Here’re two men I want you to meet. They’re happy, lead productive lives and at peace with themselves, except, well, maybe they’re not.
Guy #1: Seems that he has everything going for him, a successful career, a beautiful home, expensive cars in his driveway and a family that adores him. He shows up at church every Sunday and never misses his daughter’s dance recitals.
Guy #2: He gets by comfortably on his pension and social security checks. Not into the social media “stuff,” he spends his days writing letters to the dwindling number of folks he’s known for decades. His biggest source of pride is his only son, a high-level administrator at a prestigious university and holder of two degrees from Ivy League universities.
Now if you were to ask either one of them “How ya doing?” they’ll probably respond, “Just fine.” But beyond the façade they may in fact be dealing with an affliction within…loneliness!
If you ask them how many real friends they have, anticipate a pause before you get an answer. Deepen the query to “male friends,” the pause will probably be a bit longer. If they do have any those male friends will typically be fraternity brothers, or golfing, beer-drinking or fishing buddies. Once he and his buddies finish talking about sports, families, business or politics, who do they talk to about their innermost insecurities and vulnerabilities? A precious few, if any.
Years ago, my wife gave me a paper, “Why men don’t have friends and why women should care?” (author unknown). And since then there have been books written, among them “The decline of men,” and “Are men really necessary,” plus recent articles on the loneliness epidemic sweeping the nation.
Added to all that, with the evolution of the “Me Too” movement, the toppling of powerful men accused of sexual improprieties, a shrinking economy that’s eliminated many jobs historically held by men, small wonder that many men simply suppress their true feelings and retreat into doldrums of loneliness.
I liken the evolutionary nature of men’s friendship with other men as moving up a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, starting in school, our circles are wide and include males as classmates and participants in school activities and athletics. This is when male bonding and gender role expectations are firmly set.
And once we go off to work, join the military and head to college, our circles expand to include service buddies, male coworkers and fraternity brothers. Soon the circle begins to shrink as we start families and staying engaged with “the buddies” starts to lose its luster.
In contrast to the male buddy system, women have friends who they share confidences and honest feelings with. With most men the female definition friendships rarely applies. Society has it that “real men” are strong, stoic, competitive and aren’t allowed to be emotionally expressive,
So why the difference? According to the paper my wife gave me, “Conditioning of course. Constant competitiveness. And the specter of homosexuality. Combined, they are a devastating warlock’s brew that has successfully turned most adult American males into emotional toadstools.”
Loneliness “red flags”
- Retired, he anxiously looks forward to heading to his mailbox to sift through the bills and junk mail hoping for handwritten letters
- The thought of taking any of his accumulated weeks of vacation unsettles him
- He never outgrows involvement in his fraternity, even years after he’d graduated
- He’s most anxious when his wife is out of town for a considerable amount of time
So here we are. Men with few or no true male friends and caught in the bubble of loneliness. What on Earth can we do?
For starters, understand that there’s a difference between being alone by choice, not necessarily a bad thing, and being alone out of some deep-seated fear of being perceived of as weak. Understand further that we men are untrained to express emotions.
Be mindful that the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas is often the danger zone in which bouts of loneliness and depression are common. Therefore, upbeat and positive personal connections are essential during this time.
Next, male allies who hang out with “the fellas” at the bar, golf course or the football game can look for ways to express their feelings and emotions in small doses. There’s something liberating in sharing our emotions and frailties as a way to get other men to get to their “Wow, you too?” epiphany.
Carefully planned and executed small groups for men have spouted up across the nation and is another possibility.
Short of these suggestions, and above all else, begin with young boys in the home by encouraging them to be more expressive, more open and more feeling.