Most people crave social connection. While social media, endless apps, and new technology promises to connect more people, many people feel lonelier than ever. While isolation can be a trigger for loneliness, loneliness and isolation are not identical. A person can feel lonely even when surrounded by others, especially if they don’t have deep connections that feel meaningful to them.
Loneliness doesn’t just feel bad. It can have profound implications for health. Some research even suggests that chronic loneliness can be as harmful to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
Research on gender differences in loneliness is mixed. Some studies show that women are lonelier than men; others show the reverse. Most researchers, however, agree that single men tend to be especially lonely, and that certain social norms governing masculinity may increase the risk of loneliness in men. Some early research on loneliness also suggests men may be less likely than women to admit to feelings of loneliness.
SOCIAL ISOLATION IN MEN
Studies consistently find that women are more likely to have dense social networks than men. From childhood, women are socialized to value friendship, confide in their friends, and to foster deep intimacy with close friends. Even when men have many friends, they may feel uncomfortable sharing emotions or airing feelings of vulnerability.
A 2018 analysis of people living in rural regions found that 63 percent of men felt comfortable opening up to friends, compared to 74 percent of women. Women were also more likely to participate in activities, such as church gatherings, that foster friendship and a sense of community.
Although social isolation is a serious concern among single men, research suggests that emotional feelings of loneliness are even more important. A 2011 study tied social isolation to reduced life satisfaction, but the link was even stronger for emotional loneliness. Researchers also found that male university students were significantly more likely to report emotional feelings of loneliness than female students.
HOW STIGMA CAN BE A CAGE
Masculine social norms teach men that vulnerability is weakness. Homophobia is also prevalent. Straight cisgender men may fear being labeled “gay.” These two forces can make it very difficult for men to reach out to others in friendship. Even when men have friends, they may fear judgment if they display weakness or ask for help.
Heterosexual male friendships often feature a boastful sort of masculinity, in which men brag about their sexual prowess, their financial success, or their independence. This culture can make it hard for men struggling in their relationships to share their challenges. It also shows men that the ideal man is one who uses others—not one who invests deeply in interdependent relationships.
This isolation can be a self-replicating intergenerational cycle. Men may discourage sons from showing weakness or emotion. Boys also witness their fathers modeling stoic behavior and may mimic it. In this way, the stigma of emotionally connecting to other men passes from one generation to the next.
THE MARRIAGE EFFECT
Men in most studies are more likely than women to have long-term partners. These partners can ease some loneliness. Indeed, many men rely on their partners as a primary or sole source of emotional support. This increases men’s vulnerability to loneliness when relationships end or partners die. A 2017 survey found women are more comfortable being single than men. Sixty-one percent of single women in the UK reported being happy, compared to just 49% of single men.
In addition to supporting their male partners, women in long-term heterosexual relationships may help them socialize by building and fostering social networks. Emotional labor like remembering birthdays, sending holiday cards, planning family get-togethers, and scheduling outings with friends has traditionally fallen to women. When a man loses his partner, he may lose an important social lubricant. That may mean losing friends and social opportunities.
HOW TO BUILD BROMANCE
Building friendships with other men can be challenging, especially when a man is no longer in school. A few strategies may help:
- Join communities and organizations that foster intimacy. Churches, volunteer organizations, and support groups may offer groups specifically for men looking for closer relationships.
- Seek friendships with men who value alternative forms of masculinity and who are willing to talk about the need for human connection.
- Consider working to turn acquaintances into friends. Invite a social media friend who speaks out against toxic masculinity or male loneliness to an outing.
- Take a more active role in family efforts to grow relationships. Don’t rely on women to plan all social outings or reach out to others.
- Try starting a new group or organization. Ask other dads to meet up once a month or invite acquaintances from church to start a group for men who want to grow meaningful relationships.
- Identify any harmful beliefs you have about friendship or masculinity. Do you believe that crying indicates weakness or that real men don’t need others? Work to understand where these beliefs come from and actively correct them.
- Practice conversations with other men ahead of time. Think about questions to ask them about their lives or opinions. Consider what you hope to share about yourself.
- Don’t rely on social media as a sole or primary source of socialization. While social media can bring people together, it also relies heavily on brief interactions rather than the sustained, meaningful connection that grows lasting friendship.
- Model vulnerability to other men and boys. Men who see that strong men can be vulnerable may feel more comfortable being vulnerable themselves. Sons who see their fathers invest in friendships may be less reticent to do so themselves.
Therapy can help many men practice and master new social skills. Men may also benefit from therapy when social anxiety impedes relationships or when loneliness is so severe that it leads to depression.
GoodTherapy connects people to caring, ethical therapists who can help with a range of challenges, including loneliness and making new friends. Find a therapist who can help you here.
Originally published on GoodTherapy.
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