The Scourge of Loneliness

“No Man Is an Island”   Thomas Merton

Sitting across from me, I could see the rejection on his face.  The years had brought multiple divorces and increasing estrangement from his daughter, who seemed in the process of rejecting him again.  On the surface, this rejection was often masked by harsh texts and controlling, heated confrontations.  But deep down, it was clear that those whom he desired most had left him, and that he felt very alone.

Research indicates that as men grow older, they are at heightened risk for loneliness and isolation.  There are many potential reasons for the isolation that men feel, whether it be personality factors, traumatic circumstances, poor choices, and/or health factors.  But regardless of the causes, isolation is not simply a phenomenon of proximity; many men feel alone with people all around.

As illuminated in a recent Boston Globe article, increasing research indicates that loneliness causes risk for more than just feeling disconnected.  Higher mortality rates associated with increased likelihood of cardiovascular disease and stroke are seen in those who are isolated.  It appears that Alzheimer’s progresses more rapidly in people who lack good social support.  One study actually found that being lonely carried similar health risks as smoking.

Not surprisingly, psychological outcomes are particularly pernicious for those who are alone.  Lonely men report increased rates of depression.  Not only do these risks appear to increase the longer they are alone, but so does the likelihood of suicide.  It has been well-documented that men complete suicide at a much higher rate than women, around 3.5 times more.  But evidence suggests that this discrepancy only increases as men get older.  While suicide rates show a decline in women over 60, elderly white men are approximately 2.5 times more likely than the general public to commit suicide; those over 85 are at an almost 4 fold risk. Loneliness likely has much to do with this.

Despite this ominous news, I believe there are a few major ways in which men can minimize the risk of isolation in their lives no matter what circumstances or temperaments may exist.  They include the following:

It is time we as men abandon the guy code to “just deal with it” and be honest with what we are feeling.  Before many of you men reading this click off because this sounds too psychological, consider that I am not suggesting we all go around pouring our heart out to everyone about the challenges we face.  But what I am suggesting is that we stop acting like “it’s no big deal” or “I’m fine” when we know d–n well that this isn’t true.  Over the years, I have been struck by the number of times (self-included) that I have heard guys act as if they are handling a situation fine only to discover that their lives and psychological state are anything but “okay.”  Unfortunately, many men have been socialized since youth to lie, yes lie, about what is going on internally in order to either keep the peace or avoid conflict.  But in the process, it not only leads men to seek out unhealthy ways to cope (e.g., alcoholism, pornography), but it also further disconnects them from the very people that could be of great help.  Increased loneliness and isolation only ensues, and the problems get worse.  If we as men are to be courageous, we need to be honest about how we are feeling no matter how difficult a situation is, and recognize that social support will always be one of the best interventions available.

Men need to prioritize friendships as we prioritize our families and work.  As a father of soon to be 7 children and a pediatric psychologist, I know how difficult it is to find time see those outside my immediate vicinity.  As with my cohort, so much is going on that it is easy to just push this to the back burner, and either just leave interactions for a later time or make plans that all know are unlikely to be kept.  But what happens when we do this is that the conversations we do have increasingly become superficial and fleeting, and lack the time and substance to provide support when it is most needed.  It all speaks to why all of us as spouses and significant others need to support each other in keeping regular contact with our friends.  It is also why when tempted to just “veg out” in front of the television, we need to remind ourselves that a phone call to a friend or family member might not be the easiest choice, but it might be the most needed one.

Men need to support each other in not just developing outlets, but inlets.  Most of you know what I mean with “outlets.”  Outlets are opportunities or activities that allow us to “blow off steam” and put our energy into activities that take our mind of stressful situations.  But when I speak of inlets, I am speaking of activities and habits that provide for us long after the action is done.  Outlets become inlets when they not only channel our energy into a positive form, but also lead to improvements in ourselves as spouses, fathers, workers, and people.  There is nothing wrong with men getting together to have a drink and watch football.  Yet if we really want to forge friendships that last a lifetime, we will do it around things that matter.

Loneliness begins within, and so the solution must start there, too.  For all of those who have felt lonely, it is easy to say that they have been wronged.  Sometimes it is true, and estrangement is an unfortunate circumstance that developed in unfair ways.  Yet so often, loneliness is the product of our unwillingness to consider what we might do different in order to attract other people to us.  I am not implying that a person should be fake or inauthentic.  But so often it appears that people who come to an isolated place get there because they refused to change aspects of themselves that only encourage alienation.  It hard to admit that we are a bear to be around, or that I have grown into grouchy old man set in his ways.  But as with so many unfortunate outcomes, pride rears its ugly head with loneliness too, and so self-improvement may be the ultimate defense against isolation.

Ultimately, regardless of any associated negative correlates, feeling alone itself may be the worst outcome of all.  Rejection is often more painful than death, especially from those of whom we desire.  But even for the most isolated of people, opportunities for connection do exist.  But we as men must start by opening the door to new possibilities even when pride and fear remains.

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