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The High Cost of Men’s Loneliness

Saturday Night Live recently aired a brilliant sketch titled “Man Park.” In the sketch, a young man waits anxiously for his partner to return from work. He has few if any friends, and has had little social interaction all day. She listens, barely managing to feign interest in his data dump about the series of banal events of his day. As is often the case in heterosexual relationships, she reverts to the role of mommy, exhorting her partner to go outside and play with his friends. When he protests that he has no friends, she takes him by the hand as she would a little boy, and walks him to the “Man Park” to play with the other men. The men approach each other awkwardly, unsure of how to make a friend, while the women patronizingly urge them on.

The seemingly unending pandemic has raised awareness of the physical and emotional consequences of isolation. Men tend to struggle with isolation and loneliness more than women. Thomas Joiner in his ground-breaking book Lonely at the Top (2011) says that men have made a Dorian Gray-like trade of success in the external world for a deep sense of loneliness, emptiness, and disconnection. Boys start out feeling just as connected in their close friendships as girls do, but they tend to neglect their personal relationships to pursue external success. When men lose the protective social structures provided in high school and college, they often find themselves interpersonally adrift, unsure how to establish or maintain close relationships with other men or women.

In heterosexual couples, women tend to handle all the social relationships for the couple and the children. This may fall to women because they are aware that their male partners do not have substantial relationships outside of the family as they do. The women may pull their partners into socializing with other couples so that the women can have more time socializing with each other without that becoming an issue in the marriage. They may even arrange “play dates” with their friends’ partners so that their partner will be more interested in socializing as a couple.

Women can do this so seamlessly that their partners often remain blissfully unaware of all the work their partners are doing to manage the social relationships in the family. Men are often happy to have their partners take care of this because they are socialized not to value social relationships very highly, and on some level, they may also recognize that they are not very good at it themselves. It is typically only when they are divorced or widowed those men realize how few relationships they actually have that have not been arranged or managed by their partner, and how vulnerable they have been in depending entirely on their partners for all of the connection in their lives.

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