On Thursday, July 13, 1995, a concentration of high pressure in the upper atmosphere above Midwest Chicago forced massive amounts of hot air to the ground, causing temperatures as high as 41°C (106°F). In a Midwestern city not built for tropical heat, roads buckled, cars broke down in the street, and schools closed their doors. On Friday, three Con Ed power transformers failed, leaving 49,000 people without electricity. In high-rise apartments with no air conditioning, temperatures hit 49°C (120°F) even with the windows open. The heat continued into Saturday. The human body can only take about 48 hours of uninterrupted heat like this before its defenses begin to shut down, and emergency rooms were so crowded they had to turn away heatstroke victims. Sunday was no better, and as the death toll rose—of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and renal failure—the morgues hit capacity, too, and bodies were stored in refrigerated meat-packing trucks. In all, 739 people died as a result of the heat wave.
In its aftermath, an inquiry found, unsurprisingly, that the majority of those who died were poor, old, and lived alone. More surprising was the gender imbalance: significantly more men died than women. This was especially strange considering that in Chicago in July of 1995, there were more old women who lived alone than old men.
What made these men more vulnerable than the women? It wasn’t physical circumstances. Both groups lived mostly in “single room occupancy” buildings, or SROs—apartments of one room in what used to be called flophouses. It was social circumstances. The phrase “No known relatives” appears repeatedly in police reports of the dead men’s homes. Letters of regret were found on floors and in backs of drawers: “I would like to see you if that’s possible, when you come to the city”; “It seems to me that our family should have gotten along.” The single rooms of the deceased are described as “roach infested” and “a complete mess,” indicating few or no visitors. The women, according to Eric Klinenberg, who wrote a book on the heat wave, had people who checked up on them and so kept them alive; the men did not. “When you have time please come visit me soon at my place,” read another letter, unsent.
What conditions lead to this kind of isolation? Why men?
Artie, 63, who lives in Beards Fork, West Virginia, population 200, has never married. He grew up in Beards Fork, but spent most of his life elsewhere. He moved back when he was 47 to take care of his sick mother, who died earlier this year. Now, after putting his own life on hold for sixteen years, he finds himself single, semi-retired, and without a close friend. “Life goes by really fast,” he said. Since his mom died, he’s found himself thinking, “Where in the hell did it go?”
This is the kind of thing he used to talk about with his mother. Now that she’s gone, he doesn’t really open up to anyone. He has no close friends in the area, and he’s “felt a lot of depression over the past few years.”
Artie’s not an antisocial guy or a homebody. His career brought him into contact with hundreds of interesting people over the years; he lived in California for a decade, and before that he had a nine-year relationship. But back in his hometown, all the connections he made seem to have melted away. “I don’t really have any close friends, other than my family,” he said, “which is something different.” (A 2005 Australian study agreed: while close friendships increase your longevity by up to 22 percent, family relationships make no difference.)
Artie has a group of friends he met in his thirties and forties with whom he’s still in touch, mainly on Facebook, but those relationships are “not quite the same as the friendships I had when I was younger. Less deep. Less vulnerable. And I’m not even sure I want to [open up].” He’s somewhat close with a few of his former coworkers, but though they confide in him, he doesn’t feel like he can confide in them. “They’re younger,” he said. “They don’t understand my problems.” Despite being semi-retired, he still goes into the office every day and stays late, after everyone’s gone. “I’m reluctant to go home,” he said. “Nobody’s there.”
In many ways, Artie seems in danger of going down the path of those Chicago SRO-dwellers. But there’s an important difference between those men and Artie: what the former had in common was their social isolation—having few or no social connections. Artie’s problem, on the other hand, is one of loneliness—the feeling of being isolated, regardless of your social connectedness, usually due to having few or no confidants.
Is this my future?
At first glance it seems unlikely. I’m 34. I have what seems to me a pretty active social life. I’m integrated into my community and I go to arts events regularly. I’ve lived here in Toronto off and on since I was 18. I went to university here. I helped found an arts venue here. I know hundreds of people here, if not thousands. I have multiple jobs—college instructor, freelance writer, tutor. I have friends. Whatever path led to these lonely destinations, I want to believe, is not the path I’m on. When I die, my floor will be tidy, and my letters sent.
And yet, there’s something about their stories that seems eerily familiar. Slowly but surely, I feel my social world slipping away from me. All three of my jobs combined require me to be around other humans a total of about eight hours out of a week’s 168. The other 160, I’m mostly at home. It’s not unusual for me to go several days in a row with no social contact of any kind, and the longer I go without it, the scarier it feels. I become shy, paranoid that no one would want to hang out with me. Social slights metastasize in my brain. I start to avoid social functions, convinced I’ll walk into a wall of mysterious eye contact. I live close to many friends, but I hide from them when I see them in the street. I don’t think of myself as antisocial—I love people, love being around them, and have had so many good friendships—but it often feels like an uphill battle, and mystifyingly complex, to not slip back endlessly into this pit of despair.
The thing is, I wasn’t always like this. How did I get here?
Friendship in adulthood is a challenge for a lot of people. On average, both men and women start to lose friends around age 25, and continue to lose friends steadily for the rest of our lives. As adults, we tend to work more, commit to more serious romantic relationships, and start families, all of which end up taking priority over buddy time. Even if, like me, at age 34, you don’t have full-time work, you’re not in a relationship, and you’re nowhere close to starting your own family, others’ adulting leaves you bereft.
Furthermore, young adults move around the country more than any other demographic, which severs our support networks—a phenomenon Robert Putnam calls the “re-potting” effect, referring to the injury a transplanted plant sustains losing its roots. People are changing jobs more than ever, which interrupts connections that in previous eras would have become decades long. And freelancing, which Forbes estimates 50 percent of the U.S. workforce will be doing in one way or another by 2020, deprives the worker of not only job security, but social stability. As a freelancer who’s had six different jobs in the past year alone and who lived in a dozen countries throughout my twenties, I fall squarely into the most vulnerable part of this Venn diagram. I try to compensate by keeping up with, like, four or five different friend-groups on social media—mostly Facebook, where I have 3,691 contacts—but I often find myself using social media more like a performance art video game than a way to facilitate friendships. And studies show that I’m closer to the norm than the exception. “Online social contacts with friends and family,” as one study put it, “were not an effective alternative for offline social interactions in reducing feelings of loneliness.”
And that’s what I am, I guess. Lonely. Sometimes excruciatingly so. Loneliness can be measured by psychometry like the UCLA Loneliness Scale (I scored 21 out of 40) or the De Jong Gierveld Loneliness Scale (I am high on emotional loneliness, low on social loneliness). For me, though, loneliness at its core is a stubborn, irrational certainty that no matter how well I know the people in my life—several of whom I consider close, some of whom I’ve known for decades—I am not, as the poem goes, involved in mankind. I still feel, in the bad moments, frantic with isolation, and become my 16-year-old self, desperate on the edge of my parents’ bathtub, mentally searching for a friend, having ruled out all the obvious candidates. I tried to summon a world in which Blake MacPhail, whose sister’s apartment I visited once two years earlier, could be considered my friend. That wasn’t the loneliest I ever felt, but it set the template, and I still feel that way more often than perhaps those who know me would suspect. Or maybe they would suspect it; maybe they feel it too; over the past few decades, as the structure of society has changed, loneliness has increased, and now affects almost half the population. Just last week, the American Psychological Association issued a press release advising that “many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic.’”
And as if feeling lonely wasn’t bad enough, it also turns out that loneliness and isolation are shockingly bad for your health and wellbeing. The quality of your friendships is the largest predictor of your happiness. Social isolation weakens your immune system, raises your blood pressure, messes with your sleep, and can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. According to the authors of a widely cited meta-analysis, loneliness on its own can increase your chances of an early death by 30 percent and “heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity.” And in practical terms, being in contact with nobody in an emergency, like the men in the Chicago heat wave, can kill you in an instant.
Unfortunately for me, like the majority of those Chicago dead, I belong to another, perhaps counterintuitive, at-risk category: I’m a man. All that freelancing and moving and adulthood stuff affects men and women alike, but, for a complex set of reasons, men face additional roadblocks to connection. On average, we have fewer confidants and are more socially isolated. Women do report being lonelier than men, and research says, statistically, they are—if they’re married and between the ages of 20 and 49. For all other demographics, though, men are in fact lonelier than women. On top of all that, there’s a consensus among researchers that due to male reluctance to self-identify as having emotional problems, the ubiquity of men’s loneliness is probably being underestimated.
I have a photograph of my friend Tyler and myself snuggling on my parents’ cream carpet, in the sun, next to my sandy dog. It’s a sweet moment, but captures something bitter, too: this was probably the last time I touched a male friend in a way that wasn’t a handshake or a bro-y hug. We were, like, six.
One avenue into understanding men’s loneliness is to consider how children are socialized. In an interview, Niobe Way, a professor of developmental psychology at New York University who has been doing research with adolescent boys for almost three decades, talked about how we are failing boys. “The social and emotional skills necessary for boys to thrive are just not being fostered,” she said in an interview. Indeed, when you look at the research, men do not start life as the stereotypes we become. Six-month-old boys are likely to “cry more than girls,” more likely to express joy at the sight of our mother’s faces, and more likely to match our expressions to theirs. In general, before the age of four or five, research shows that boys are more emotive than girls.
The change begins around the time we start school: at that age—about five—boys become worse than girls at “changing our facial expressions to foster social relationships.” This is the beginning of a socialization process in “a culture that supports emotional development for girls and discourages it for boys,” according to Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. This begins to affect our friendships early—in a study in New Haven, Connecticut, boys aged 10-18 were significantly worse than girls at knowing who their friends were: “over a two-week period, the boys changed their nomination of who their best friend was more frequently than girls, and their nomination was less likely to be reciprocated.”
Still, there’ll never be better soil than school in which to grow friendships, and most boys do find good friends as children. Way, who summarized her findings in her book Deep Secrets, found that, up until early adolescence, boys are not shy about how much they love their friends. Way quotes one boy named Justin in his first year of high school: “[My best friend and I] love each other… That’s it… you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. … I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect, and love for each other.” Another high school freshman, Jason, told Way friendships were important because then “you are not lonely … you need someone to turn to when things are bad.”
However, for many boys—Way calls it “near-universal”—a shift occurs in late adolescence, roughly from the ages of 15-20. In a phase of life we often think of in optimistic terms—self-discovery, coming of age—boys’ trust in each other shatters like glass. Three years after his first interview, Jason, asked if he had any close friends, said no, “and immediately adds that while he has nothing against gay people, he himself is not gay.” Another boy interviewed by Way in the eleventh grade who up until the year before had maintained a best friendship for ten years said he now had no friends because “you can’t trust nobody these days.” In interviews with thousands of boys, Way saw a tight correlation between confiding in close friends and mental health, and she observed that, across all ethnic groups and income brackets, three quarters of the boys she spoke to “grow fearful of betrayal by and distrustful of their male peers” in late adolescence, and “begin to speak increasingly of feeling lonely and depressed.”
Making matters worse, in the middle of this estrangement from other boys, as we’re becoming young men, we’re governed more than ever by a new set of rules about what behaviour we’re allowed to show. Psychologists call them display rules. “Expressions of hurt and worry and of care and concern for others,” according to white high schools boys, are “gay” or “girly.” Black and Hispanic boys, according to Way’s interviews, feel pressure to conform to even stricter rules. Men who break the rules, and express “sadness, depression, fear, and dysphoric self-conscious emotions such as shame and embarrassment” are viewed as “unmanly” and are comforted less than women. Way told me when she speaks in public, she often quotes a 16-year-old boy who said, “It might be nice to be a girl, ‘cause then I wouldn’t have to be emotionless.”
And yet, it’s easy to be skeptical—aren’t men doing fine, compared to everyone else? How much does this actually hurt men? They still have friends, don’t they? And yes, entering adulthood, and up to the age of 25, men and women do have approximately the same number of friends. For the outsider looking in, then, and even for the man himself, it may appear that nothing’s amiss. But to paraphrase University of Missouri researchers Barbara Bank and Suzanne Hansford, men have power, but are not well. In the UK, suicide rates among men are steadily rising. In the US, so is unemployment among men, often coupled with opioid abuse. In a 2006 paper addressed to psychiatric practitioners, William S. Pollack of Harvard Medical School wrote, “present socialization systems are dangerous to boys’ physical and mental health and to those around them, leading to increased school failure, depression, suicide, lonely isolation, and, in extremis, violence.” In a study Pollack did of boys age 12-18, only 15 percent of them projected “positive, forward-looking sentiment regarding their futures as men.”
Women keep being intimate with their friends into adulthood, and men, generally, do not: “Despite efforts to dismiss it, the finding that men’s same-sex friendships are less intimate and supportive than women’s is robust and widely documented.”
Perhaps you want to say that men just like it that way. Perhaps you want to say, like Geoffrey Grief, writing in Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships, “Men are more comfortable with shoulder-to-shoulder friendships while women prefer face-to-face friendships, which are more emotionally expressive.” Shoulder-to-shoulder meaning: engaging in a shared activity, like playing a game of pick-up basketball, as opposed to confiding face-to-face and being emotionally vulnerable. This may be true for some men, who, like some women, need less intimacy than others. But when asked, men say we wish we had more intimacy in our friendships with other men.
“What is wrong with men,” Bank and Hansford asked, “that they can’t or won’t do what they enjoy to the same extent as women do?” In a study of 565 undergraduates, they investigated. Six possible reasons why men shut each other out were measured by questions like “how often [the subject] and their best friend showed affection for each other, had a strong influence on the other, confided in the other, and depended on the other for help.” The worst offenders? Homophobia, and something they called “emotional restraint,” which they measured by responses to statements like “A man should never reveal worries to others.”
From the vantage point of adulthood, especially in progressive circles, it’s easy to forget the ubiquitous and often quasi-ironic homophobia of teen boys, which circulated among my guy friends. That’s why it was amazing to read Dude, You’re a Fag by C. J. Pascoe,11I have to call attention to the fact that so much of the most insightful work on masculinity—Way, Bank, Hansford, Pascoe, Fehr, and others—has been done by women. who spent a year embedded in an American high school divining and taxonomizing the structures of teen male identity in intricate and systemic detail. She concluded that “achieving a masculine identity entails the repeated repudiation of the specter of failed masculinity”—in other words, boys must earn their gender over and over again, often by “lobbing homophobic epithets at one another.” And unfortunately, for boys both gay and straight, the rise of gay marriage and queer visibility has not made schoolyards any more tolerant. In fact, Way, who still works with kids in New York City schools, warned that, in contrast to the unselfconscious way straight men can be physically affectionate in repressive societies, in cultures where being gay is a publicly viable option, boys actually feel even more pressure to prove their straight identity. “I hear that coming from all sorts of sources—parents, kids,” said Way, who notes the simultaneity of the rise of gay acceptance and the phrase “no homo.”
Way discusses yet another reason men may shut each other out: a major betrayal or insult we don’t have the relationship skills to get past. Though they often happen in late adolescence, Way saw the fallout from these formative injuries as “a dramatic loss that appears to have long-term consequences.”
For all these reasons—the socialization we receive as kids, as well as emotional restraint, homophobia, experiences of betrayal, and many others22Bank & Hansford’s other four: 1) role conflicts, where men feel their one role, e.g. as a romantic partner, means they cannot continue in another role, e.g., as a friend; 2) lack of parental models for friendship; 3) competitiveness interfering with intimacy; and 4) masculine self-identity—e.g., “real men don’t talk about feelings.”—many men stop confiding in each other, trusting each other, supporting each other, and expressing emotion around each other. And if you subtract all that, what kind of friend will you be, exactly?
“Fickle” and “calculating” is what men tend to be as friends, according to a four-year study at the University of Manchester. More neutrally stated, a comparative study of men in New Zealand and the United States found that, in both cultures, “friendships between males tend to be instrumental in nature, whereas female friendships are more intimate and emotional.” We’re good at being buddies when times are good, but in harder times we tend to abandon each other, or hide from each other, knowing or fearing the other won’t have the language or skills—or will—to support us.
Dave, 30, a writer and bartender, who struggles to form deep connections with other men, said navigating male friendship is “almost as challenging as dealing with girls when you’re single—you don’t know how close a guy wants to get.” Most of Dave’s friendships are with his male coworkers at the bar, and they mostly just talk about sports. “If the conversation ever gets a little more personal, it’s usually because we’re like, six beers in. And the next time we see each other it’s just like, ‘hey.’”
For some men, there’s a direct line from their years as the New Haven schoolboys whose best-friend nominations were unreciprocated to now. Our reluctance to show real feeling can mean we don’t acknowledge or affirm friendships. The relative laxness of male friendships can also leave you wondering who your friends are—who should you invest in? Ian, 33, who lives in Toronto and works in the food service industry, has a wide network of acquaintances all across the city, but “they’re not really confidable-quality friends.”
Ian, like me, belongs to yet another group at a high risk of loneliness: single men. Using data from 4,130 German adults, researchers found that single men are lonelier than both men in relationships and single women. (Single women, in other studies, having been found to be “happier, less lonely, and more psychologically balanced than single men.”) A lot of men don’t cultivate emotional intimacy when they are not in partnership with a significant other. Whereas single women at least feel as if they can cry to their friends, single men, generally, cry to no one.
Loneliness is not just a bad feeling and like lung tar for your health; it can actually cause you to become more objectively socially isolated, in a vicious cycle triggered by a particularly cruel trait of humans: we ostracize the lonely.
Using data from 5,000 people in Framingham, Massachusetts, one study found that loneliness is contagious. Having a lonely friend (or coworker, of family member) increases your chance of being lonely by 52 percent, and each additional lonely day per week you have leads to one additional lonely day per month for everyone you know. Why would this be? Well, lonely people tend to act “in a less trusting and more hostile fashion,” to “approach social encounters with greater cynicism,” and to be less able to pick up on positive social signals, which causes them to withdraw, making those around them feel lonely, too. Like a virus, this loneliness spreads, giving one person the ability to “destabilize an entire network,” as one of the researchers told the New York Times in 2009, leaving patient zero further and further away from anyone who’s not lonely. Like the rhesus macaque monkeys in a horrific 1965 study who were kept in a “pit of despair” and then shunned when reintroduced to the group, “humans may similarly drive away lonely members of their species,” concluded the authors of the Framingham study. Over time, lonely people are pushed further and further away from others, which only increases their loneliness further, which causes further ostracization.
Decades of this can push you right to the periphery of society. A report by the British Columbia Ministry of Health reported that, compared to their female equivalents, never-married men “are more depressed, report lower levels of well-being and life satisfaction and poorer health, and are more likely to commit suicide.” Indeed, the men who died alone in the Chicago heat wave were all single, and it’s difficult not to see being lonely and single as the path of unsent letters on cockroach floors and the collapse of all contacts.
It may seem like the answer is a relationship, or marriage. Married people in general are less lonely than single people, and married men are less lonely than married women. A 1991 meta-study summed it up: marriage is “particularly rewarding for men.”
However, closer inspection reveals a more complicated, and hazardous, picture. Though less lonely, married men are more socially isolated. Compared to single men, and even unmarried men cohabiting with a partner, married men in a 2015 British study were significantly more likely to say that they had “no friends to turn to in a serious situation.” This seemed to capture the situation of Roger, 53, in Indianapolis, who’s been married for 24 years. “The friendships I had in college and post-college have kind of dissipated,” he said. “My wife and I have a few friends in couples, but I don’t really see friends outside of that.” He confides in no one other than his wife. “There’s very little need to,” he said. Roger is typical: married men “generally get their emotional needs met by their spouses/partners.” Why, then, would Roger need to keep up with anyone else?
In contrast, married women “often get their emotional needs met by their female friends.” That married women’s friends are more important to them than married men’s friends may be one reason why a 2014 British study found that women organize and encourage a couple’s social life more than men, and, in general, “men are far more dependent on their partner for social contact than women are.” When I shared this fact with the men I interviewed, several of them admitted that this was true of them, with one saying his partner spoke with his own mother more than he did, another saying he wouldn’t be in touch with his friends from college if it wasn’t for his partner, and a third saying, because most of his pre-marriage friends were female and there was tension with his wife when he hung out with them, he saw mostly her friends now.
There are clear dangers for married men shunting all this social planning to their wives. (It can be grimmer still for gay men, who struggle with loneliness even more than straight men.) Aside from the questionable morality of offloading all this emotional labour, what are you going to do if your marriage ends before you do?
Brandon, 35, a professor in St. Catharines, Ontario, who got divorced a couple years ago, saw the results up close: when his marriage dissolved, all his friends, who had originally been closer to his ex-wife, went with her. “It was a big wake-up call,” he said. You don’t want to find yourself mid-disaster one day “and realize you’ve surrounded yourself with people who, while interesting, don’t really give a shit about you.”
But Brandon was lucky: he divorced young enough to learn his lesson. A seemingly infinite number of gruesome studies of older divorced and widowed men show that they, like never-married men, are lonelier and more isolated than their female counterparts. Divorced men “are more apt to suffer from emotional loneliness than are women,” and widowers have it even worse. While widowed women generally “are capable of living alone and taking care of themselves,” widowers “encounter severe difficulties in adapting to the single status,” which “leads to a precarious condition … reflected in unusually high rates of mental disorders, suicides, and mortality risk.” All this suggests that married men don’t actually learn how to not be lonely, they just bandaid the problem with marriage, and if that ends, they have all the same problems they’ve always had, but now are older, and for that reason even more prone to isolation.
So—what should you do? I’m glad you asked now, because the more friends you have while young, the more friends you’ll have when you’re old, so the sooner you start improving your connections, the less likely you are to slip into a loneliness/ostracization spiral.
Social isolation is, by definition, ameliorated by simply seeing more people. Most interventions I’ve seen come at the policy level, mostly for older men. The UK seems to be the most aggressive in this approach, with programs like Men in Sheds, which originated in Australia and brings older men together to share tools to work on DIY projects of their own choosing; Walking Football, which gives those who’ve aged out of their prime soccer years the opportunity to play with others of their ilk; and Culture Club, which hosts expert speakers, targets men who’ve spent their lives in “intellectual pursuits” and enforces a “no chit chat” rule (also: no women). One even targeted single-room occupancy hotels, of the kind inhabited by the men who died in the Chicago heat wave. They set up a blood-pressure evaluation program in these SRO’s lobbies, cajoling men “who tended to stay in their rooms due to physical disability and fear of crime” into social interaction on the pretext of a convenient health check-up. Over time, the program “helped participants identify shared interests.”
Programs like this seem to have been successful at least in part because “older men participate in organizations slightly more than older women.” Most of these programs try to meet the conditions generally understood to be required to create close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other. If you’re trying to go it on your own, and aren’t into joining a program like the ones above, or they’re not available—or you’re not a senior!—you’d be well-advised to try to replicate these conditions on your own. I’ve had some success showing up to a weekly writers’ group.
Lonely people tend to have a range of maladaptive behaviours and thought patterns. They—we —“have lower feelings of self-worth,” they “tend to blame themselves for social failures,” they “are more self-conscious in social situations,” and they tend to “adopt behaviours that increase, rather than decrease, their likelihood of rejection.” For men, this may include hypervigilance in abiding by display rules learned long ago that were designed to protect us from threats that no longer exist.
Fortunately, all these things can change.
This is done primarily through cognitive-behavoural therapy. The “cornerstone” of these interventions was to “teach lonely individuals to identify automatic negative thoughts and regard them as hypotheses to be tested rather than facts.” The specific approach depended on the target population. “Reminiscence therapy” was used to help institutionalized elderly people recall past life events, which they were encouraged to reinterpret in a positive light, and also to apply “positive aspects of past relationships to present relationships.” Thought substitution techniques were used with Navy recruits, who were encouraged to replace a negative thought like “I am a total failure” with “I’m often successful at the things I do.” Lonely college students responded well to a “reframing” technique, where they were coached to reframe their present experience of loneliness in positive ways, e.g., “A nice part of being lonely now, is that it allows you to develop and discover more about yourself at a time when others may be so wrapped up in a relationship that they end up spending their time trying to be what someone else wants them to be.” Variations of this kind of therapy were shown to be successful across diverse lonely populations, from sex offenders in jail to people with limited mobility.
As the novelist Jacob Wren notes, though, there are no individual solutions to collective problems. And, unfortunately, men’s loneliness is a problem not only for themselves. Though not shown to be causal, there is significant correlation between loneliness in men and violent behaviour. A 2014 Turkish study found that violent high school boys are disproportionately lonely; a 1985 study found that “men who scored high on measures of loneliness readily aggressed against a female subject in a laboratory study”; and, in a dynamic that would appear to explain some aspects of red-pill culture, a 1996 study of sex offenders in a Canadian prison found that those who were lonely and lacked intimacy in their lives “blamed these problems on women.” Even more troublingly, matching studies in Canada and New Zealand found higher-than-average loneliness in populations of male rapists.
It’s clear that it’s in everyone’s interests that men’s loneliness be curbed. But what specifically can be done?
“The boys are telling us the solution,” said Way, in our interview. “They want friendships! They need them, they’ll go ‘wacko’ if they don’t have them.” Better friendships, she says, are what men are missing—the key to better mental and emotional health, and certainly the antidote to loneliness. Pollack echoes this: “As tough, cool, and independent as they may sometimes seem, boys yearn desperately for friendships and relationships.”
Changing how boys navigate their friendships, or how men relate to each other in even the smallest ways, may seem forbidding, but, as Louis D. Brandeis said, most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.
Way told me about working with a class of seventh-graders just last year. She read them that quote from Justin who, speaking of his friends and himself, says, “sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect, and love for each other.” These seventh-graders started laughing. “The dude sounds gay,” one of them said. Way set them straight, telling them that 85 percent of the boys she interviewed over 25 years sounded like this. They were totally quiet. And then someone said, “For real?” Way said, Yeah, this is what boys sound like. All of a sudden, the boys were waving their hands to tell Way about their close friendships, their relationships, “and two boys who had just so-called ‘broken up’ their friendship, even started to talk to each other about the friendship.” As Way said, as soon as they learned having emotions and loving their friends was normal, “they were allowed to access what they really knew, and they were like, ‘This is me.’”
It is possible to change the culture. What is normal can change. And in the meantime, know this: intimacy is normal. Having close friends is a normal thing to want. And if you’re struggling, you’re not alone.