The headline of a recent article on the CDC website says it all: Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions. When we do not have sufficient social connections in our lives, we put ourselves at risk of a whole host of scary outcomes. The litany of elevated risks fostered by loneliness includes a list of horrors we all wish to avoid:
- Heart disease
- Premature death
Despite these risks, men continue to socially isolate themselves. A staggering 15% of men reported in a wide-ranging 2021 survey that they do not have a single close friend. Worse yet is that nearly half of all men, 49%, report having between zero and three close friends. That latter grouping is relevant because half of all people with three or fewer friends report being lonely at least once a week.
Importantly, the so-called “male friendship recession” seems to be getting deeper. When the same survey was administered in 1990, only 3% of men reported having no close friends, with 23% reporting three or fewer. (Source: American Survey Center)
Men are literally putting themselves in a lonely and dangerous corner.
Why Do Men Stubbornly Cling to Independence?
So if it’s clear that isolation is dangerous for our well-being, why is it that men are increasingly shunning the close relationships that will provide them with healthier and happier lives?
It’s easy to look at the past few years and blame this phenomenon on the pandemic. Life has become more challenging in many ways, including long periods of time in which social isolation was a necessity. But that’s not the full picture.
While doing research for my book on male burnout–another condition that intertwines with isolation–I came across a more powerful undercurrent that leads men to keep to themselves: shame.
Western culture has long held men to a set of unspoken rules that dictate whether or not they measure up to the male standard. We are supposed to be tough, successful, and in control. We are not supposed to show our emotions, least of all to another man. And we shouldn’t ask for help. Instead, we should suffer in silence when we experience any kind of discomfort including, ironically, loneliness.
I’ve asked dozens of men if they understand these rules. To a man, they respond with a knowing nod. Not only do they see these as the rules that define how they are supposed to act, but they also consistently acknowledge that breaking them will result in shaming behavior from other men.
Herein lies the paradox. We objectively know that isolation causes us harm and can even kill us. Still, men would rather stubbornly cling to a set of social norms that isolate them from others, lest they face the shame of “not being man enough.”
The Immense Rewards of Expansive Intimacy
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde famously wrote, “the way of paradoxes is the way of truth.” When we are able to hold two opposing concepts in mind without rejecting the truth of either one, we can open ourselves to new perspectives that hold unforeseen power.
Such is the case here. Men are under tremendous pressure to be powerful and tough–to be able to handle their own business. At the same time, they have a deep human need to connect with others on an intimate level.
Confronting the shame they might face when taking the vulnerable risk to create a deep personal connection is one of the toughest things a man can do.
So if “handling our own business” as men means providing a great life for ourselves and those we care about, then the truth is obvious. We need intimate relationships.
Even more specifically, we need something that I call “expansive intimacy.” While many of us think of intimacy as something we only experience with a romantic partner, the possibilities are far broader. Whenever we share a meaningful connection with someone, we have access to intimacy. That can show up with friends, children, family members, and even colleagues.
Consider the happiest moments of your life, when stress was absent and you were your most vital. Perhaps they include your child’s first steps, winning a major competition with teammates, achieving a major goal with your coworkers, or completing an adventure with good friends. These moments may have touched us on a physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, or experiential level–perhaps even many of these types of intimacy. In each case, we experience the immense rewards of expansive intimacy.
This is the choice with which we are faced. Do we stubbornly isolate ourselves, knowing the dangerous risks we are taking on? Or do we take the risk instead to seek out the immense rewards of expansively intimate life?
Jim Young is an executive coach who works with leaders to root out the burnout in their lives and their businesses. His personal mission is to help men–and organizations–defeat burnout. Whether coaching a corporate leader, guiding a team through deep discovery, or giving a talk to a large audience, Jim activates audiences and creates powerful learning environments via a potent blend of grounded expert research, his experience as a corporate executive, and his background as an improv comedian. He is the author of EXPANSIVE INTIMACY: How “Tough Guys” Defeat Burnout. You can learn more about Jim at www.thecenteredcoach.com.
By Jim Young