There is strong evidence that American masculinity is creating lonely men. Rates of depression, suicide and drug abuse are soaring – especially among middle aged men. Researchers point to loneliness as the culprit and attribute the loneliness to both institutional changes and the self imposed rules that men think they must follow. Eighteen years ago Robert Putnam’s ” Bowling Alone” was published and focused on the decline of social capital in the United States. He illustrated how the many community based organizations – both formal and informal – have lost membership over the previous 30 years. Although both genders were affected the loss seems to have taken a greater toll on men. Traditional male civic/social organizations like Elk’s, Kiwanis, and American Legion have seen a sharp decline in membership as older members pass away and few young men seem interested in joining. Many volunteer fire companies, traditionally populated by men, have been replaced by paid fire fighters. The result has been an increase in male isolation. Furthermore, role changes in family life have kept men closer to home and more involved in child rearing than in the past. More women are working and the expectation is that their husbands will be sharing responsibilities at home rather than socializing with other men.
Another contributing factor to male loneliness is the perception by many adult men that they must always demonstrate strong independence and follow social rules that prevent them from forming the intimate friendships similar to the ones that they enjoyed growing up. Organizational hierarchies at work do inhibit men from sharing their doubts and vulnerabilities which are necessary ingredients of intimacy. Showing weakness in the workplace might give competing males an advantage in seeking power and promotions.
Intimacy among men seems to be viewed as contrary to manliness unless there is a social organization which brings men together and allows them, within that group, to find close connections with other men. In other words without the catalyst of a safe structured group men do not seem to have the tools or inclination to make friends. Women, on the other hand, seem to be unburdened by self imposed restrictions and do a much better job of generating new friendships throughout their lifetimes.
What baffles me is how few men take advantage of existing men’s groups that are dedicated to exploring masculinity and their life’s journey in the company of other thoughtful men without fear of shame or judgment. National groups such as the Mankind Project and local groups easily found on the internet and on the Meet Up website offer a setting where intimacy among men flourishes naturally and adult friendships develop. Wives and female partners rarely object to the men in their lives attending a men’s group because thoughtful men who have exposed their vulnerabilities make better partners. Men need to seek out these groups to protect themselves from the ravages of loneliness. On a personal note I have been part of what we like to call “Men’s Work” for over 20 years and it has sustained and enhanced my well being and connectedness.