than 17,000 Australians—conducted by the Household, Income, and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) and disseminated through Relationships Australia National—found that females are “more likely than males to admit being lonely where the question requires them to label themselves as lonely.”
But here’s the kicker: “Overall levels of loneliness for men are higher than women for all 16 waves of available data.”
Perhaps no research delves into this topic with more depth than the 2014 Men’s Social Connectedness report. This intensive project analyzed more than 4,100 online surveys from Australian men. This research also included findings from small discussion boards with minority-identifying men, fourteen discussion groups, thirteen ethnographic cases studies, and interviews with mental health practitioners. It culled all of this into a digestible semi-meta-analysis.
The report—which focuses on men in their “middle years” between ages thirty-five and fifty-four—found that nearly a quarter of all respondents scored low enough on the industry-standard Duke Social Support Scale to be considered “at risk of social isolation.”
This can be attributed to the way men bond—or don’t. Half of all respondents said that they rarely talked about deeper personal issues with friends, while 31 percent didn’t spend much time talking with their friends in general beyond superficial pleasantries. When respondents were pushed on their preference, nearly a third said they wished they could have more emotionally open, honest conversations with friends, and 28 percent said they wanted friends to open up to them in return. Overall, 37 percent of these men said that they weren’t satisfied with the lack of emotional connection and support from their guy friends.
Researchers also employed the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale, or K10, which measures psychological distress, most notably depression and anxiety. They discovered that 17 percent—about one in six—scored very high on the scale for depression and anxiety. Given these honest responses across the board, you might expect many of these men to consider their deficit in social connection a top contender for threats to their health and well-being. They don’t.
According to the authors of the study, these men “rarely feel able to bring their ‘neediness’ up in conversations, and their loneliness and isolation are rarely, if ever, a topic of public discourse.” Perhaps not surprisingly, researchers discovered that these men bore the misery and shame of their situation with a “stoic, masculine pride” rather than try to remedy their lack of social connection. This all-too-common way of handling (or not, as it were) loneliness wouldn’t be a problem except for one striking caveat: research now shows a clear connection between social isolation and anxiety, depression, and, in extremes, suicide.
But what about men who enjoy higher degrees of social support? They tested far lower for psychological distress—and, in turn, enjoyed higher rates of mental and emotional resiliency. The workplace is one of the arenas where this has clear economic implications. The 2018 Workplace Loneliness and Job Performance report (conducted among 672 employees and 114 supervisors) found that the greater the sense of loneliness and isolation that an employee feels, the lower his or her job performance and the higher the risk for missed work time.
Common wisdom, not to mention scores of studies, identifies white men fifty and older as the torchbearers of emotional isolation. As many of us know from recent articles on this topic, they are the ones slogging through chronic unemployment; outsourced, phased-out, or undercut careers; higher divorce rates among the upper middle-aged; and a country that increasingly looks far less “white” than the one they’ve always known. And, truth be told, the politically progressive online media outlets that cater to younger audiences don’t exactly help the situation by reflexively invoking the sweeping term “old white men” with utter, uncritical contempt. These are the men whose rate of suicide is spiking.
Yet recent research is showing that older men don’t corner the market on social isolation. A national survey conducted by Cigna among 20,000 adults online found that millennials and especially Gen Zers scored the highest of any age demographic. This could also be because they are more forthright about their emotional detachment than are older men. The UK Samaritans study mentioned earlier found that men in their twenties, thirties, and forties were the loneliest. Men this age will frequently meet their friends for a beer, but their conversations stay mired at a safe distance in sports, politics, work, and anecdotes that allow them to “flex” or show off to reinforce their masculine status. When they do broach personal struggles, it’s far more common for their friends to follow the script, offering solutions but not emotional support. That’s a big part of the problem.
Excerpted from Better Boys, Better Men by Andrew Reiner, reprinted with permission by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2020.