Loneliness in Men
Most men are far better off in a relationship than they are out of one so it may seem odd that men appear to cultivate fewer friendships and have less of a support network than most women. Or is it? If we account for the fact that men seem to find it harder to express personal feelings or to reach out for help it follows they are more prone to social isolation and loneliness.
Social isolation is about the lack of any emotional support network. Most families provide this to boys and young men, but as men age and perhaps move around for employment, the family infrastructure is less available. This is fine when men are healthy, young and active. They have things to occupy their mind, they work, and they maybe meet with colleagues for sports or a drink. But we shouldn’t confuse these moments of acquaintanceship with social and emotional intimacy.
There is increasing evidence pointing to the link between health and positive relationships. Following bereavement, for example, a man is eight times more likely to die in the two-year period that follows. Two lines of research point to possible reasons. First and perhaps most obvious is the way that men are socialized into the male role of independence. Expressions of emotion are still regarded as a form of weakness and so many men simply suppress their emotions. What follows is a kind of systematic shutdown. It begins with grief and sadness but the associated emotions of bereavement such as anger, frustration, confusion and fear are not acknowledged and neither is the warmth and love than might be offered during bereavement and afterwards.
A second, and overlapping consideration, relates to the biology of the male brain. It’s a controversial idea but it’s one that suggests the male capacity to ‘feel’ is no different to women, but their capacity to articulate these feelings is different. The biological case for such an argument relates to the wiring in the male brain. Some experts suggest the emotional centers of the male brain and the connectivity between brain hemispheres results in a situation where information from the emotions flows less easily to the verbal side of the brain. The consequence is that men find it harder to express and articulate their feelings. What results, goes the argument, is that men feel less comfortable and less skilled in reaching out for help. And it’s two-way traffic. Many men feel uncomfortable being confronted by emotions. They don’t know how to respond to another man and may brush it off or make a joke. If they do respond it’s often in a way that suggests there’s a problem that has a solution, or to take it to the doctor, rather than a problem that simply needs an ear and some sympathy.
The tendency in men to divert their emotions or deny them altogether means that men’s anxieties are often ignored or go undetected. Unlike solitude, which can be restorative, loneliness isn’t a natural state of affairs so those of us who see it in other men perhaps need to make a bit more effort and not be put off by male protestations that everything is fine.