Men and loneliness

Something few women realise is the sense of loneliness that many men carry with them. The sad part is that even men themselves are not fully aware of their isolation, at least until they are affected by a crisis and realise there is no-one they can really talk to about it.

This is because they may have no friends they feel comfortable in opening up to about personal matters – after all, men are brought up to compete with other men. Even with their wife or girlfriend they may have avoided disclosing fears and anxieties, preferring to present an image of ‘everything’s fine – I can handle it.’

In western Europe and North America we live in a society that encourages girls to express their feelings and, as they grow up, they seek emotional support from other women. Men get the message that ‘boys don’t cry’, that they need to be independent and self-reliant.

At the risk of gender stereotyping, there may also be an inherent aloneness or feeling of separation in the male condition. This aloneness is an archetypal masculine quality, by which I mean an ancient pattern within the human psyche that has traditionally been more associated with men than women.

In earlier cultures boys and men experienced rites of passage, initiations and sustained contact with older men in the community. This helped them feel connected. We have lost most of these traditions.

While there are clearly many benefits for men in developing self-reliance and independence, there is also a price to pay. An obvious cost is that, not having the same support network that many women enjoy, men find it harder to adapt emotionally to crises such as bereavement or divorce. They are also three times more likely to kill themselves than women.

As a therapist, many of the men I see both as individuals and in couples seem very alone in their struggles. They may be carrying some very challenging emotions, such as sadness and grief, but find it hard to acknowledge these feelings or to know what to ‘do’ with them once they have recognized them.

Author James Hollis in Under Saturn’s Shadow writes about the shame that many men have been made to feel when opening up emotionally: ‘Every man will recall times when, as a boy, as a youth, or even last week, he dared to reveal himself and was shamed and isolated. He learns to stuff that shame, to mask it in male bravado.’

The first step that men need to take is to acknowledge their loneliness and isolation and to experience the pain of their deeper wounds. This may be faciliatated with a therapist or it may be with their partner or a mentor.

There is something powerful and potentially healing in acknowledging one’s feelings, whatever they are, and in this way a man can begin to come into relationship with his deeper self. By becoming less alienated from himself a man becomes less lonely, although he may still feel a sense of aloneness at an existential level.

From this exploration other questions will flow: how am I living my life? Is my work genuinely fulfilling? Am I being open and authentic with myself and others? It is in struggling with these themes that a man can feel more connected and more in tune with his deeper desires.