Men and Loneliness

Men and Loneliness

For many years, my clinical psychology practice served only men, sometimes with a woman in their lives. One glaring vulnerability often appeared in my conversations with older men. Men at midlife and beyond are often profoundly lonely.  Isolated.  Here is a typical conversation while getting acquainted with a man in my office:

Me:      Can you tell me a little about your friends?

Man:    Oh, I have lots of friends.

Me:      Do you have a best friend?

Man:    Yes.

Me:      When did you last talk with him?

Man:    (Long pause) Well, it’s been a while.

Me:      How long?

Man:    I guess it’s been more than a year, now.  Maybe longer.

Conversations like this were very common.  Many men simply don’t have active friendships.  And when they do hang out with other men, they need something to do together. And when they talk, it’s about the activity itself, or about sports, business, and the weather. Not about their personal lives.

But I believe male friends are not just people to do things with. They’re people we talk with…about real stuff.  Openly and honestly talking about our inner landscapes. Things we think about when we’re alone. Fears. Joys. Frustrations. Sorrows.

The cost of emotional isolation is high. Multiple studies demonstrate this. Men who are socially isolated are more like to die early than men who are have strong personal connections.  Emotional isolation and loneliness have been connected to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.  And a faster decline with Alzheimer’s disease.  One study found that loneliness may be as much of a health risk factor as smoking.  Overall, the risk of premature death goes up 26-32%.

Most men want closer and more meaningful friendships. But they just don’t have them.  Why not?  They have given me many reasons over the years.  They don’t want to feel like a loser.  Or seem desperate. Or intrusive.  They fear being rejected. Or they don’t want to seem like they are looking for a “date.”

In my personal life, I’ve found that building and keeping friendships depends on my willingness to do just two things.  Initiate.  And schedule.  That’s all.

The challenge for a man is to initiate a call or text to another man and say, “I’d  like to get together for coffee some morning before work.  You up for that?”  And if the answer is Yes, then propose a day and time. Not just, “Let’s do that sometime,” but “What about next Wednesday morning at 7:00?”

Do this a few times, until you know if this is someone you’d like to talk with on a regular basis. That is, become more of a friend.  And then bring the topic up.  “I’m enjoying these conversations. What would you think if we agreed to meet on a regular basis?  Like every other Wednesday morning for a while?” Once its scheduled and routine, then nobody has to initiate the next meeting. And the better we get to know another man, the easier it becomes to talk about personal matters.

If it’s a friendship that will work for both of you, he will say, Yes.  And be relieved that he doesn’t have to set up the next meeting.

The benefits can be many. Better physical health.  Lower risk for multiple physical and mental health problems.  Deeper friendships. So says the research. And the anecdotal evidence from my clinical practice of men who have tried this confirms this.

John Robertson

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  1. Deborah Nelson:

    Excellent article! As a woman, I forget that friendship is perhaps different and less organic for men. I think women bond differently and perhaps more easily. It is important for us to know that men experience loneliness in different ways than we do so that we can be supportive of the men in our lives and sensitive to their needs. Thanks!

    • John Robertson:

      Thanks, Deborah. I do think many men experience same sex friendships in ways that differ from many women. Multiple life-long socialization factors seem to have a strong influence on gender-related expectations for men (e.g., be competitive, be successful, avoid things “feminine,” be aggressive, be virile, and so forth) (See the work on masculinity social norms by James Mahalik at Boston College). The fear generated by many of these norms is that if you share something vulnerable with another man, you risk the possibility he may take advantage of that in some way. The fear can be there, even when the possibility is virtually nil. Close friendships among men (emotionally aware and expressive) have much to overcome.

  2. Jacquolyne Ploof:

    I enjoy your blog. I often read it to Brad too. We have been married over 47 years and we are Best Friends, buddies, and lovers. We enjoy a lot of the same activities so this makes life even better. I was reading this post out loud about men needing to be able to talk to guys friends about their issues, Brad says, “Ahaha, no.” “When he goes and plays pool with the guys (sometimes I go because I like pool too, but I give him some space), I ask him if they talk about what’s going on in politics. He looks at me and gives me a look and says, “No we just play pool and BS, that’s what guys do.” I have a degree in Counseling and Guidance, so I usually can tell if something is on his mind and he needs to talk. I love this guy dearly, but it is like pulling teeth sometimes to get him to say what’s troubling him. His Dad was even worse when it came to speaking his mind. Our Son though because of the way we raised him usually speaks up. Both our Son and Daughter have very good relationships with there spouses. We have to make it safe for them to speak their minds and show their emotions. It’s ok and healthy to let your emotions flow now and than. They (men) aren’t as tough as they think.

    • John Robertson:

      Thanks, Jacquolyne. You make some interesting points. Your husband’s observation — that when men playing pool, they just play pool – is a perspective that most men share, I think. And with good reason. Men are comfortable doing friendships in a “side-by-side” way, jointly focusing on an activity, task, or project. Discussing ones inner landscape feels “out of place,” in that context. But when men become close friends, they are able to talk in a “face-to-face” way about the ups and downs in their lives. Even then, however, the conversation is eased by finding a quiet corner in a coffee shop – making an activity out of it. You indirectly make another valuable point in your comment about the differences between your husband and your son. Since the 1980’s, men have been experiencing significant shifts in the gender role expectations they face. The definitions of masculinity are broadening, enough that its often more accurate to speak of masculinities than a singular masculinity.