- Men are less likely to have close friends and also less likely to admit to their loneliness
- Loneliness has significant physical and mental health consequences
- Men are socialized to suppress vulnerability and give less attention to maintaining social bonds
- Forging friendships as an adult involves a willingness to be uncomfortable, make the first move, and making time to spend quality time
Raise your hand if you love the TV show Ted Lasso 🙌🏽🙌🏽🙌🏽
The main character Ted Lasso takes on the tough task of coaching an English football (soccer) team. Ted is kind, compassionate, and takes an interest in the emotional lives of the other characters. He persists with this attitude even when faced with rejection, often from hyper-masculine figures who don't quite understand the genuine hope he has in the goodness of others.
Some have called Ted Lasso 'America's therapist'. Whether that is true or not, there is value in seeing a male main character who is not an 'antihero' and is unafraid of emotions. A male character who strives to connect with others and nourishes his friendships.
This post is not an ode to Ted Lasso (although you should really watch it!). Maybe the fact that his character resonated with so many men tells us something about how connected men feel in their friendships. Everyone wants a friend like Ted, and perhaps we also want to be that uplifting friend for someone else.
So, what's stopping men from doing, and being, exactly that?
Hey, Soul Sister
Friendships between women are often described with a magical, whimsical quality. They seem to transcend time and space altogether, and land somewhere in the realm of the holy. Female friendships are not secondary to the other relationships in life, but essential in and of themselves- a love story all on their own.
A friend can be just a friend, but a friend can also be a 'soul sister'.
This isn't the case for every woman, of course. There is, however, an undeniable difference in the priority many women place on nourishing their friendships compared to men.
Men are more prone to loneliness and perhaps also less likely to recognize it. This does not mean that women do not feel lonely!
What it shows is the way men are socialized increases their chances of loneliness.
Loneliness Is A Silent Epidemic
Male loneliness has been described as a "silent epidemic".
In the context of therapy, we see this very clearly. Men reach out- hesitant, wary, but sure that something has to change in life, because loneliness cuts deep and has a far reach.
Some of the statistics on male loneliness paint a clear picture: in the UK, 1 in 5 men report not having a close friend. Additionally, studies have shown that loneliness in men tends to increase with age: a 2018 study reported that 52% of men between the ages of 60-64 years describe themselves as lonely.
Outside of the statistics though, you don't often hear men self-identifying as lonely. Loneliness is considered a 'silent' epidemic because men are less likely to admit feeling lonely.
Why Are Men Lonely?
So how did we get here? Adult men tend to have the fewest close friendships across other demographics. Being more prone to loneliness and less prone to reaching out for support is a concerning combination.
There are a myriad of ideas to explain why men, at least in the West, feel increasingly lonely.
1) Men Are Socialized To Be "Manly"
The prevailing idea of 'manliness' involves distancing yourself from femininity. When emotions are wrongfully associated with femininity and weakness, men turn away from experiencing their own feelings.
This starts young! Boys are primed from a very young age to associate feelings with femininity and weakness, therefore suppressing emotional expression.
“Don’t be a girl”
“Take it like a man”
“Get it together”
“Boys don’t cry”
Directly and indirectly, boys learn that stoicism is the ultimate strength and vulnerability is the ultimate weakness.
When lack of emotion = manliness, young boys and men learn that to fit into the world of men, they must shut down their emotionality.
In this way, men are socialized to suppress their humanity in pursuit of an unattainable ideal of manliness that ultimately leads to loneliness.
There are deep consequences to raising boys in this way. Boys become men who struggle to truly connect with others. In general, we need access to our emotions to form lasting bonds. We need the ability to share aspects of our life and our inner world with others.
It's not uncommon for men to realize they lack these skills until after formal schooling. High school and university provide a structured environment where many young men can reliably have good company.
Outside of those structures, it's common for men to feel socially adrift and unsure how to forge meaningful relationships with others.
2) Men Are Less Likely To Initiate Social Interactions Independently
In heterosexual relationships, women are more likely to be the 'social organizers'. This means women tend to manage the social relationships on behalf of the couple.
Many men do not realize how reliant they are on their partners for the connections and relationships in their lives. In fact, men who are divorced or widowed often come to appreciate exactly how many of their relationships were connected to their partners and family.
Not having substantial relationships outside a romantic partnership leaves men in a vulnerable position. For those not used to initiating and maintaining relationships, it can be difficult to know where to even begin easing the sense of loneliness.
3) Less Bonding Opportunities
This is an interesting one- the initial social situations we meet people in matters. Shared experiences tend to bring people closer together. For example, going to the same university, playing for the same soccer team, or working in the same company. Similarly, sharing intense experiences encourages strong bonds (i.e. serving in the military together, being study buddies for a very difficult exam).
There may be difference in how much men and women 'need' a shared experience to form a lasting bond. It is possible that men rely more on shared environment and experiences to cultivate relationships, whereas women tend to be more flexible in who they see as a potential friend- in other words, women may cast the net wider.
When friendships are connected to specific shared experiences, they often change once those experiences change or end. Once again, this increases the risk of being lonely in phases of life where big life changes are a given (i.e. graduating school, job changes, retirement).
It Doesn't Have To Be This Way
One of the questions I like to ask as a therapist is "who do you turn to in a moment of need?".
Many of my male clients draw a blank at this question.
Some will tell me their romantic partner fulfills this role. Others might say they don't turn to anyone, even if they have the opportunity, because they want to avoid 'burdening' others with their problems. There are also men who genuinely cannot think of a single person to lean on when they are feeling overwhelmed.
When I ask, "would you like to be able to lean on somebody?"...the answer is nearly always 'yes'.
Men need close friendships too. It's sad that men are socialized to believe that emotional intimacy is weak, and therefore building interpersonal skills outside of those that could benefit them at work is not valuable.
The prevailing assumption that women are simply 'better' at social relationships doesn't hold either, if you go back as far as childhood.
Boys Are Not Born Lonely
Researchers at Harvard University Medical School found that from infancy through age 4-5, boys are actually MORE emotive than girls.
Moreover, applied psychologist Dr. Niobe Way concluded after 20+ years of research that in their early and middle adolescence, boys are capable of developing deep and meaningful friendships based in emotional honesty and intimacy.
Their ability to be vulnerable rivals that of adolescent girls.
So what happens? Well, unfortunately, we socialize the vulnerability out of them. By the time boys reach late adolescence and young adulthood, having close, meaningful relationships with friends and family is considered a threat to their facade of bravado.
Whereas girls and young women tend to lean on their friends and family to meet their emotional needs, boys and young men are left untethered.
What Can We Do? Here Is A Formula To Get You Started
Before we can begin the process of doing something about loneliness, we have to face the issue. Being honest with ourselves is difficult but necessary.
- Who can I turn to when I feel lost or overwhelmed?
- Who can I rely on to celebrate my joys, both public and private?
- Am I lonely?
Relationships cannot be quantified, and while there is no perfect formula on building close friendships, we do like these key ingredients: vulnerability and quality time spent with people.
Vulnerability is an emotional risk. For those of us who are not used to taking emotional risks, or specifically discouraged against this, vulnerability can feel very difficult.
Here's a re-frame: think of vulnerability as a willingness to be uncomfortable.
Willingness to be uncomfortable can look like:
- Understanding that sometimes putting yourself out there can feel awkward
- Being willing to face some level of rejection
- Sharing your true self with someone else- this includes the quirks and interesting hobbies that make you who you are
Interestingly, we are often willing to be uncomfortable for other forms of personal growth: losing sleep to go for a morning run, cold showers, having that uncomfortable but necessary conversation about compensation.
Think of vulnerability for the sake of building friendships as an extension of the other forms of vulnerability you may already practice.
Before we figure out how to spend quality time, we need to identify who we are willing to spend it with.
Try reflecting on the following:
- Who do I already know that I would like to get to know better?
- Is there someone whose company I enjoy in a group/couple hangout who I think I would click with 1:1 as well?
- Who have I drifted away from in recent years that I wish I could reconnect with?
If no one comes to mind, that's okay too. It means you might have to acknowledge the awkwardness, own the discomfort, and approach somebody.
Know that a moment of courage from you actually helps others feel at ease too. When guards come down naturally, everyone benefits.
You might just have to be willing to go first.
Before You Go- Loneliness Is A Physical And Mental Health Issue
The sobering reality is this: loneliness amongst men is not just a silent epidemic, it's a silent killer too. Loneliness costs lives. Various studies have shown concerning trends between loneliness and lifespan:
- Those who experienced chronic loneliness or isolation have an increased risk of premature death
- Male baby boomers (if you recall, loneliness in men can increase by age) were 1.6 times more likely to die by suicide than men in the previous generation- and the next generation has even higher rates of suicide
Conversely, people with more social connections tend to live longer.
We all have a stake in ensuring that the boys and men in our lives have healthy emotional lives. It can be difficult to turn back the clock on generations of alienation from emotions- however, we can start with ourselves and also ensure the young boys and men we care about recognize and appreciate the importance of close friendships.
Until next time!
Mental Health Content Specialist