One of the most common factors I encounter in the counseling work I do with men is an unnamed struggle with loneliness. While it is normal to have moments, seasons, or events that feel lonely, there's a point at which loneliness becomes something more--a broad characterization of how we are experiencing our lives.
Men and Loneliness
Men are deeply impacted by loneliness. We are more likely than women to report few or no meaningful, lifelong relationships--one of the biggest contributors to life fulfillment. Loneliness is a very common factor in depression and suicide, and 80% of all suicides are men.
There are some possibly innate reasons as well as cultural reasons this may be. And understanding and addressing pervasive loneliness is key to restoring our enjoyment of life and becoming who we really want to be. Let's look at some of the reasons I believe men can be set up for loneliness.
We focus most if not all our relational needs on our partner. When I even say the word 'relationship' most men automatically think a romantic/sexual partnership. Women, for the most part, have an easier time recognizing and accepting their need to feel connected in all kinds of relationships.
This is also perilous when a partner is not easily obtained. Many men conflate singleness with failure or even worthlessness, and this is a recipe for great suffering (even when we're partnered).
How we define manliness limits us. We are told things like "men only want one thing". We look at masculine images in media and find ourselves left to choose between dopey, weak sitcom dads and testosterone-overdosed action heroes.
There's no clear initiation into manhood, either. As we traverse the awkward, vague distance between adolescence and adulthood we have few guideposts except that we are given permission to drive, then to have sex, then to buy alcohol and weed. Isn't it interesting that these are all things we tend to fixate on? Meanwhile the very real relational parts of us stay neglected.
We view other men as competitors, not brothers. This is a big driver of why men's relationships with each other lack honesty and vulnerability. It's not that we choose this, necessarily; we simply learn from experience that exposed feelings, hurts, and perceived weakness can be seized upon by other men with ill intentions. We learn to come prepared to strut our stuff and cut each other down.
This can also be more covert, when our friendships are strictly about business, hobbies, or partying. We get little snippets of connection but we stay safely distanced, our relationships less 'risky' but lacking substance.
We tend to focus on accumulating wealth and achievement. Pursuing our potential and seeing how far we can go is certainly a good thing. But the man who doesn't recognize the value relationships will over-value the material, pouring all his energy into success and stuff and none into lasting connection. It's worth noting that more possessions doesn't correlate with more happiness.
What to do About It
Loneliness is a natural part of life, but it doesn't have to define life. If you are struggling there are some steps you can take to begin changing how you experience life.
Start practicing opening up. Have you told someone how you're feeling? Have you even checked in with yourself? A good (if kind of awkward) place to start is just saying it to yourself. A couple times a day just notice how you're feeling, and then say it. Say why, if you think you know.
"I'm happy because that meeting went well." - "I'm grouchy because I slept badly."
ur feelings just by choosing to acknowledge them, and this is a powerful of of our feelings just by choosing to acknowledge them, and this is a powerful tool., l
It feels funny at first, but it's actually good practice and a great way to start building a healthier relational self. And we're also moving toward acceptance of our feelings just by choosing to acknowledge them, and this is a powerful tool.
For singles, stop withholding things from yourself until you find a partner. The perfect mate is someone many of us dream about finding one day. This dream can become so core to us that we feel "less than" until it is fulfilled. We might deprive ourselves of simple pleasures or even self-respect.
Is there a risk you always wanted to take? A new path you wanted to try? But maybe you felt weird or unworthy if it was just you.
Ask what you are putting off until you find 'the one' and then rethink whether you really have to.
Recognize what's replacing connection in your life. Substances, hobbies, habits--there's no limit to the array of things we may try to use to quiet the part of us longing for relationship. They may not be bad things--maybe not even something you need to give up. But it does help to recognize when we are making a stand-in for relationship and acknowledging to ourselves that it will never ever fit that bill.
Realize counseling is an option. Men are much less likely than women to consider therapy when facing life challenges. We're less likely to pursue it as a career, too (in my Master's cohort of 60+ students, I was one of four men!).
The therapist's training and extra perspective can help you uncover what's driving the loneliness you experience, what you're replacing connection with and why, and help you make your path to a more fulfilling relational landscape.
Don't deprive yourself of a resource that can have a huge impact on your life. The counseling office can provide you with tools for exploration and growth, as well as be a safe place to practice vulnerability.
Mike Ensley, LPC is a nationally board-certified professional counselor in Northern Colorado.
Photo by Lukas Rychvalsky