I never realized how lonely life could be until I got divorced. My wife got custody of the kids and I didn’t realize how much I would miss seeing them every day until I became the “non-custodial parent.” She also got custody of the house and I moved into my cousin’s garage, which was all I could afford. I soon realized that most of our friends were actually her friends. The friends I had before we got married had mostly drifted away and I hadn’t made new ones. My wife had become the social secretary and I counted on her to plan the parties and keep us connected with our family, friends, and neighbors.
She and I had married young. I was 22 and she was 19. We had a little boy three years after we married and then adopted a little girl three years later. My life revolved around my career. I got good at it and felt proud that I could support our growing family. My wife and I were happy in those early years and it felt like we were a team. She managed the home and I brought in the income to buy the things we needed. I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought we had it all. I didn’t think I needed to work to make and keep friends. I thought I just had to work to keep my wife and kids happy. It took me a long time to realize how wrong I was.
Psychologist Herb Goldberg captured the reality of men’s health and their men experience in his book, The Hazards of Being Male: Surviving the Myth of Masculine Privilege. “The male has paid a heavy price for his masculine ‘privilege’ and power. He is out of touch with his emotions and his body. He is playing by the rules of the male game plan, and with lemming-like purpose he is destroying himself—emotionally, psychologically, and physically.”
Will Courtney, Ph.D. is one of the world’s experts on men’s health. In his 2011 book, Dying to Be Men, he details the current research findings that show that men die sooner and live sicker. “Men in the United States have greater socioeconomic advantages than women,” he says. “These advantages, which include higher social status and higher-paid jobs, provide men with better access to health-related resources.” That’s the upside of being male.
But there is also a down side. “Despite these advantages, men—on average—are at greater risk of serious chronic disease, injury, and death than women.” For nearly all 15 leading causes of death including heart disease, cancer, stroke, accidents, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, suicide, and homicide; men and boys have higher age-adjusted death rates than women and girls. The only exception is Alzheimer’s disease where women die at higher rates than men.
Over the years I’ve learned the benefits of such things as good nutrition and exercise to helping us live more healthy lives. I’ve only recently learned about the benefits of social connection. In their book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection researchers John Cacioppo and William Patrick say that “social isolation is on a par with high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise, or smoking as a risk factor for illness and early death.” Now that surprised me. I never would have thought that lack of social connections could actually cause serious medical problems.
Studies also demonstrate that men, as a group, have fewer social connections than women. In workshops over the years I have asked the women in the audience, “how many of you have a number of close friends that you talk to about important things in your life and who you turn to when you are hurting physically or emotionally?” Most all the women raise their hands. When I ask the same question of men, very few raise their hands. Most women have many close friends and confidants among their relatives and friends. For most men, their only real friend may be their spouse and if there’s trouble in the relationship, they are totally alone.
I learned that, like me, men often have fewer and fewer close friends as we get older. This may contribute to the fact that the suicide rate for men goes up dramatically as we age. Thomas Joiner, Ph.D. author of Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success says, “Men’s main problem is not self-loathing, stupidity, greed, or any of the legions of other things they’re accused of. The problem, instead is loneliness.”
Joiner notes that with age, men gradually lose contact with friends and family. “And here’s the important part,” he tells us, “they don’t replenish them.” Instead of maintaining our friendships and developing new ones when old friends slip away, we look for Band-Aid solutions to cover our loneliness. Some of us become more workaholic, others escape into alcohol or drugs. Some have extra-marital affairs. These pseudo-solutions only serve to increase our loneliness.
Most of us realize that it’s never too late to change our diet or improve our exercise. Likewise, it’s never too late for us to admit we’re lonely, reach out to others, improve our relationships, and make new friends. It may be the best health advice we’ll ever receive. The alternative isn’t pleasant. A postmortem report on a suicide decedent, a man in his sixties, read, “He did not have friends…He did not feel comfortable with other men…he did not trust doctors and would not seek help even though he was aware that he needed help.”