Why are men struggling to admit that they are lonely? And what can be done to resolve this? Wellbeing Advisor Andy Parnham sheds some crucial and practical light on the matter.
General knowledge states that women talk three times more than men, so naturally, they are the more expressive gender. However if men spoke just as much as women, would they say more than just 'I'm fine' when asked 'how are you?' would they admit to feeling lonely or distraught? The tragic death of UK model, actor and musician Sam Sarpong after he took his life on 26th October last year, is one of the many examples that men are in need of support, even if they don't verbalise it.
With nearly eight million people living alone in Britain, the word 'epidemic' is being increasingly applied to loneliness, just as with stress, anxiety and depression. Humans are profoundly social beings and one of the most robust findings in wellbeing research is that relationships are by far and away the most significant factor in promoting life satisfaction. So if our relationships are not healthy, our wellbeing will be damaged. Loneliness is a clear indicator that something is wrong.
And loneliness is dangerous – in fact, as dangerous for our health as obesity or smoking thirty cigarettes a day! Research shows that loneliness increases morning cortisol levels (a powerful stress hormone), bringing the expectation of ‘yet another dangerous day’. It also increases depressive symptoms, producing a vicious circle of isolation and poor health. There’s more. When we become isolated, an in-built protective response kicks in. We become hyper-alert for threats, and so focus on our own welfare rather than taking on the perspective of others. So the more isolated we are, the more suspicious we become of others. That’s another vicious circle we need to avoid.
The problem with loneliness
With all this evidence, you might think that we would be talking more about it. But here’s the double-whammy. Loneliness not only makes you ill, it also carries a social stigma, just like depression. We don't mind showing the plaster on our arm after a sports injury, or talking about the operation we had on our gall-bladder last month. But to admit that we are lonely or depressed is more awkward. Somehow we feel that it’s not cool or acceptable – we’re going to appear weak and ‘needy’.
And men? Has society made men feel less manly (and seen as weak) if they can’t cope with ‘stuff’?
For men, there’s something more than the illness and the stigma. It’s not manly. Men are meant to be strong and resilient, not weak, emotional and needy. The “strong, silent type” is still the default male stereotype, at least for many. From an early age, the expectation is that ‘boys don't cry’ and that showing your emotions (or at least the apparently negative ones of fear, anxiety and dependency) is evidence of weakness. The idea of being ‘vulnerable’ or ‘sensitive’ fills some men with panic! In America, it’s all about jocks (intelligent, physically impressive and socially comfortable) versus nerds (intelligent but socially awkward and physically incapable)! It’s not so different here.
Britain is now the loneliness capital of Europe, with its people less likely to know their neighbours or have strong relationships than anywhere in Europe
Are men expected to have it all together all the time? Where did this come from?
Our society doesn’t help. It promotes and elevates autonomy, independence and self-reliance, especially among men. Although these can help in our quest for ever-greater achievements, when it comes to building long-lasting, mutually dependent, healthy relationships they are potentially catastrophic – again, especially among men.
In an interview with expert on loneliness, John Cacioppo on beinghuman.com, he says: ‘Our culture emphasises going from childhood dependence to adult independence. What it means to be an adult in a social species, however, is not to be independent of others but to be a member on whom others in the group can depend. I think some of our society’s problems relate to that misconception of what it means to be an adult in a social species.'
Every two hours a man kills himself in the UK. Suicide is the single biggest cause of death for young men (18-34), although suicide rates are highest among middle-aged men (35-54) – and rates are rising.
What other issues are attached to this?
Younger men face a further complication. In recent years there has been a significant shift in the role of men in society. With changing attitudes (at least publicly) to women’s roles, many men have begun to wonder what their own role is. In the past it seemed clearer – men were the breadwinners whilst women were homemakers, with major responsibility for bringing up the children. Now that has changed, and yet the old stereotypes of the man as the strong, tight-lipped, unemotional leader and provider are very much alive. It has produced a crisis in men – what are they for? Young men in particular have to negotiate this tricky path, and as a result experience uncertainty and stress about their identity and role. In the light of all this, the statistics about male suicide begin to make sense.
What does the Bible say?
When I look at men in the Bible, one thing that strikes me is how expressive they are – no tight-lipped unemotional silent types! After all, they weren’t English!! So you have Joseph so overcome with emotion at seeing his brothers that he has to leave the room (Gen 43:30)! And David equally emotional at seeing Jonathan again (1 Sam 20:41). The list goes on: Peter, Paul – and Jesus himself (John 11:35). It helps me see men and masculinity in a different way from how we often view them.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 is a fascinating description of how Paul and his colleagues behaved towards their new converts. He explains how they acted as parents, taking extreme care over them. What is particularly interesting is that he likens himself to both a nursing mother and encouraging father. Here is the strong apostle seeing himself as a mother with her infant! But he views himself as a father too; and the ‘father’ does three things (v11). First, he ‘calls’ them (with the sense of imploring or urging); then he ‘encourages’ them (consoling and speaking encouragement); and finally ‘charges’ them (testifying to them). The sense you get is of a father urging his child to step up and out into their calling and destiny. There’s strength there, but also kindness and tenderness. That’s a great picture of masculine potency!
Paul refers to fatherhood again in 1 Corinthians 4:14-16. He tells the believers that they may have many tutors or instructors, but they don't have many fathers, who would go much further in caring for them. Paul called himself their father. So we see the same pattern as in 1 Thessalonians. The true father is like the True Father (God); looking out for others’ interests beyond his own. Clearly not every man will become a biological father, but the issue for men is deeper. A father is someone who uses his (masculine) strengths to invest in the growth and wellbeing of others who look to him for help. There’s a desperate need today for people like that!
8 ways men can overcome loneliness
- Begin to express your feelings. Many men find it difficult to express how they feel. They are better at relating facts than feelings: ‘How was your day, dear?’ ‘Fine – did OK at work; then went to the pub; now I’m home’. But he neglects to say that he felt quite lonely and depressed, had some difficult encounters with workmates and felt like drowning his sorrows later. It takes some courage to begin to share his feelings, but he will save himself and others lots of trouble later on! His partner/spouse and family aren't stupid – they notice that all is not well!
- Connect with just one key person. It’s the quality of our relationships that matters, more than the quantity. Many men rely on their wives/partners to do the emotional and relational work and so come to rely on them for feelings and sensing how the relationship is going. But this has long-term dangers, as emotional intelligence (awareness of the inner workings of oneself and of others) is vital for everyone. Additionally, placing all the emotional emphasis (pressure?) on your wife is not always healthy. For these and other reasons, it’s very helpful to have another man with whom we can share our thoughts and feelings with.
- Learn to invest in others. One of the key signs of maturity is a consistent focus on others more than us. Our culture encourages self-focus (‘What’s in it for me?’), but this is often very damaging. The healthy approach is to look towards others’ needs first, whilst not neglecting self-care. As we saw above, being a father is a good illustration. It’s hard work bringing up children, but brings huge rewards, and matures us too.
- Be both a be-er and a do-er. Men are very action focussed fixers. They like to do things, either alone or with others (just think of team sports), especially when there is some risk attached (think adventure). It’s as if men prefer being shoulder to shoulder with others, facing outwards while doing some activity; whereas for many women, there is more of a face-to-face dimension (a generalisation, I know, but there’s something in it). Take a look at ‘Men in sheds’ (http://menssheds.org.uk) and you’ll see what I mean – how many women would join such a group?
- Don't be afraid to ask for help. Far more women than men seek help from their GP or a counsellor, but many men who do so would say that it really made a difference because it broke into the vicious circle of silence and loneliness.
- Become part of something bigger than yourself. It’s easier to take the focus off yourself if you’ve got something else to put that focus on. Research shows that people who volunteer and do acts of kindness towards others become happier and more satisfied with their lives. What possibilities are open to you? They could include church activities, volunteering in the community or in hospitals or old people’s homes…and a myriad other ways.
3 ways you can help
- For friends: keep in regular contact. Busy-ness is part of today’s lifestyle. It often leaves little time for genuine face-to-face contact. Social media keeps us in touch but cannot provide the deeper human contact that we all crave. Taking a little time to text, phone and then sit down with your male friends may well turn out to be a life-saver!
- Find things to do together. Many men enjoy doing things together, rather than just sitting and talking. So thinking up appropriate activities are likely to help glue those relationships. This could be as simple as going for a walk together, or having a drink in the pub, but of course there are loads of possibilities. The key word is ‘together’.