An epidemic of loneliness is killing millions of American men. Here’s why.
On a cold February night a few weeks ago, Professor and researcher Niobe Way presented findings from her book Deep Secrets here in New York. (Her book is available on Amazon.) She was hosted by Partnership With Children, a groundbreaking organization doing powerful interventions with at risk children in the New York’s Public Schools. Both Way and Partnership With Children’s work have produced reams of hard statistical data proving that emotional support directly impacts every metric of academic performance. And, as it turns out, every other part of our lives as well.
That night, as my wife Saliha and I made our way down the snow-blown streets towards Fifth Avenue, I was feeling the somber weight of the third month of dark Northeast winter, wondering how many days remained until Spring would come. “It’s February. Don’t kid yourself,” the answer came back. My charming and lovely wife was to take me to dinner after Way’s presentation. It was my birthday.
Niobe Way is Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University and director of the Ph.D. program in Developmental Psychology. A number of years ago, she started asking teenage boys what their closest friendships meant to them and documenting what they had to say.
This particular question turns out to be an issue of life or death for American men.
Before Way, no one would have thought to ask boys what is happening in their closest friendships because we assumed we already knew. In fact, when it comes to what is happening emotionally with boys or men, we confuse what we expect of them with what they actually feel. And given enough time, they do so as well.
This surprisingly simple line of inquiry, once engaged, can open a Pandora’s box of self-reflection for men. After a lifetime of being told how men “typically” experience feeling and emotion, the answer to the question “what do my closest friends mean to me” is lost to us.
And here is the proof. In a survey published by the AARP in 2010, we learn that one in three adults aged 45 or older reported being chronically lonely. Just a decade before, only one out of five of us said that. And men are facing the brunt of this epidemic of loneliness. Research shows that between 1999 and 2010 suicide among men, age 50 and over, rose by nearly 50%. The New York Times reports that “the suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.”
In an article for the New Republic titled The Lethality of Loneliness, Judith Schulevitz writes:
Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.
Meanwhile, as I sat down to write about Niobe Way’s research today, a tweet by Alain De Botton popped up in my stream:
“An epidemic of loneliness generated by the misguided idea that romantic love is the only solution to loneliness.”
And there you have it. What Niobe Way illuminates in her book is nothing less than the central source of our culture’s epidemic of male loneliness. Driven by our collective assumption that the friendships of boys are both casual and interchangeable, along with our relentless privileging of romantic love over platonic love, we are driving boys into lives Professor Way describes as “autonomous, emotionally stoic, and isolated.” What’s more, the traumatic loss of connection for boys Way describes is directly linked to our struggles as men in every aspect of our lives.
Professor Way’s research shows us that as boys in early adolescence, we express deeply fulfilling emotional connection and love for each other, but by the time we reach adulthood, that sense of connection evaporates. This is a catastrophic loss; a loss we somehow assume men will simply adjust to. They do not. Millions of men are experiencing a sense of deep loss that haunts them even though they are engaged in fully realized romantic relationships, marriages and families.
For men, the voices in Way’s book open a deeply private door to our pasts. In the words of the boys themselves, we experience the heartfelt expression of male emotional intimacy that echoes the sunlit afternoons of our youth. This passionate and loving boy to boy connection occurs across class, race and cultures. It is exclusive to neither white nor black, rich nor poor. It is universal; beautifully evident in the hundreds of interviews that Way conducted. These boys declare freely the love they feel for their closest friends. They use the word love and they are proud to do so.
Consider this quote from a fifteen year old boy named Justin:
[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. It’s just a thing that you know that that person is that person… and that is all that should be important in our friendship…I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect, and love for each other. It just happens, it’s human nature.
Set against a culture that perceives boys and men to be “activity oriented,” “emotionally illiterate,” and interested only in independence, these stories seem shocking. The lone cowboy, the cultural icon of masculinity in the West, suggests that what boys want and need most are opportunities for competition and autonomy. Yet over 85% of the hundreds of boys we have interviewed throughout adolescence for the past 20 years suggest that their closest friendships — especially those during early and middle adolescence— share the plot of Love Story more than the plot of Lord of the Flies. Boys from different walks of life greatly valued their male friendships and saw them as critical components to their emotional wellbeing, not because their friends were worthy opponents in the competition for manhood, but because they were able to share their thoughts and feelings — their deepest secrets — with these friends.
Yet something happens to boys as they enter late adolescence….As boys enter manhood, they do, in fact, begin to talk less. They start using the phrase “no homo” following any intimate statement about their friends and they begin to say that they don’t have time for their male friendships even though they continue to express strong desires for having such friendships.
In response to a simple question regarding how their friendships have changed since they were a freshman in high school, two boys respond and reveal everything about friendships for boys during adolescence. Justin describes in his senior year how his friendships have changed since he was a freshman:
“I don’t know, maybe, not a lot, but I guess that best friends become close friends. So that’s basically the only thing that changed. It’s like best friends become close friends, close friends become general friends and then general friends become acquaintances. So they just… If there’s distance whether it’s, I don’t know, natural or whatever. You can say that, but it just happens that way.”
“Like my friendship with my best friend is fading, but I’m saying it’s still there but… So I mean, it’s still there ‘cause we still do stuff together, but only once in a while. It’s sad ‘cause he lives only one block away from me and I get to do stuff with him less than I get to do stuff with people who are way further. …It’s like a DJ used his cross fader and started fading it slowly and slowly and now I’m like halfway through the cross fade.”
And then Way takes us through the logical results of this disconnection for boys:
Boys know by late adolescence that their close male friendships, and even their emotional acuity, put them at risk of being labeled “girly,” “immature,” or “gay.” Thus, rather than focusing on who they are, they become obsessed with who they are not — they are not girls, little boys nor, in the case of heterosexual boys, are they gay. In response to a cultural context that links intimacy in male friendships with an age, a sex (female), and a sexuality (gay), these boys “mature” into men who are autonomous, emotionally stoic, and isolated.
The ages of 16 to 19, however, are not only a period of disconnection for the boys in my studies, it is also a period in which the suicide rate for boys in the United States rises dramatically and becomes five times the rate of girls when in early adolescence it is only three times the rate of girls. And it is the developmental period in which many of the school shootings we have read about in the paper have occurred and violence, more generally, among boys occurs. Just as boys during early and middle adolescence predicted, not having friends to share their deepest secrets appears to make them go “wacko.”
In America, men perform masculinity within a narrow set of cultural rules often called the Man Box. Charlie Glickman explains it beautifully here. One of the central tenants of the man box is the subjugation of women and by extension, all things feminine. Since we Americans hold emotional connection as a female trait, we reject it in our boys, demanding that they “man up” and adopt a strict regimen of emotional independence, even isolation as proof they are real men. Behind the drumbeat message that real men are stoic and detached, is the brutal fist of homophobia, ready to crush any boy who might show too much of the wrong kind of emotions.
And so, by late adolescence, boys declare over and over “no homo” following any intimate statement about their friends.
And so, there it is, the smoking gun, the toxic poison that is leading to the life killing epidemic of loneliness for men, (and by extension, women,) look no further. It’s right there: “no homo.”
Which is why we must fight relentlessly for gay rights and marriage equality. It is a battle for the hearts and souls of our young sons. The sooner being gay is normalized, the sooner we will all be free of the shrill and violent homophobic policing of boys and men. America’s pervasive homophobic anti-feminine policing has forced generations of young men to abandon each other’s support at the crucial moment they enter manhood.
It is a heart rending realization that even as men hunger for real connection in our male relationships, we have been trained away from embracing it. We have been trained to choose surface level relationships, even isolation; sleep-walking through our lives out of fear that we will not be viewed as real men. We keep the loving natures that once came so naturally to us hidden and locked away. This training runs so deep we’re no longer even conscious of it. And we pass this training on, men and women alike, to generation after generation of bright eyed, loving little boys.
By the time Professor Way was completing her presentation, I realized I was feeling sick. A queasy nausea roiled up. Something was uncoiling in me; something cold and bleak that had taken root in me long ago and gone to sleep there. As Way read these boys’ words, it woke up. It was baleful moment of mutual recognition. A sense of utter despair came rushing up, vast, deeper than deep. A February moment to end all of them. Spring was never coming back.
And no matter how determined I had been all those years ago to put my grief away, it was here now, a wall of pain so pure and unflinchingly raw, I was shocked to discover that something so huge could fit in the frail confines of a human being. And even now, as I write these words, gingerly reaching out to give witness to that part of me, I am confronted with an dizzying abyss of sadness that stops my breath, leaving me flinching, waiting for the same killing blow to fall again. Over and over and over again.
I never made it to my birthday dinner. Instead, I wept for George, my wife holding me, as we barreled home through the winter darkness on the New York City subway.
When I was seven, my best friend’s name was George. He lived around the corner from me. George was tall and lanky. His elbows always akimbo, his cowlick stellar in its sheer verticality. He had an aquarium. He had a glow-in-the-dark board game. He had the 45 RPM of Hang on Sloopy and he was a Harry Nilsson fan, just like me. I can still recall his house, the luminous joy it held for me, along with each sidewalk crack, garden and tree root that marked, step by childhood step, the block of houses separating us. I still see it in my mind’s eye that way. The way in which a child sees down close to the ground, the twigs and ants and trimmed grass sprawling into distinct green blades. All part of the frozen seven-year-old’s mosaic that exploded into pieces when my parents’ marriage failed, launching them into the bitter self-immolation that typifies American divorce.
Boxes were packed. Doors closed and locked. We were swept away in a wave of surging dislocation, to another house, other hands, other curbs and sidewalks in another part of town. It was never to be the same. And try as I may, I can not shake the magic of that one lost suburban street.
Although we lived just an hour apart, our parents were not willing to insure that George and I stayed in regular contact. For my mother’s part, perhaps it was just too much. Alongside a wrenching divorce, a new husband and the challenges of putting the past behind her, perhaps, George was just that. To much a thing of the past.
But George and I were granted a yearly reprieve. Once or sometimes twice a year, George and I were allowed a sleepover. George always came to spend the night on my birthday. It was the one gift I asked for. His visit.
We would spend all night sorting and reading mountains of comics books. Drawing super heroes and discussing, page by page, the comic art of Neal Adams, Jack Kirby, Jim Aparo, Bernie Wrightson, Frank Frazetta and all the others. We loved that artwork. Each line and pen stroke. Each page. I recall we were also able to meet at a few comic conventions. Watching Harryhausen films and searching thousands of musty boxes for back issues.
Then one day it ended. My mother simply said, “no more.” I still feel it in my gut. Like a knife so sharp that all I felt was the intense cold of it. Did I ask why? One time? A hundred times? I don’t recall. My mother was never one for questions about her decisions.
To this day, I don’t know what triggered that choice for her, but my guess is she was feeling vaguely uncomfortable. That two boys, by then around eleven years old, should be moving on to things more productive than comic books and sleep overs. That this “friendship” should have died of its own lack of oxygen, but, pending that, she could no longer sponsor something so…intense. From her perspective, it was unnaturally so.
How many times have we heard parents say, “Oh, they’ll make new friends.” As if the relationships of children are so shallow and contextual that they can be swapped out like last year’s lunchbox. Whatever kid they are seated by, in whatever random school room is assigned, will do as well as the next.
George and I dutifully gave up our friendship, like boys are trained to do, when some random life change demands it of us. I accepted the arcane logic of my mother’s decision and turned away to other relationships more convenient to her purposes.
I’m sorry to hold her responsible in this way. I would like to leave, somehow, petals of kind recollections trailing along the internet, holding her memory aloft, but I don’t have it in me. Her choices were too dysfunctional, too emotionally exhausted, too tired, dismissive, numbing, too predictable.
When I was in my early thirties, I ran into George again. He was working for a local newspaper and living in an apartment in Houston. I went and visited him. To my surprise, he happily split up his comic collection, (I had sold mine when I was 16 or so) and gave me half of his huge collection. It was an act of profound generosity and I’m sure I was effusive in my thanks.
Then I ran into George again in my forties. He had married, moved to California and was living South of L.A. near Seal Beach. On a business trip, I spent the night at his house. We fell into our old pattern of reading comic books and drawing while his wife hovered, declaring over and over how great it was that I was visiting. The next day I packed up and went home to New York feeling vaguely disconnected, but happy.
A year and a half later, I boxed up a bunch of new graphic novels and mailed them to George with a note telling him that these were my new favorites.
About six months later his wife called me. She was screaming and weeping, this woman I had only met for a few short hours. George had died.
To this day, I remain shocked. “Why didn’t I connect more,” was my first thought. My second was how effusive his wife had been about my visit. So supportive. So happy for “George’s friend” to be there. I was never able to follow up after his death. I don’t even know what killed him, just an illness. Strangely, when I collected my thoughts, I realized I could no longer find a phone number for George’s wife. She had called me on a land line? I don’t remember. Maybe I did call her one more time. A fog of disconnection rises in me about this. Just move on. Just move on.
I recall a single phone call with his mother after his death. (Had she called me?) If I go into my decades old contact list today, I have no entry for George. No address in L. A. No disconnected email address. Nothing.
How is this possible? How did I sleep walk through the chance to reconnect with this friendship? I should have cared. I should have given a damn. Why didn’t I? Because somewhere, somehow, I was convinced that close friendships with boys are too painful?
Don’t parents understand? Don’t they know that we love each other? That our children’s hearts can be broken so profoundly that we will never rise to a love like that again?
What boys do, the world had convinced me, was to move on to the next thing. So I did so. We shrug our collective shoulders and suppress the panic of heartbreak and loss. We go numb. We suppress everything. We accept the world as a surface level exercise. Because the love boys feel, that passion we feel for the ones we love is too powerful. It makes grownups nervous.
And we can’t have grownups feeling nervous now can we?
Let’s take a moment to connect the dots. Boys feel fierce love for their best friends ——> Add homophobia, the Man Box, etc. ———-> Boys disassociate from loving best friends ———–> Boys and men become emotionally isolated ————> Men enter the epidemic of loneliness ————> Men die.
We now have a clear and direct through-line tying rampant homophobia and the Man Box to resulting grief, isolation, and early mortality in heterosexual men.
Sound a little dramatic? Here is the central piece of research data that every man should take to heart.
In a six-year study of 736 middle-aged men, attachment to a single person (almost always a spouse) did NOT lower the risk of heart attack and fatal coronary heart disease, whereas having a strong social support network did. [Source: Kristina Orth-Gomér, Annika Rosengren & Lars Wilhelmsen, “Lack of Social Support and Incidence of Coronary Heart Disease in Middle-Aged Swedish Men,” Psychosomatic Medicine, 55(1993): 37-43.]
I recall to this day, walking into George’s room when I was ten and him holding out a copy of Jack Kirby’s New Gods. The issue was titled The Death Wish of Terrible Turpin. His joy in sharing that with me, the book thrust out in his hands, is as real to me now as any human moment I can recall. The birth of my son. My dear wife’s tears. Anything.
When I turn my thoughts to those times with George, I feel a glimmer of primal emotional power glowing in me. Something fierce and unquenched is there. Something I badly need to reconnect to.
Niobe Way has given us a clear and actionable truth about boys and about ourselves as men. We can shrug it off at our peril. But ignoring her truth and the truth of these boys comes with a terrible price. The loss of my friendship with George set a pattern in my life that I am only now, decades later, finally conscious of. I have walked past so many friendships. Sleep walking past men, as I went instead from woman to women, looking for everything I had lost. Looking instead in the realm of the romantic, the sexual. A false lead to a false solution. And in doing so, I have missed so many opportunities to live a fuller life.
Our female or male lovers are not put here to replace the warm platonic love of the hilarious, generous, sympathetic men in our lives. They are put here to celebrate them with us, even as we celebrate our lover’s passionate platonic friends with them. It is a symphony of love, wherein our joy in platonic love is co-amplified by our sexual loves. Both.
Since my birthday I have placed some phone calls. I called my friend Michael and I told him I love him. That I value him as one of my closest friends and that I welcome him to call on me for fun or for sorrow. I have told my story several times to other friends, like I’m telling it here, and in doing so, I’m becoming fierce and awake now.
Niobe Way’s work has given me the piece of the puzzle I was never conscious of. That the love I had felt for George and others, Troy, Jack, David, Bruce, and Kyle was right and good and powerful. Could move mountains. That the slow withdrawing of those friendships from my life had not been a killing blow. Not quite. And that I’m back in the game of loving my friends. Fiercely.
So, know it guys. I love you all.
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