Lonely Boys

The epi­demic of iso­la­tion among young men

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Rachel Giese

The epi­demic of iso­la­tion among young men

In 2017, for­mer US Sur­geon Gen­eral Vivek Murthy iden­ti­fied the most com­mon threat to pub­lic health that he had seen: not heart dis­ease, di­a­betes, or can­cer — but lone­li­ness. Iso­la­tion and weak so­cial con­nec­tions, he wrote in Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view, “are as­so­ci­ated with a re­duc­tion in life­span sim­i­lar to that caused by smok­ing fif­teen cig­a­rettes a day and even greater than that as­so­ci­ated with obe­sity. Lone­li­ness is also as­so­ci­ated with a greater risk of car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, de­men­tia, de­pres­sion, and anx­i­ety.” Murthy was sup­ported by a large body of re­search, culled from more than 200 stud­ies in­volv­ing more than 3 mil­lion sub­jects world­wide, that showed that we are in the midst of a lone­li­ness epi­demic. The cul­prits are man­i­fold and in­clude the flu­id­ity of mod­ern life (we move and change jobs more), the weak­en­ing of com­mu­nity in­sti­tu­tions such as ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions and faith groups, the gig econ­omy, and our in­creas­ing re­liance on so­cial me­dia.

Men, in par­tic­u­lar, are af­fected by the lone­li­ness epi­demic and by at­ten­dant feel­ings of de­pres­sion and de­spair. In their 2009 book, The Lonely Amer­i­can: Drift­ing Apart in the Twenty-first Cen­tury, Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, a mar­ried cou­ple who are both psy­chi­a­trists and pro­fes­sors at Har­vard Med­i­cal School, ob­served that it was com­mon for men to form closer bonds with their spouses at the ex­pense of other so­cial con­nec­tions. And, over their life­spans, men tended to lose the con­nec­tions they did have with male friends, de­priv­ing them of the in­oc­u­lat­ing ef­fect of so­cial ties — which have been shown to in­crease hap­pi­ness, help peo­ple cope with trauma, and ex­tend longevity. Olds and Schwartz noted that men don’t work as hard as women at main­tain­ing friend­ships — and more im­por­tantly, they don’t work as hard at mak­ing new friends; women are gen­er­ally more likely to re­place their fad­ing friend­ships with new ones.

One fac­tor at play is that men are of­ten re­luc­tant to show vul­ner­a­bil­ity or ask for sup­port, so they are less likely to reach out to other men when they’re strug­gling or to make an over­ture to a new ac­quain­tance to deepen the friend­ship. Be­gin­ning in child­hood, women are en­cour­aged to be good lis­ten­ers, so­cial, com­mu­nica­tive, and em­pa­thetic — all at­tributes re­quired to make and main­tain emo­tion­ally ro­bust friend­ships. These same qual­i­ties aren’t em­pha­sized to the same de­gree among boys and young men, de­spite the im­por­tance of so­cial ties to chil­dren of all gen­ders.

As early as preschool, friend­ships are cru­cial to chil­dren’s de­vel­op­ment and well-be­ing. They cre­ate a sense of be­long­ing and safety and help di­min­ish stress. There’s also re­search show­ing that friend­ships play a role in chil­dren’s men­tal health. A 2010 lon­gi­tu­di­nal study fol­lowed about 230 el­e­men­tary school stu­dents over two years and found that hav­ing just one friend helped pre­vent anx­ious, with­drawn chil­dren from de­vel­op­ing full-blown de­pres­sion. While chil­dren who are shy and have a sad af­fect tend to be­come even more with­drawn and sad as they en­ter ado­les­cence, the stu­dents who had one friend­ship at any time dur­ing the study suf­fered less and even re­ported that their sad­ness de­clined. Re­searchers be­lieve that friend­ship con­ferred psy­cho­log­i­cal re­silience.

Boys and young men gen­uinely want in­ti­mate con­nec­tions with their peers, yet there is stigma at­tached to male vul­ner­a­bil­ity, start­ing very early, con­veyed in im­plicit and ex­plicit mes­sages that equate ten­der­ness and af­fec­tion with weak­ness and fem­i­nin­ity. And the sort of easy phys­i­cal af­fec­tion shared by girls and young women is of­ten met with ho­mo­pho­bia when the same sort of hug­ging and hand hold­ing is dis­played be­tween boys and young men. In 2015, the na­tional dis­tress-sup­port ser­vice Kids Help Phone launched a ser­vice called Brotalk, of­fer­ing di­rect ac­cess to on­line and phone coun­sel­lors to teenage boys. This de­mo­graphic is sta­tis­ti­cally much less likely than girls to talk about and seek help for men­tal and emo­tional health is­sues due to em­bar­rass­ment and to gen­der stereo­types about self-suf­fi­ciency and self-re­liance. In or­der to reach those boys, the helpline needed to tar­get them di­rectly.

Gen­der ex­pec­ta­tions and rules have a cost. Call it a mas­culin­ity tax. Pla­tonic male in­ti­macy and vul­ner­a­bil­ity re­quire a re­jec­tion of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and a hos­til­ity to­ward any­thing that seems gay or fem­i­nine. This an­i­mos­ity to­ward queer­ness can be dev­as­tat­ing for boys and young men who are gay, bi­sex­ual, gen­der non­con­form­ing, and trans, re­sult­ing in bul­ly­ing, vi­o­lence, and iso­la­tion. Ho­mo­pho­bia also car­ries a threat for straight and cis­gen­der boys and young men, who fear be­ing per­ceived as gay. Con­sider the seem­ingly be­nign term bro­mance. The cutesy port­man­teau car­ries with it a cer­tain dis­com­fort around male emo­tional vul­ner­a­bil­ity and con­nec­tion. Bro­mance cel­e­brates same-sex fond­ness but does it with a smirk — as if two men car­ing for an­other needs to be ex­plained or jus­ti­fied.

Given the im­por­tance of friend­ship for health and, more sim­ply, hap­pi­ness and plea­sure, this un­ease with deep, lov­ing male friend­ships has se­ri­ous con­se­quences. If we want to im­prove the out­comes for adults, we need to in­ter­vene where this dis­con­nect be­gins — with boys. O ur squeamish­ness about male friend­ship is a his­tor­i­cal anom­aly: con­nec­tions be­tween men have been ide­al­ized through­out Western his­tory and un­der­stood as foun­da­tional to so­ci­ety, cul­ture, and art. The ven­er­a­tion of men’s friend­ships can be charted as far back as

ancient Greece. Aris­to­tle called the friend “a sec­ond self,” and the bib­li­cal David said his friend Jonathan’s love for him “was won­der­ful, pass­ing the love of women.” From Re­nais­sance Europe, there’s French philoso­pher Michel de Mon­taigne’s es­say “On Friend­ship,” in which he de­scribes his con­nec­tion with a de­ceased friend as one with “souls min­gling and blend­ing with each other so com­pletely that they ef­face the seam that joined them.”

And on it went through the eigh­teenth and nine­teenth cen­turies, at a time when women and men rarely so­cial­ized to­gether out­side su­per­vised gath­er­ings or fam­ily groups. This led peo­ple to turn to same-sex com­pan­ions for emo­tional sus­te­nance. All-male so­ci­eties, such as pro­fes­sional guilds and work­places, re­li­gious or­ders, univer­si­ties and col­leges, ser­vice clubs, sports teams, and the mil­i­tary, fos­tered ador­ing friend­ships, par­tic­u­larly among younger and un­mar­ried men. Overt dis­plays of af­fec­tion and con­fes­sions of love be­tween male friends were, un­til re­cently, com­mon and un­re­mark­able.

Then the cul­ture shifted. In the late nine­teenth and early twen­ti­eth cen­turies, women be­gan mov­ing be­yond their do­mes­tic du­ties; places of em­ploy­ment, schools, and po­lit­i­cal move­ments were no longer all-male en­vi­ron­ments. The sexes were in­creas­ingly in­te­grated in pub­lic life. As the so­cial spheres of women and men be­gan to over­lap, love-based mar­riage and the nu­clear fam­ily dis­placed male friend­ships and male so­ci­eties at the cen­tre of cul­ture and so­ci­ety.

At the same time, ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity be­came more vis­i­ble as an iden­tity. Same­sex de­sire and sex have ex­isted through­out his­tory and across all cul­tures, but un­til rel­a­tively re­cently, sex­u­al­ity was un­der­stood to be some­thing that shaped what you did, not some­thing that de­fined who you were. In the West, it wasn’t un­til the mid-1800s that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was de­scribed as aper­ver­sion and a threat to Vic­to­rian val­ues. This fear about same-sex de­sire soon made pla­tonic male friend­ships seem sus­pi­cious as well.

Taken to­gether, these shifts helped forge a new def­i­ni­tion of man­hood that still ex­ists today: the male as the op­po­site of the fe­male, as the provider and head of the house­hold, and as het­ero­sex­ual. Un­der these new rules of mas­culin­ity, in­ti­mate same-sex con­nec­tions be­came an­ti­thet­i­cal to be­ing “a real man.”

Judg­ing from me­dia ac­counts, you’d imag­ine that all boys are hap­less oafs, out of touch with their emo­tions. Stan­ford Univer­sity psy­chol­o­gist Judy Chu found some­thing very dif­fer­ent dur­ing her two years spent ob­serv­ing the emo­tional and so­cial de­vel­op­ment of a co­hort of six boys.

In her early vis­its to their school, when the chil­dren were four, she no­ticed that the boys were re­ally in­ter­ested in play­ing guns. There were no toy guns at the school, but the boys built them out of blocks or used their fin­gers. This ac­tiv­ity both­ered the teach­ers, who banned the game, fear­ing it re­flected vi­o­lent im­pulses and ag­gres­sion. Ini­tially, Chu thought the same, but then she no­ticed that play­ing guns had a dif­fer­ent mean­ing for the boys than it did for the adults. First of all, the boys weren’t an­gry or hos­tile. They were de­lighted to chase and be chased, to play stickup, and to pre­tend to shoot or be shot.

On closer ob­ser­va­tion, Chu un­der­stood that play­ing guns was pri­mar­ily a “quick, ef­fec­tive and dis­tinctly ‘mas­cu­line’ way for the boys to en­gage and bond with each other.” By the age of four, they’d al­ready ab­sorbed so­cial mes­sages that a gun is a “boy thing,” just like dress-up is a “girl thing.” Boys weren’t drawn to the game be­cause of some in­her­ent blood lust — rather, it gave them an op­por­tu­nity to play with other boys. As they got older, their in­ter­est in guns waned and was re­placed by Poké­mon cards and sports. Though the toys and ac­tiv­i­ties changed, the de­sire to bond and iden­tify with other boys re­mained.

The six boys Chu ob­served had in­di­vid­ual tem­per­a­ments and pref­er­ences, and while they shared a num­ber of com­mon in­ter­ests, they made de­lib­er­ate choices about when to act mas­cu­line (by be­ing tough or bossy, by mak­ing fun of girlie things, and so on) de­pend­ing on their wishes and needs at any given mo­ment. Boys who liked sta­tus and power, such as Mike and Min­haeng, were most likely to ad­here to boy norms, in­clud­ing com­pet­i­tive­ness, while oth­ers, such as Dan, a happy-golucky kid who played with girls as eas­ily as he did with the boys, and Tony, a with­drawn kid deal­ing with the up­heaval of his mom’s re­cent re­mar­riage, seemed less in­ter­ested in or less ca­pa­ble of fit­ting in with the boys’ clique. All of them tended to mod­er­ate their be­hav­iour when adults were present, in­tu­it­ing that they were seen as more trou­ble­some and mis­chievous than girls. This goes back to ear­li­est child­hood: stud­ies show that adults per­ceive boy ba­bies as be­ing more an­gry than girl ba­bies and girl ba­bies as be­ing more so­cial than boy ones.

Chu wrote up her find­ings in a 2014 book ti­tled When Boys Be­come Boys: De­vel­op­ment, Re­la­tion­ships, and Mas­culin­ity — the ti­tle cap­tures her cen­tral con­clu­sion that the char­ac­ter­is­tics and qual­i­ties typ­i­cally as­so­ci­ated with boys are not univer­sal or in­nate but rather are de­lib­er­ate and cal­cu­lated re­sponses to so­cial con­di­tion­ing and cul­tural ex­pec­ta­tions. “The boys’ adap­tions to norms of mas­cu­line be­hav­iour was nei­ther au­to­matic nor in­evitable,” she writes. Boys chose how much like “boys” they would be, some be­cause that’s what suited their tastes and in­cli­na­tions best, some be­cause of a wish to be­long to the group or con­form to adult as­sump­tions. F or nearly thirty years, first as a vol­un­teer high-school coun­sel­lor and now as a pro­fes­sor of de­vel­op­men­tal psy­chol­ogy at New York Univer­sity, Niobe Way has stud­ied the emo­tional lives and friend­ships of boys. She es­ti­mates that she’s in­ter­viewed and talked with over a thou­sand pubescent and teenage boys, and they’ve told her, in lan­guage both ve­he­ment and ten­der, how im­por­tant their friends are to them. Here’s how afif­teen-year-old named Justin char­ac­ter­ized his re­la­tion­ship with an­other boy: “[My best friend and I] love each other.... I guess in life, some­times two peo­ple can re­ally, re­ally, un­der­stand each other and re­ally have a trust, re­spect and love for each other. It just hap­pens, it’s hu­man na­ture.”

Hav­ing just one friend helped pre­vent anx­ious, with­drawn chil­dren from de­vel­op­ing full­blown de­pres­sion.

Though plenty of books and ar­ti­cles have come out in the last decade chan­nelling wor­ries about the state of young men and the “boy cri­sis,” few have ex­am­ined the psy­cho­log­i­cal and so­cial well-be­ing of this de­mo­graphic. But from these boys comes a con­sis­tent call for emo­tional sup­port and love. Take four­teenyear-old Kai, who told Way, “You need a friend or else you’d be de­pressed, you won’t be happy, you would try to kill your­self.” Or Ben­jamin, who, when asked what he likes about his best friend, said, “Most ev­ery­thing. His kind­ness. Ev­ery­thing. I know he cares for peo­ple, [like me], I know.”

Counter to the en­trenched idea that boys are less com­mu­nica­tive, and less ca­pa­ble of vul­ner­a­bil­ity and in­ti­macy than girls, Way’s find­ings re­veal that boys are equally so. “Boys have this enor­mous ca­pac­ity for emo­tions, but some­how peo­ple ig­nore it,” she tells me. Of the boys Way has in­ter­viewed, she ob­serves, “Their clos­est friend­ships share the plot of Love Story more than the plot of Lord of the Flies. Boys val­ued their male friend­ships greatly and saw them as es­sen­tial com­po­nents to their health, not be­cause their friends were wor­thy op­po­nents in the com­pe­ti­tion for man­hood but be­cause they were able to share their thoughts and feel­ings — their deep­est se­crets — with these friends.”

Way also found that in early ado­les­cence, at ages four­teen and fif­teen, boys specif­i­cally seek out friend­ships with other boys rather than friend­ships with girls. Younger teenage boys cher­ish and pro­tect their male friend­ships not be­cause of sim­i­lar, gen­dered in­ter­ests in sports or video games but be­cause of their shared emo­tional ter­rain. Way sug­gests that the pref­er­ence for male friend­ships at this age “may be rooted in boys’ de­sire to con­nect to other boys right at the time their voices are crack­ing and their bod­ies feel awk­ward. They may feel too vul­ner­a­ble to be vul­ner­a­ble with those they do not per­ceive to be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the same changes.”

This changes in older ado­les­cence, when fears about be­ing per­ceived as ho­mo­sex­ual grow, and male friend­ships be­come less in­tense. At this age, boys be­come dis­trust­ful of one an­other and less com­fort­able ex­press­ing their feel­ings. Way says that as straight boys en­ter man­hood, they are more self-con­scious about same-sex in­ti­macy and in­stead turn their at­ten­tion to ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships. And it’s not aco­in­ci­dence, she says, that boys’ mid­dle and late ado­les­cence is also marked by an in­creased risk for de­pres­sion and feel­ings of iso­la­tion; their now more-su­per­fi­cial friend­ships don’t pro­vide them with the same de­gree of emo­tional sus­te­nance as when they were younger. Way be­lieves the “cri­sis of con­nec­tion” that young men are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing is in no small part the re­sult of be­ing told that real men can’t be close to one an­other.

Acou­ple of years back, I went to atoronto Blue Jays game with a large group of mid­dle-school boys (in grades six, seven, and eight) who were part of an af­ter-school pro­gram that helped them build their so­cial skills. I sat with sev­eral of the younger boys. They were rowdy but po­lite, full of jokes, and in per­pet­ual mo­tion. They draped their arms over each other’s shoul­ders, pressed against each other in a tight knot when I es­corted them to the con­ces­sion stand, and took end­less goofy self­ies — it was like chap­er­on­ing alit­ter of pup­pies.

In front of us in the stands were the older boys. They were, nat­u­rally, more re­strained and ma­ture than the younger kids, but they were also more self-con­scious and wary. They were qui­eter, looked straight ahead at the game, and tended to hunch into them­selves.

This awk­ward­ness is part of ado­les­cence, of course, and among this group of boys were young men who had been re­ferred to the af­ter-school pro­gram be­cause they were anti-so­cial or re­bel­lious. But their self- con­scious­ness also re­flects the shift that Way iden­ti­fied in the boys she sur­veyed: the pull in­ward in mid­dle ado­les­cence.

How soon would this shift oc­cur in the younger boys sur­round­ing me? And what could be done to avoid it? I looked around at the younger boys, free in their bod­ies and at home in them­selves, thrilled with this ad­ven­ture, and de­light­ing in be­ing in each other’s com­pany. Per­haps they’d been caught early enough by this pro­gram; they could re­tain this open­ness and emo­tional re­silience. An epi­demic of lone­li­ness may await them, but they can be the gen­er­a­tion to end it.

Adapted from Boys: What It Means to Be­come a Man by Rachel Giese ©2018. Pub­lished by Harpercollins.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.