Economy

Why men are lonelier in America than elsewhere

ARE ISOLATED men driving American women up the wall? A recent sketch on “Saturday Night Live”, which refers to studies concluding that males in America are increasingly friendless, suggests that they are. A young woman, frustrated by her boyfriend’s inability to open up to anyone else, takes him by the hand and leads him to a “man park” (like the dog version) where, after a shy start, he finds fellow males to make friends with. Some viewers disliked the likening of men to dogs, but the sketch, which went viral online, illustrates fresh concerns about an old worry: the loneliness of American men.

As people in rich countries work longer hours, marry later and spend more time with their children, not friends, research suggests loneliness is increasing. A study by the University of Pennsylvania found a direct link between social-media usage and loneliness. More time spent online means less time building friendships.

The problem may be particularly severe in America. A large international study by British academics found that people in individualistic countries (a measure on which America scores highest) reported greater loneliness. America also has one of the highest divorce rates; men may be more likely to lose mutual friends after a split. A strong work ethic and geographical mobility (meaning friendships are liable to be lost or weakened as people relocate) is likely to exacerbate the problem.

A survey published in 2021 by the Survey Centre on American Life, part of the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank, found that friendship groups have shrunk in the past three decades. The decline has been particularly marked among men. In 1990, 55% of American men reported having at least six close friends; today only 27% do. The survey found that 15% of men have no close friendships at all, a fivefold increase since 1990.

Those who study male loneliness believe that a particularly American version of masculinity is in part to blame. Since 1990 Robert Garfield, a psychotherapist and author of “Breaking the Male Code”, has run “friendship labs”, men’s therapeutic groups, which have shown him that men crave emotional connection. But American boys, says Dr Garfield, who has also run such groups in Europe, are often taught that successful men exhibit particular traits—restraint, independence, competitiveness—at the expense of others.

As women’s and LGBT rights have advanced in recent decades, along with more emotional ways of connecting with others, “men are being asked to stretch themselves”, Dr Garfield says. Over time, this is likely to have a positive effect on the way men relate to each other, but at the moment, “males are in a fighting phase”.

Marc Schapiro, a 24-year-old English teacher from Maryland, agrees. He says he was taught male friendship is “stoic and lacking outward affection”. But now he sees a different portrayal of friendship on social media, particularly by women and LGBT people. He would love, he says, to be able to “show more affection and drop the constant snide comments and ribbing”, but he finds the disconnect between what he grew up believing about friendship and how he sees other people relating to each other unsettling. The “quasi-socialising” he and his friends do online, via games and various message boards, meets no real need, he adds.

All this comes at a heavy cost. Suicide is more common among young men than young women. Niobe Way, a psychologist at New York University who studies adolescent male friendship and is the author of “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection”, says it is no coincidence this divergence begins to happen around the age that many boys move away from close friendships. In childhood, she says, boys tend to be as open as girls about their need for friends. As they get older, they “feel they have to get into a gender straitjacket” and define their masculinity primarily as not being feminine. By the age of 15, many boys start saying they don’t need friends and worrying that close friendships will make them seem “girly”. This “clash of culture and nature”, Dr Way says, is much more marked among white boys than black ones.

The effects are far-reaching. Research has linked loneliness to poor health. It can make men angry and violent. Male loneliness also affects women. Dr Garfield observes that two-thirds of divorces are initiated by women, many of whom complain their husbands are emotionally incompetent. “There’s nothing new about that, but women are increasingly unlikely to put up with it,” he says.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Oh man!”


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