The Terrible Price of Our Epidemic of Male Loneliness
Billy Baker’s Viral Boston Globe Article Raises Tough Questions About Manhood
Billy Baker’s arguably courageous article about male loneliness for the Boston Globe is the story of the American everyman. It’s titled The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness. Baker describes men as cut off from friendships by the rigid over scheduled demands of the American dream; the demands of work and family, car pools and commutes. And the guys with these problems? We’re the lucky ones. The ones who have work and families and houses and a mortgage.
Many, but not all of us, are likely white and middle class. And yet, with all the attendant advantages, we are, as Baker says, “starved for friendship.” Baker describes his own limited social life as being made up of “friends at work and at the gym,” friends, who he calls, “accidents of proximity.”
Baker writes, “I rarely see those people anywhere outside those environments, because when everything adds up, I have left almost no time for friends. I have structured myself into being a loser.” Mark that word, “loser.” We’ll be coming back to it.
Baker writes of the dangerous health risks of social isolation and what factors might be responsible:
“Dr. Richard S. Schwartz, a Cambridge psychiatrist…and his wife, Dr. Jacqueline Olds, literally wrote the book on this topic, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century.
He agreed that my story was very typical. When people with children become overscheduled, they don’t shortchange their children, they shortchange their friendships. “And the public health dangers of that are incredibly clear,” he says.
…Loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke and the progression of Alzheimer’s. One study found that it can be as much of a long-term risk factor as smoking.”
A 2010 AARP study shows that 1 in 3 Americans, age 45 plus, are chronically lonely. And those numbers are up from 1 in 5 just ten years earlier. That’s 44 million men and women, at risk, right now, today. And long term chronic loneliness indeed is equal to smoking as factor for early mortality but the story here isn’t just one of health risks.
Our American epidemic of loneliness is degrading our collective social contract which relies on healthy diverse connected communities to bridge across a vast range of social, religious, racial and political tensions. People trapped in isolation cannot access community. Community falters without human beings who can engage those around them. It is a chicken or the egg story, but either way neither the chicken or the egg are long for this world.
If we’re going to have a positive impact on the large percentage of men confronting chronic loneliness, (and by extension the concurrent isolation of women) we have to begin by acknowledging that the causes for this epidemic go much deeper than chronic over scheduling. Yes, men with busy family lives are likely being scheduled out of friendship time but let’s deconstruct that for a moment, shall we?
I would suggest that many men accept being scheduled out of our friendships because its really not that big of a loss for us anyway. I mean, lets face it, our friendships are only half way there anyway, feint shadows of the joyous, ecstatic friendships of our youth, so we let them go. Which speaks not to the challenges of schedules and family life but to the collective inability of millions of men to form vibrant meaningful friendships; friendships we are willing to fight for and maintain.
Why do many men fail to create friendships they will fight for? Good question.
I’m glad you asked. The simple fact is we are trained from as young an age as age four to convince those around us, and eventually ourselves, that we don’t need friendships. Groundbreaking studies by Judy Chu (When Boys Become Boys) and Niobe Way (Deep Secrets) document the process by which boys are convinced to abandon their close friendships in order to better conform to the expectations of our masculine culture of emotional toughness. To learn more about Way’s study, read Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendships of Boys?
Or watch Judy Chu and myself discuss her study on just how early in life boys are trained out of emotional connection:
Following a fairly common assumption, Baker writes that, unlike women, men seem to require a shared activity to connect:
IN FEBRUARY AT A CONFERENCE in Boston, a researcher from Britain’s University of Oxford presented study results that most guys understand intuitively: Men need an activity together to make and keep a bond. Women can maintain friendships over the phone…Dudes aren’t going to maintain a bromance that way, or even over a once-in-a-blue-moon beer. We need to go through something together. That’s why, studies have shown, men tend to make their deepest friends through periods of intense engagement, like school or military service or sports. That’s how many of us are comfortable.
Baker seems to be saying that we need to accommodate men’s stoic activity-based comfort zones because men are simply unable to connect in the more emotionally authentic ways that women seem to. But when Baker says “that’s how many of us are comfortable” what he is failing to acknowledge is that men have been systematically trained out of their natural capacity to connect emotionally, something it should be noted, they have no problem doing as young boys. This is the “women do emotions but men don’t do emotions” moment.
Everyone does emotions. The question isn’t if, its how. Or in the case of millions of American men, how hidden?
For American men, the social mechanism many have come to call the Man Box is the dominant frame for enforcing and performing masculinity. Charlie Glickman writes eloquently about it in his article titled Escape the “Act Like a Man” Box. According to Glickman and others, the Man Box is a set of rigid expectations that define what a “real man” is. Rule #1 of the Man Box? Real men don’t show their emotions, other than perhaps anger and excitement. The rules go on, but for our purposes, we’ll focus on the deep seated prohibition against emotional expression by men.
Why does our culture of male emotional toughness prohibit men’s emotional expression? The short answer is because, ridiculously, we have gendered emotionally centered capacities like empathy, care giving and nurturing as feminine. And, of course, due to the lower status of the feminine in our culture, exhibiting feminine capacities is a step down for men. Which is a shame, because relational intelligence and capacity for emotional expression are nothing short of interpersonal superpowers.
Relationship building capacities hold the key to creating rich rewarding personal and professional lives for us and for our children. Furthermore, call it relational intelligence, social emotional learning, or emotional capacities, by any name, growing these capacities across our population is crucial to ending America’s epidemic of isolation.
Dr. Saliha Bava has this to say. “Many boys and men are trained out of “being” in the world and are trained into relying instead on “doing” as their primary mode of connection. They cease being in relationship with their comfort and discomfort, with the spoken and unspoken, with their intuition and their emotions.”
Ultimately, our culture of male emotional toughness weans boys and men off of the intuitive capacities for emotional connection they are born with. Many boys never have the opportunity to explore and grow these relational capacities at all, taught from birth instead to “man up” and “be a man” elevating toughness and assertiveness over connection and empathy. Which leaves millions of men with only emotionally guarded ways of forming friendships. They simply lack the relational capacities to connect emotionally.
What’s more, this suppression of emotional expression has been so completely normalized that we American men think it perfectly natural to feel emotionally isolated in relationship to each other; that we can simply fulfill our need for human connection via the weekly softball game.
But activity based solutions can feel pale and empty. Even after decades of growing up in America’s masculine culture of emotional suppression, men still understand intuitively that meaning and purpose reside in our wholly distinctive authentic selves, not in the conformist version of ourselves we present to the world. But these are realizations that often take place internally, if at all. Unspoken and unacknowledged. So men drink ten beers just so they can break out and declare “I love you, man,” just to get it said.
“Find your passion.” An advertising mantra in a world where men are taught to hide exactly that.
For human beings, meaningful relationships are created and maintained through shared emotional expression.
Happiness, anger, joy, fear, sadness and all the rest are created in the shared relational space between us and in response to each other. It is through our emotional back and forth in relationship with others that we signal and grow what is distinctive about us. For men, what should be one of the central mechanisms by which we process life’s joys and challenges, has instead become a carefully curated presentation wherein we hide our challenges and perform self reliance 24/7.
Bava, notes: “Based on the rules of doing, men are not allowed to declare that they’re coming together for each other’s company. They can’t just say, I like you, I want to spend time with you, because in that moment, they are not simply saying I like you, they are also declaring they want to be seen and needed.”
This is something men can not offer even a hint of; that we want to be loved in friendships. It runs counter to a lifetime of scripts about what a real man is.
Which brings me back to Baker’s interesting frame for his over scheduled life. He writes, “I have structured myself into being a loser,” acknowledging that in our culture of male emotional toughness, failing to have friendships makes you just that. It’s remarkable that Baker is stating this simply and clearly and we’re all nodding our heads in agreement. Magically, in the upside down world of American manhood, we are expected to have friendships without needing or wanting them.
The result? A culture of lonely men who are studiously pretending they are not lonely. For American men, the dance around offering and accepting friendship, is fraught with shaming, homophobia, transactionalism, and fear of rejection. For American men, seeking real and lasting friendship is a minefield of cultural prohibitions.
The end result for men is higher rates of violence, drug abuse, unemployment, alcoholism, divorce, and suicide. Men are lashing out, unable to manage the challenges of unemployment or aging, unable to resource themselves via real and vibrant friendships in their lives because they are trapped in a model of manhood that does not allow them to ask for help.
One powerful solution? Start early, teaching our children, boys and girls alike, how to grow their relational intelligence, the emotional capacities that will insure they are able to form the lasting authentic friendships and relationships crucial to successful personal and professional lives.
We need a national dialogue about growing social connection for men and women, about how to grow all our relational capacities to create more vibrant connected communities and more fully engaged lives. Starting with our children is the easiest way forward. Programs that teach social emotional learning are gaining support, because, sadly, we will do for our children, things we sometimes will not do for ourselves.
But here’s a funny thing. When you work to grow your children’s relational intelligence, yours grows too.
In closing his article, Baker writes about the first and most important step in escaping the trap of male loneliness. It’s to simply and openly admit that we as men want and need real friends. He writes about a man he knows who’s ongoing Wednesday Night men’s get together “was the acknowledgment from male friends that they needed their male friends, for no other reason than they just did.”
Furthermore, Baker writes, “I’m OK with admitting I’m a little lonely. Doesn’t make me a loser. Doesn’t make you a loser.” In our world, Baker’s is a courageous declaration of a clearly defined emotional need. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be courageous at all. It would be a commonplace, healthy and normal course correction for men and women alike.
And that’s the world we need to get busy creating.
Want to start a powerful conversation about masculinity with someone you live or work with? Give them a copy of Mark Greene’s The Little #MeToo Book for Men.
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Read more by Mark Greene:
Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendships of Boys?
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