The first time it happened, it was during the empty space, what Paul calls the “vacuum crisis.” One winter night about 12 years ago, the then-48-year-old was alone in his apartment, biding the hours between dinner and bedtime with his usual domestic chores, which distracted him from the struggles he’d endured over the past year. His chores helped keep his mind off something that had plagued him for much longer—four words that have haunted him since he was a child and left him feeling “fundamentally defective.” All these years later, he could still hear his estranged father’s voice, seething with disgust: “What’s wrong with you?”
Whenever things had gone wrong for Paul—from his lonely childhood as a military brat to his brief career as a naval officer to the unraveling of his first marriage—his father’s accusatory question fired deep within his neurological synapses and erupted full bore in his ears.
Before this night, though, he had never felt so hopeless, so lonely. What triggered him on this night, then? Paul doesn’t remember, and given what he had been through, anything could have been the catalyst.
A year earlier his second wife—who, he said, had abruptly quit marital counseling and had unilaterally depleted their shared bank accounts—moved with their three children four hours away. The divorce had been so financially draining that he could only afford to board in an older woman’s home. Moving into this one-bedroom apartment had been a slow climb upward. He had been drinking heavily that night and crying, too.
“The first time I did this I felt so very empty,” he said. “I really needed to have some kind of contact with another person. But how do you do that?” he asked me when we spoke. “There’s no one you can call.”
Paul did have three or four good friends from his undergraduate days at the Citadel whom he still spoke with regularly. While he could talk with them about the facts of his recent divorce, even his monetary woes, when it came to his deeper emotional life he couldn’t get beyond the ethos that his military instructors had drilled into him: “Fuck it—just drive on.” He couldn’t bring himself to push back against his father’s other four words raining down upon him: “Stop being so sensitive.”
“There was always a tension inside of me,” he said. “Growing up, I was really a sensitive person. I felt much more comfortable talking with my aunts, my grandmom, and my mom than with the males in my family. But, as I got older, I was taught that that was not how I was supposed to be.”
On this particular evening, even excessive alcohol couldn’t temporarily drown his fear of confronting these admittedly “ancient” and “dysfunctional” phantoms. As Paul recalls it now, he still doesn’t know why he did it. “I hadn’t planned it. Not in a million years would I ever have imagined doing something like this.” Yet he succumbed to a compulsion that, all these years later, still leaves him wincing a tiny bit. Paul walked across his apartment to a spindly, floor-toceiling vertical beam near the dining room. “I wrapped my arms around that thing for all it was worth.”
He doesn’t know how long he hugged the beam. But he remembers, despite his drunken state, the revelation that shone through the miasma. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is actually working. I’m feeling a little better—and it’s so fucking pathetic that it’s working.’”
Over the next month, he hugged that beam as many as seven times. Why? Because it worked. “I needed some kind of contact— even if it was just something pressing back against me.” Ultimately, he told me, hugging that beam “got down to a very basic need.”
It was perhaps the first time he had allowed himself to admit that he was in need of deeper emotional connection. During one of the beam-hugging experiences, Paul thought, “This is so necessary and so pathetic, all at the same time. Where am I? What is going on with me as a person?” When Paul felt the overpowering need to hug the beam again, he gave himself mini pep talks. “Yes, this is pathetic and weird,” he told himself on these nights. “But no one else has to know about it, so it can only be so stigmatizing, right?”
The extremity of Paul’s story lies in his act, not his despair. In this one small yet defining act, Paul made himself vulnerable to himself, a subtle yet profound gesture Paul turned into a hinge moment. Had he suppressed the experience afterward and ignored it, nothing would have been gained. But he leaned into it, literally, over and over, and as a result he broke through to a place of reluctant acceptance about his desperate need for touch and affection, regardless of whether it was animate or not. “Just own it,” he told himself during these brief hugging sessions. “For now, it helps.”
Hugging the beam forced Paul to take a hard look at himself and to surrender to his need for deeper, honest connection. “Interestingly,” he told me, “things started to get a little better for me after this.”
Before that fateful night twelve years ago, Paul behaved like a lot of men in his situation, drinking too much, working as late as possible, wallowing in all the ways that other people had let him down. When it came to his personal relationships—friendships, romances, and family—he was left staggered by the same two questions that haunt many men his age: Why is it harder to maintain these relationships than it was when I was younger? And, why is it so hard to make new friends and romantic partnerships?
Unlike Paul, who slowly rebuilt his life, many men never get beyond these questions. They stay stuck in the mindset that their platonic and romantic relationships either work or they don’t. Research now undeniably shows, however, that this all too common script, which discourages introspection and a work ethic aimed at relationships, doesn’t serve men in the long run. It sets many guys up for a lifetime of emotional isolation that leads to disastrous long-term effects, both for them and for the people in their lives.
Most men create and maintain friendships through a dynamic psychologists describe as “side by side” or “shoulder to shoulder.” That is, most men bond through shared activities like watching televised sports over beers, mountain biking, working out together, or playing poker. Conversely, many women connect face-to-face through conversations, which foster emotional honesty. (There are exceptions in gender identities, obviously.) Millennials and GenZers are the first generations of young men actively pushing back against these restrictive norms in their friendships. Geoffrey Greif, a sociologist with the University of Maryland School of Social Work, has played a biweekly poker game for more than 50 years with a lot of the same men. He shared with me that this isn’t a “place where feelings are brought up.” That said, one of the players took a chance and shared that he had bladder cancer and had recently had his prostate removed. Even though some of the guys didn’t know about this, “it held up the game for only five minutes,” Greif said, “not 45 minutes.” Given the limited response and his sick friend’s vulnerability, Greif said he thought about “suggesting a group hug, but it didn’t seem appropriate.”
This is what often happens when men connect “shoulder to shoulder.” The expectation is that the activity and lack of emotional disclosure will predominate because many men rely on such time for avoidance—from problems or stressors with family or work and even themselves. When kept in balance, this can be healthy, but for many men this is the rule, rather than the exception. The problem with this dynamic is that it perpetuates men’s emotional repression and atrophies the neural synapses they need socially that help them process and understand their deepest feelings.
This doesn’t mean that men need to have therapy sessions when they’re out together, watching football games and eating chicken wings. But it allows for more wiggle room against the otherwise implicit expectation that “deep dives” are off-limits.
Men do, after all, have problems that need tending. But busy jobs, romantic relationships and families preclude additional time to discuss these outside of their homes.
None of this is to say that side-to-side friendships don’t serve a purpose. Clearly, they do. But men should never maintain friendships exclusively this way because shoulder-to-shoulder bonding makes it even harder for them to develop the “muscles” they sorely need to avoid emotional isolation. Too many men lack emotional awareness of, and words for, deeper feelings that reveal their vulnerability. “The language of connection is the critical piece for men in their relationships,” says psychiatrist Robert Garfield, who cofounded a hub for male-centered therapy near Philadelphia called the Friendship Lab. “The way they speak is a huge reduction in terms of what they communicate and what they don’t.”
Many middle-aged men I spoke with, in their fifties to early seventies, insisted they do seek out a friend, one-on-one, if they need to talk. There’s no question that this is a healthy tactic and supports neural connectivity with their deeper emotional lives. But something often gets in the way. When his marriage was unraveling, Harris, a university administrator, resisted reaching out to friends. “It became harder and harder to talk about that stuff. I was a little ashamed that I couldn’t fix this. And, I was in denial about what was going on.” Eventually, one of his friends pushed back, and demanded to know what was happening. “I eventually unloaded with him,” Harris said, “but not everything.”
Paul had a similar experience when a romantic relationship ended after three and a half years. He went out to lunch with a good friend to discuss the distress he was feeling and, in his words, “didn’t hold anything back.” But, in the same breath, Paul admitted to me, “At some point, though, I put the brakes on. I don’t like to burden people.” What’s interesting is that both Harris and Paul, articulate and intelligent men, claimed at first to open up and talk honestly with a friend when they sorely needed a confidant. Yet, in the next breath, they admitted that “they put the brakes on.”
Similarly, Jay told me he would open up in his men’s support group, which is facilitated by a psychiatrist. But the entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist doesn’t extend what he’s learned about sharing beyond the group’s bubble. “It’s not safe in the real world”. If I share my feelings, they might be open to misinterpretation when there aren’t the same ground rules.”
This was something I heard over and over when I sat in on men’s groups. Members of these groups gushed that they had never experienced, anywhere else, the kind of support, permission, and safety in which to talk openly and, most urgently, to learn how to access and process their deeper feelings, as they did in these circles. Yet they didn’t feel safe—and that’s really the issue here—using these new skills behind the closed door of the group. The thirty-something therapist from Frederick, Maryland, who runs the men’s group I observed, said that his friendships from the past are still “locked in the old dynamic where there’s no emotional honesty or vulnerability.” And he would like more of this. Why won’t he apply what he’s learned and teaches to his clients with his own friends? “I’m too scared to try to change [these relationships], he confessed.
Of course, men have every right to determine the extent of disclosure about their lives with whomever they choose. And, it’s true that many men don’t like to “burden” others with their problems. This is why they don’t ask questions about psychic or emotional pain they observe in another guy. Many men I spoke with admitted they were wary of intruding when they observed pain in another man. “The plain truth of it is that intimacy is just too hot to handle for men,” Garfield told me. “At work, men never avoid asking questions and never handle topics so superficially— they ask for the details of a problem.” But they shy away from asking the important questions. Once you encourage men to start doing this, though, they can. “They all show that they have the capacity to ask probing questions of each other,” Garfield said. As an example of what he was talking about, he noted, “they do it with women but choose not to with men.”
Andrew Reiner is a professor at Towson University in Maryland, where he offers the seminar “The Changing Face of Masculinity.” His articles on masculinity and men’s issues have appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post magazine, among other publications. His first article on masculinity appeared in Voice Male. Excerpted with the author’s permission from Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency (Harper One) © 2020.
One Is the Loneliest Number
The kind of emotional isolation Paul experienced isn’t rare or even new, and it can impact our health. More than two hundred studies worldwide, involving more than three million individuals, have found that loneliness is more toxic to our long-term health than cigarettes or obesity. Like a carcinogen, loneliness puts us at greater risk for heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, and immune system impairment, not to mention a number of mental illnesses, from dementia and depression to chronic anxiety. Robert Putnam examined the effects of emotional isolation in his 2000 book Bowling Alone, which explores our decreasing desire to create and maintain social capital (extending ourselves to strangers without expecting anything in return), a core, disturbing trend that has accelerated since the early 1970s.
Sociologist David Riesman was the first to chronicle this trend in his seminal book, The Lonely Crowd. He observed in 1950 that the ascendancy of post–World War II consumerism and corporations turned Americans’ focus outward, or “other-directed,” causing us to base our sense of self on other people’s perceptions of us. His words proved to be eerily prescient: “The other-directed person wants to be loved rather than esteemed.” That is, people who spend a lot of time seeking validation from others—which is taken to new heights in this nascent age of social media—equate this “fitting in” with a form of love on some deeper level. They consider being connected and accepted the same as being loved, even when it’s validation from acquaintances and virtual strangers.
For many men, this means seeking the approval of other men they admire through hypermasculine behavior that reaffirms their perceived status as worthy men. A 2006 report chronicling “changes in core discussion networks over two decades,” found that over a twenty-year period the number of friends in whom Americans confide has shrunk as much as 33 percent. More specifically, the report found that the number of close friends for many adults had decreased from 3.5 in the 1980s to 2 in 2004.
While American social scientists have been studying social isolation within this culture for decades, their research still has a blind spot. Little of it has focused on the epidemic hitting men hardest. Many researchers, such as Julianne Holt- Lunstad, have blithely maintained that both genders suffer equally from the plague of loneliness. Initially, that might appear to be true, because women check off this box in studies in far greater numbers than men. But other studies dating as far back as the 1980s— which rely on such goldstandard diagnostic yardsticks as the UCLA Loneliness Scale—have argued otherwise. This helps explain why research conducted with 4,130 German singles found that single men were lonelier than single women, who are happier, less lonely, and more psychologically balanced.
A recent report conducted by UK-based Samaritans vouched for this gender discrepancy. Australian researchers have taken these findings further, because, when it comes to men’s emotional health, they do two things exceptionally well. First, they believe that protecting men means exposing the very things that prevent them from emotional wellbeing, rather than keeping the dysfunctional parts of masculine identity cocooned. And, second, they understand the value of asking men the right questions to properly gauge their emotional state. A 2017 longitudinal study among more than 17,000 Australians—conducted by the Household, Income, and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) and disseminated through Relationships Australia National—found that females are “more likely than males to admit being lonely where the question requires them to label themselves as lonely.”
But here’s the kicker: “Overall levels of loneliness for men are higher than women for all 16 waves of available data.”