I get lonely.
There, I said it. And it happens to me more often than I'd like to admit. So since I'm already admitting that I get lonely, I might as well go all the way with it. I experience loneliness several times a month, sometimes more acutely than at other times. In the worst times, I can start to feel very isolated, frozen in thoughts that there isn't anyone to whom I can reach out. It is a scary feeling.
The interesting part for me is that I consider myself to have a pretty well-rounded social life, I have friendships that I actively maintain, I get out to social activities regularly, and I am typically in a very positive state of mind.
And yet I get lonely.
Some of that is based on my specific circumstance. I am a divorced Dad and I split custody equally with my ex-wife. That means I have my kids with me every other weekend - and every other weekend I'm alone in my house. That's usually when loneliness creeps in. But I know there's more to it. In fact, I wrote about a related topic several months ago in another blog post. It's not just circumstantial, it's a cultural phenomenon.
It was helpful to be reminded of the broader circumstances in which I was raised when I listened to an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast this morning. The episode specifically deals with How American Masculinity Creates Lonely Men. In an oddly satisfying way, it had me thinking, "holy shit! it's not just me!!!"
Just as the host and various guests descried, I had a couple of really close friendships as an adolescent boy that, in retrospect, felt loving. Of course I never would've dared use those words at the time. Back in the 1980s suburban, homophobic, American middle class culture in which I was raised, it would have been far too dangerous to proclaim that I loved another boy. Being labeled a "fag", as I surely would have been, was practically a social death sentence.
As I moved into my teenage years, it became increasingly clear that I had to maintain an unhealthy emotional distance from my friends if I wanted to maintain my social standing. Unfortunately, I didn't realize how bad of a choice I was making.
"These [adolescent boys] are human beings with unbelievable emotional and social capacity. And we as a culture just completely try to zip it out of them."- Niobe Way, Professor of Psychology at New York University
In the Hidden Brain podcast there are some touching interviews with adolescent boys that demonstrate this type of loving capacity. And yet we send boys messages that tell them to turn off the most powerful emotional signal - love - that humans have! The confusion and isolation of shutting down a powerful emotion starts early for boys in America.
Over the past 30 years or so we have learned how important emotional and social intelligence are for building harmonious and healthy relationships. Is it any wonder that we have keep seeing crises that stem from men's inadequate and inappropriate methods of handling emotionally challenging life situations?
A Confusing Mismatch
As we grow older, young men can easily become enmeshed in a new set of signals that our culture bombards us with. The idealized nature of romantic conquest, the objectification and sexualization of women in the media, and the prevalence of porn all create a powerful message to the hormone-addled, but emotionally-blocked minds of young men. In this haze of messages the notion of "Being a Man" takes on a meaning that is, unsurprisingly, largely devoid of any true concept of love.
For a sensitive, caring kid like me, that was incredibly confusing. How does one reconcile sex and love in this sort of context? One answer is that love becomes enmeshed with sex. Based on what boys learn - you can't love other boys - it's easy to define love as something that is inextricably linked to a sexually intimate relationship. (The homophobic jeers that a boy is "gay" if he expresses love for another boy only serve to reinforce this idea.)
The Limits We Place On Ourselves
This one-dimensional view of love, in which a man starts to believe that he should not express love outwardly to another person unless it is within the context of a romantic relationship, is clearly so limiting.
So where do we turn? The closest mainstream type of love for men to have with other men, the only variety that is "sanctioned" in our culture, is the "bromance". However, as host Shankar Vedantam says in the Hidden Brain episode:
...there are certain kinds of friendship between men that society deems acceptable. One is the bromance. Men can say I love you. They can hug each other. But the bromance plot, at least as Hollywood shows it, involves supercharged testosterone, not intimacy. If there's any flash of tenderness, it comes after 90 minutes of high jinks, binge drinking and sexual conquest...
How sad is it that we have to "dabble in emotional connection", as he describes it later on, but only half-heartedly and once we have performed some other "manly" act that has reinforced our masculinity? Wouldn't it be a lot less stressful if we could simply love somebody and stop judging others for who they love?
Which brings me back to the point ... men don't allow each other to feel free about being loving. It has to be within a singular option - a romantic partner - and that's clearly not good for us, nor the women in our lives.
Where Does It End?
Divorce is one answer to that question. The weight of my emotional needs, placed on one other person, was a key contributor to the end of my marriage. I didn't see it at the time, but I had become entirely dependent on my wife for emotional support. She couldn't possibly have provided that, not while trying to manager her own emotional life and provide daily care for our three young children. But I feel fortunate in many ways because there's another ending that's become too common, one that I avoided...
Suicide rates for men in a few categories have been on the rise, in some cases sharply, over the past few decades. Men in their 50s is one such category, perhaps highlighting the accumulated effects of isolation over several decades. But it's also true of younger men. After noting the stakes for boys when they let go of close relationships because platonic "love" has become taboo, Niobe Way from NYU notes a scary link to mental health consequences:
I just don't think it's just coincidental that at the very time you hear [boys'] language - the love in their language, the emotional attunement in their language diminish, and the anger, the frustration, the I-don't-care voice comes into their stories - is the exact same time that the suicide rate increases.
This is indeed scary stuff. How is it that we can let our boys, these "human beings with unbelievable emotional and social capacity", go from a posture of love to one of self-destruction? How is it that we're making them so lonely, at such a young age?
I think a key part of the challenge in front of us - and I'm mostly talking to you here, men - is to just talk openly about it. And when I say "it", I mean Love.
How can we say we are lonely to someone?
How can we put our fears on display without shame?
How can we accept our humble place in society as feeling, vulnerable beings without feeling like it's some kind of existential threat?
How can we hold space for another human being's feelings with pure compassion and acceptance of who they are in that moment?
As Niobe Way asks in the podcast:
How do we as a culture change the culture to normalize, to humanize this fundamental human need and capacity of reading the human world and engaging with it and having quality relationships?
Yes. How do we serve this fundamental human need?
I think the answer is to "go there". And by "there", I mean Love.
Jim Young is a single Dad who loves his kids, his ex-wife, his family, his friends, and (gasp!) even several men. There's a decent chance that he loves you, too, in some way or another. (And not just because you read all the way to the end notes. Although that's awesome.)
Jim works as a coach. He coaches Dads, leaders (of life and business), business owners, executives, career seekers ... ah hell, he coaches people! He coaches people because he firmly believes in the amazing capacity we each have, including the capacity to love, which starts with loving ourselves and what we put into the world. His coaching emphasizes helping you find the true you that you love most, and the work in the world that you love the most, so you can be a more loving being for the rest of your world.
If you want to talk about love with Jim, or how a coach can help you find your most loving experiences, drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.