I’m fascinated with the topic of toxic masculinity and how it can lead to partner violence and/or murder. In fact, the two deadliest mass shootings in the United States so far this year involved men allegedly targeting their estranged wives as the women attempted to move on.
So when I saw this #longread about loneliness and how it seems to affect men more than women, I wondered, could there be a connection? Were these men who killed their partners afraid to lose their confidants? The women they considered to be their only friends?
Here are the paragraphs I found most interesting in the piece:
It starts young: One avenue into understanding men’s loneliness is to consider how children are socialized. In an interview, Niobe Way, a professor of developmental psychology at New York University who has been doing research with adolescent boys for almost three decades, talked about how we are failing boys. “The social and emotional skills necessary for boys to thrive are just not being fostered,” she said in an interview. Indeed, when you look at the research, men do not start life as the stereotypes we become. Six-month-old boys are likely to “cry more than girls,” more likely to express joy at the sight of our mother’s faces, and more likely to match our expressions to theirs. In general, before the age of four or five, research shows that boys are more emotive than girls.
The change begins around the time we start school: at that age—about five—boys become worse than girls at “changing our facial expressions to foster social relationships.” This is the beginning of a socialization process in “a culture that supports emotional development for girls and discourages it for boys,” according to Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. This begins to affect our friendships early—in a study in New Haven, Connecticut, boys aged 10-18 were significantly worse than girls at knowing who their friends were: “over a two-week period, the boys changed their nomination of who their best friend was more frequently than girls, and their nomination was less likely to be reciprocated.”
And the teenage years are when it gets sad, IMO:
However, for many boys—Way calls it “near-universal”—a shift occurs in late adolescence, roughly from the ages of 15-20. In a phase of life we often think of in optimistic terms—self-discovery, coming of age—boys’ trust in each other shatters like glass. Three years after his first interview, Jason, asked if he had any close friends, said no, “and immediately adds that while he has nothing against gay people, he himself is not gay.” Another boy interviewed by Way in the eleventh grade who up until the year before had maintained a best friendship for ten years said he now had no friends because “you can’t trust nobody these days.” In interviews with thousands of boys, Way saw a tight correlation between confiding in close friends and mental health, and she observed that, across all ethnic groups and income brackets, three quarters of the boys she spoke to “grow fearful of betrayal by and distrustful of their male peers” in late adolescence, and “begin to speak increasingly of feeling lonely and depressed.”
Making matters worse, in the middle of this estrangement from other boys, as we’re becoming young men, we’re governed more than ever by a new set of rules about what behaviour we’re allowed to show. Psychologists call them display rules. “Expressions of hurt and worry and of care and concern for others,” according to white high schools boys, are “gay” or “girly.” Black and Hispanic boys, according to Way’s interviews, feel pressure to conform to even stricter rules. Men who break the rules, and express “sadness, depression, fear, and dysphoric self-conscious emotions such as shame and embarrassment” are viewed as “unmanly” and are comforted less than women. Way told me when she speaks in public, she often quotes a 16-year-old boy who said, “It might be nice to be a girl, ‘cause then I wouldn’t have to be emotionless.”
What about young adulthood? Young guys hang out a lot? Can’t be so bad, right?
And yes, entering adulthood, and up to the age of 25, men and women do have approximately the same number of friends. For the outsider looking in, then, and even for the man himself, it may appear that nothing’s amiss. But to paraphrase University of Missouri researchers Barbara Bank and Suzanne Hansford, men have power, but are not well. In the UK, suicide rates among men are steadily rising. In the US, so is unemployment among men, often coupled with opioid abuse. In a 2006 paper addressed to psychiatric practitioners, William S. Pollack of Harvard Medical School wrote, “present socialization systems are dangerous to boys’ physical and mental health and to those around them, leading to increased school failure, depression, suicide, lonely isolation, and, in extremis, violence.” In a study Pollack did of boys age 12-18, only 15 percent of them projected “positive, forward-looking sentiment regarding their futures as men.”
Women keep being intimate with their friends into adulthood, and men, generally, do not: “Despite efforts to dismiss it, the finding that men’s same-sex friendships are less intimate and supportive than women’s is robust and widely documented.”
How homophobia plays a role:
“What is wrong with men,” Bank and Hansford asked, “that they can’t or won’t do what they enjoy to the same extent as women do?” In a study of 565 undergraduates, they investigated. Six possible reasons why men shut each other out were measured by questions like “how often [the subject] and their best friend showed affection for each other, had a strong influence on the other, confided in the other, and depended on the other for help.” The worst offenders? Homophobia, and something they called “emotional restraint,” which they measured by responses to statements like “A man should never reveal worries to others.”
From the vantage point of adulthood, especially in progressive circles, it’s easy to forget the ubiquitous and often quasi-ironic homophobia of teen boys, which circulated among my guy friends. That’s why it was amazing to read Dude, You’re a Fag by C. J. Pascoe,1 who spent a year embedded in an American high school divining and taxonomizing the structures of teen male identity in intricate and systemic detail. She concluded that “achieving a masculine identity entails the repeated repudiation of the specter of failed masculinity”—in other words, boys must earn their gender over and over again, often by “lobbing homophobic epithets at one another.”
What about married life?
Though less lonely, married men are more socially isolated. Compared to single men, and even unmarried men cohabiting with a partner, married men in a 2015 British study were significantly more likely to say that they had “no friends to turn to in a serious situation.” This seemed to capture the situation of Roger, 53, in Indianapolis, who’s been married for 24 years. “The friendships I had in college and post-college have kind of dissipated,” he said. “My wife and I have a few friends in couples, but I don’t really see friends outside of that.” He confides in no one other than his wife. “There’s very little need to,” he said. Roger is typical: married men “generally get their emotional needs met by their spouses/partners.” Why, then, would Roger need to keep up with anyone else?
Read “The Legion Lonely” here.