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Stop Blaming Women For Adult Men's Loneliness
Is the male mental health crisis an inside job?
I’m going to keep this short. OK… not short, but as short as I can.
Many very smart people — professors and high-level thinkers of all political persuasions — are talking about how lonely men are. A few are even pointing out how dangerous lonely men can be.
They’re not wrong, and the crisis of male mental health is an incredibly important subject — especially if you’re raising boys.
Even if you aren’t, I think we can agree that men deserve an emotionally satisfying life. Everyone does. Society has done a lot of damage to men and boys by confining their emotional experiences through shame and violence. Addiction rates and rates of death by suicide and accidental overdose are shockingly high among boys and men, and it’s genuinely disturbing.
But what I keep hearing via social media is how hard it is for some men to meet women on dating apps, and the role this plays in the male mental health crisis. The framing of these clips implies that not having access to the women that they want to date is traumatizing men and a major contributor to male loneliness.
Scott Galloway cites a stat wherein men have to swipe 1000 times on dating apps in order to end up with one in-person coffee date.
I’m not saying his data is wrong (though I haven’t seen it with my eyes). I’m saying that the recent emphasis put on women’s rejection (or the appearance of rejection) as one of the root problems of this crisis is dangerous. Because it’s a lie.
The myth that breeds frustration & anger against women
The male loneliness problem exists because men have taught boys and other men to push intimate and meaningful friendships away. This has been happening for generations.
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(Note on the video above: I think Galloway contextualizes the dating aspects well, but the viral bits from his interviews are often edited to emphasize parts that feel very blame-y toward women when removed from their context. Galloway is doing great work to draw attention to the crisis of male mental health, and in no way am I blaming him for this situation.)
Homophobia and bizarre-o mainstream standards of masculinity are what have prevented straight men from having an intimate circle of friends — men or women — who support them. That means they don’t have guys who boost them up, who show up for them when times are hard, who come over just to hang out on a lonely Friday after a breakup or when they’ve lost a job, and that is painful.
There are exceptions to this, of course. Men in recovery programs often form deep, powerful bonds with one another. My friend Tom, sober for decades, says that in many ways, he’s lucky he was an addict because it gave him the opportunity to form friendships with men who truly show up for him. These programs gave him a framework and many opportunities to show up for other men, as well.
But most men haven’t been encouraged to do this, and they pass the tradition of masculine isolation on to their sons.
Enforced male isolation actively harms women, too
For generations, American men have been told that their wives and girlfriends should be their sole source of emotional support and intimacy. Maybe not overtly, with actual words, but they get the message. Talking to a buddy about their deepest fears, their core wounds, their traumas and disappointments is simply not manly. For many generations, it was inconceivable.
And do you know what that means, on a practical level?
That means we, as women, are not just straight men’s life partners and the mothers of their children. We are their only real emotionally-present friends, their therapists, their 911 emergency services operators during crises, their career counselors, their workplace relationship advisors, and even their drug and alcohol counselors (until they get into recovery) if they’re misusing substances.
We are all of that on top of also being their personal shoppers, their housekeepers, their personal assistants, their laundresses, their sexy fantasy women and night nurses for their children whom we likely gave birth to, among so many other things.
Obviously not all men or relationships are like this. Many men also give richly to their wives and girlfriends and offer the same level of service in return: friendship, laundry, personal chef-ery, warm shoulders to cry into when times get tough and even the occasional foot massage. Those of us with good husbands and boyfriends are grateful.
But the difference in how men’s emotional needs are met is still vast, compared with ours.
Women probably have at least one non-romantic friend we can call when we need to have a deep, emotional talk or when we need intimate types of advice.
But society has (literally and figuratively) beaten the vulnerability required for those types of friendships out of American men. Their ability to be emotionally open gets covered up by scar tissue after years of being teased or even physically harmed when they showed “weakness”. It’s no wonder they’re suffering.
So when I see meme after meme, interview after interview with intelligent men (and some women) who are experts in these subjects saying “Men are lonely, and the high standards of successful women are the problem!” I feel enraged.
This is not a ‘women problem’
It may be a tech problem, it may be a modern society problem, it may be a masculinity problem, it may be a parenting problem, it may be an economic problem, it may even be a problem with modern education — and I think it is probably all of that.
But it is not a women problem.
Sure, if a woman is telling a man not to have intimate friendships or mocking him when he is vulnerable, that’s her fault. If a woman is being homophobic, then that’s on her. And, yes, women bought into patriarchal masculinity for generations, too. They didn’t have much of a choice.
But we’ve been growing, changing, and expecting more from ourselves and our female friends for a long time. Nearly every women I know would LOVE for men to have deeper friendships with guys and active relationships with therapists. They’d love for their husbands to come home from a weekend retreat with his buddies feeling emotionally refreshed and healthy.
So stop — please stop — centering conversations about male loneliness and the crisis of masculinity around the perception of mass rejection by women. It’s not accurate and it’s not fair.
We urgently need to support the effort to end the male mental health crisis. If you are the mom of a son, like I am, you have a duty to help him build a healthier emotional life than the one his father or grandfather may have had; one with rich and deep friendships, one where he can feel safe seeking help when needed. One where addictive substances or other maladaptive habits aren’t the only tools he has for dealing with trauma or emotional pain.
But we are never under the obligation to date more guys or go against our own intuition when it comes to giving men access to our time, bodies, resources or emotional selves. Even if we did, it wouldn’t help.
Because male loneliness is an inside job: inside masculinity, inside men in general, and inside the individual man or boy who is struggling.
Joanna Schroeder is a writer, editor and media critic. She is co-author of the forthcoming book, Talk To Your Boys: 27 Crucial Conversations To Have With Your Teenage Sons and co-host of the iHeartRadio podcast Open Relationships: Transforming Together. For more, visit her LinkTree.