Ever since the publication of my new book on raising boys, I have been receiving messages from men. To my surprise, they write with a yearning for a new kind of masculinity. And almost all of them say they feel alone, sometimes crushingly so.
Sixty-one percent of Americans are measurably lonely, according to a 2019 survey using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, the gold standard for decades.
A massive study by Brigham Young University, using data from 3.4 million people collected over nearly 35 years, found that individuals who suffered from loneliness or isolation, or even those who simply lived alone, saw their risk of premature death rise by up to 32%.
One study found that in terms of damage to your health, loneliness was the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
In her study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine in 2014, Rutgers University sociologist Julie A. Phillips found that male baby boomers in particular were 1.6 times more likely to die by suicide than men in the generation before them. She also found that the generations following the boomers have even higher rates of suicide.
While researchers are still working on exact reasons for such a spike, they point to growing alienation as a factor. Add to this the fact that men are socialized into a masculinity that simply does not talk about emotions or mental illness, and you have the perfect, looming storm.
We can turn things around, but it won’t be easy, says Jordan Shapiro, author of “Father Figure: How to Be a Feminist Dad.”
Shapiro says that he, too, was raised to be “nonemotionally intimate.” American masculinity, he says, is built on putting down femininity, and some traits like emotional intimacy are associated with girls and women. “Men are emotional and vulnerable, but they learn to avoid it with their male friendships. To men, that would be like being in a boxing ring without any gloves.”
Men aren’t allowed to admit to being lonely. “Patriarchal masculinity is so impossible to achieve that admitting to loneliness would mean confronting our shame. Most men are living with that deep, deep, deep denial of how horrible patriarchy makes them feel and how their participation is causing the feelings that they refuse to feel,” he says.
I asked Shapiro if he has close male friends whom he can call in a moment of emotional overwhelm. He thinks for a moment and realizes, as we speak, that he doesn’t, not really. He is struck by the sadness of this. “Wow, I suppose I am in the same boat,” he says.
He recalls a moment in the week before the launch of his book when he was overwhelmed with anxiety because his book was taking on masculine culture. “My anxiety was the equivalent of being in middle school when you stand up to a bully and are afraid of showing up at the playground the next day,” he says. He wanted to talk about this feeling with another man but didn’t know whom to call.
“I can’t remember the last time I felt that level of loneliness,” he says.
Where such despair intersects with feminism is that feminism wants to draw men out of the loneliness of a toxic male culture that is doing them harm and is also harming those around them. When alienated and depressed men cannot speak of what ails them and cannot seek help, they lash out.
“If you’re trying to be king of the hill, the singular alpha, it’s impossible because there’s always someone who has more power than you — the police, the boss — so you overcompensate in the places where you do have a modicum of power,” Shapiro says. “In the worst cases, it becomes real violence on women or children. It could show up as sexual abuse — the worst sexual offenders are the ones who feel the most inferiority.”
America has seen only too well the violent and public lashing out of male rage. Even in instances where men’s loneliness and alienation doesn’t lash out, it can often take a hidden toll.
In this past year and a half of the pandemic, in particular, we have heard stories of women’s invisible, emotional labor over and above the burdens of housework and caregiving. Workplaces, sports arenas and other nondomestic spaces are no longer outlets for men. A friend tells me that her husband has been “like a caged animal.” The office was a place where he could interact with co-workers. With that outlet gone, “He’s thrashing about at home and I just cannot sponge up all that trauma,” she says.
The concept of the “cage” shows up in many ways when discussing the constraints of traditional masculinity. A global effort called the “Man Box” study, conducted in the U.S., U.K. and Mexico, showed that young men ages 18 to 30 felt the pressure to “act tough,” which led them to harm themselves and those around them. These behaviors led to a cost of $20.9 billion that could be saved by the U.S., U.K. and Mexican economies if there were no “Man Box.” What were these behaviors and disorders? Sexual violence, bullying and assault, suicide, traffic accidents, binge-drinking and depression.
In researching my book, I asked Judy Y. Chu, a researcher at Stanford University who works on boys’ psychosocial development and is the author of “When Boys Become Boys: Development, Relationships, and Masculinity,” about the hurdles toward mindful masculinity. In her role as chair of the Global Men’s Health Advisory Committee, Chu found that “men who were violent often talk about how they ended up lonely or isolated.”
Psychologists who work with these men try to get them to open up about their feelings. They tell them, “Your children will feel better being around you. You will feel better about yourself.’’ Chu says that these men often ask: “Am I the only one suffering this way?” Society sets men up and then makes them feel like they are alone or individually responsible.
Fathers and society in general tend to pass on an initiation into boyhood that gradually dissolves the capacity for emotional presence in relationships and replaces it with detachment, Chu says. “We teach boys to abandon women, and the first woman he must abandon is his mother.”
In a longitudinal study that started in Minnesota and included as many as 90,000 kids, researchers found that the single best protector against adolescent risk was if a boy had at least one close, bonding relationship. Without these close relationships, boys are more prone to loneliness, opiate use and suicide.
So, experts are telling us that men around us will have to bare their pain. But how do men emerge from the shroud of loneliness, the grip of depression and alienation? Where do they go, beyond sports and bars?
I asked Gerald Schley, 79. Schley had once invited me to speak to an all-male book club to which he belongs. I asked him if the book club had been a way to build friendships with other men. “Oh, not the book club,” he says. “You need to know about my men’s group.”
He tells me about a group of 10 men among whom he is the only African American member. “I was a bit wary at first, but I found they were wonderful, progressive men. We go on hikes, visit museums, art galleries, movies, theater and have potluck dinners. We talk about politics, movies, books, family, health, history, aging gracefully, art,” Schley says.
“There was one incident that blew my mind,” he continues. “One of the guys had just lost his wife. There were four of us that had lost wives — we just went around and spoke about the losses we’d had. One person had lost his son to suicide. There’s usually a tendency among men to want to try and fix things, but no one did that. Everyone just listened. Some of us were in tears. It was powerful. You listen to the pain and it has an effect on you, too,” Schley says. “I find that having a group of men to talk to and fellowship with is extremely important.”
America’s men might just be in a moment of reckoning with masculinity, and all of us should be rooting for them to make it more mindful.
Men are beginning to talk about loneliness, alienation and their hunger for connection. This cultural conversation finds itself depicted in the wildly successful television show “Ted Lasso” (20 Emmy nominations this year), which goes to the heart of stereotypical masculine culture — sports — and turns it inside out through its coach-hero’s homemade baked goods, hugs, pep talks to his players to be tender and to get, gasp, therapy.
Perhaps we are all ready for a new kind of locker room talk, one that sounds like a really good cry.
Sonora Jha is a professor of journalism at Seattle University. She is the author of “How to Raise a Feminist Son: Motherhood, Masculinity, and the Making of My Family.”