Saturday Night Live recently aired a brilliant sketch titled “Man Park.” In the sketch, a young man waits anxiously for his partner to return from work. He has few if any friends, and has had little social interaction all day. She listens, barely managing to feign interest in his data dump about the series of banal events of his day. As is often the case in heterosexual relationships, she reverts to the role of mommy, exhorting her partner to go outside and play with his friends. When he protests that he has no friends, she takes him by the hand as she would a little boy, and walks him to the “Man Park” to play with the other men. The men approach each other awkwardly, unsure of how to make a friend, while the women patronizingly urge them on.
The seemingly unending pandemic has raised awareness of the physical and emotional consequences of isolation. Men tend to struggle with isolation and loneliness more than women. Thomas Joiner in his ground-breaking book Lonely at the Top (2011) says that men have made a Dorian Gray-like trade of success in the external world for a deep sense of loneliness, emptiness, and disconnection. Boys start out feeling just as connected in their close friendships as girls do, but they tend to neglect their personal relationships to pursue external success. When men lose the protective social structures provided in high school and college, they often find themselves interpersonally adrift, unsure how to establish or maintain close relationships with other men or women.
In heterosexual couples, women tend to handle all the social relationships for the couple and the children. This may fall to women because they are aware that their male partners do not have substantial relationships outside of the family as they do. The women may pull their partners into socializing with other couples so that the women can have more time socializing with each other without that becoming an issue in the marriage. They may even arrange “play dates” with their friends’ partners so that their partner will be more interested in socializing as a couple.
Women can do this so seamlessly that their partners often remain blissfully unaware of all the work their partners are doing to manage the social relationships in the family. Men are often happy to have their partners take care of this because they are socialized not to value social relationships very highly, and on some level, they may also recognize that they are not very good at it themselves. It is typically only when they are divorced or widowed those men realize how few relationships they actually have that have not been arranged or managed by their partner, and how vulnerable they have been in depending entirely on their partners for all of the connection in their lives.
A reporter for the Boston Globe was initially offended when his editor asked him to write an article about “how middle-aged men have no friends:”
“Excuse me? I have plenty of friends. Are you calling me a loser? You are . . . I quickly took stock of my life to try to prove to myself that I was not, in fact, perfect for this story.
“First of all, there was my buddy Mark. We went to high school together, and I still talk to him all the time, and we hang out all the . . . Wait, how often do we actually hang out? Maybe four or five times a year? And then there was my other best friend from high school, Rory, and . . . I genuinely could not remember the last time I’d seen him. Had it already been a year? Entirely possible.
“There were all those other good friends who feel as if they’re still in my lives (sic) because we keep tabs on one another on social media, but as I ran down the list of those, I’d consider real, true, lifelong friends, I realized that it had been years since I’d seen many of them, even decades for a few (Baker, 2017).”
Loneliness is not only an unpleasant feeling; it is an interpersonal impairment that causes significant harm in the lives of men. Research suggests that a focus on the accumulation of wealth and material goods results in less overall happiness in life and less satisfaction in intimate relationships (Baker, 2017). The Harvard Study of Adult Development (Harvard, 2017) followed a group of men for eight decades. Throughout the study, at different points in their lives, the men were asked, “Who would you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or afraid?” Those men who had someone to turn to were happier in their lives and their marriages, and also physically healthier over time.
The danger here is not only the emotional cost of loneliness, although that is substantial. Close relationships with other people have more of an impact on our physical health and longevity than even our genes do (Mineo, 2017, Vadantam, 2018). A satisfying relationship life can extend longevity by up to 22 percent. Loneliness is a risk factor comparable to smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure (Holt-Lunstad, et al., 2010, Hawkley, et al, 2010, House, et al., 1988, Murphy, et al., 2017). Loneliness in men is correlated with cardiovascular disease and stroke; 80 percent of successful suicides are men, and one of the leading contributing factors is loneliness (Murphy, et al., 2017). While many physicians ask questions about risk factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption during an annual physical, the research suggests they should also be asking about how satisfying their patient’s closest relationships are.
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