Male Loneliness Starts in Boyhood

The problem goes beyond emotionally stunted men and the burden they place on women.

Stock image of a man sitting on a bed, holding his head with one hand despondently.
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Last week, Harper’s Bazaar published a piece by Melanie Hamlett that spread quickly between women on social networks. “Men Have No Friends and Women Bear the Burden” read the headline, and those women sharing the article certainly agreed. “Willing to pay someone to take a physical copy of this story to every man I’ve ever dated and smack them over the head with it,” one tweeted. “I can’t even count the number of women I know who’ve gotten so tired of acting as therapist to the men they’re dating that they’ve given the ultimatum: Get a real therapist, or we’re done,” another added. “I feel this in my bones,” a third said. Clearly, many women found the scenario the piece described—a closed-off man, whose only confidante is his girlfriend or wife, in a relationship with a quietly frustrated woman who’s sick to death of the endless listening and processing—to be all too familiar.

The piece’s second half is extremely thoughtful about the therapeutic work some men are doing to step outside of this dynamic in their own lives—Hamlett clearly admires them. Yet the article’s social media framing, which references a classic tweet by writer Erin Rodgers (“I want the term ‘gold digger’ to include dudes who look for a woman who will do tons of emotional labor for them”), implies considerable male agency in the construction of this toxic dynamic. And the horror stories in the first half of the piece serve to stoke plenty of readers’ anger at the men involved: The women Hamlett interviewed included a 24-year-old who became the “default therapist” for her boyfriend and a 41-year-old whose “wonderful” husband breaks bedside tables (multiple tables!) because he doesn’t know how to talk about his feelings. The reception of this article—an outpouring of annoyance and frustration with male partners—shows how difficult it is to talk about patriarchy as a system that victimizes both women and men.

“Articles like this usually don’t recognize that these norms of masculinity aren’t purely a matter of choice or character, but are the products of social regulation and sometimes violent enforcement,” Kevin Baker wrote on Twitter. “S/o [shout out] (for instance) to the two older girls who made fun of me on the bus for an entire school year because I cried after my sister died. Or the countless times I was beaten up for minor transgressions of the norms of masculinity.” Reparative work—in the form of therapy and group meetings like the ones the “good” men in this article are attending—is excellent, but the problem runs much deeper. What’s needed is a total revolution in the way we raise our children.

I had something of a conversion experience on this topic while reading Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider’s Why Does Patriarchy Persist?, a short, thoughtful volume published earlier this year. For Gilligan and Snider, the transformations boys and girls go through during childhood and adolescence, when girls are told to be emotionally present for others (even if they have to sacrifice themselves to do it) and boys are taught to be independent at all costs, are deeply harmful to both genders and psychologically unsustainable. “Patriarchy is an age-old structure that has been near universal, and yet there is an incoherence at its center because in reality men can’t have selves without relationships and women can’t have relationships without a self,” write Gilligan and Snider. “Patriarchy harms both men and women by forcing men to act as if they don’t have or need relationships and women to act as if they don’t have or need a self.”

Their argument jumps between literature and psychology, and can feel frustratingly ungrounded sometimes, but the part that’s about the socially enforced emotional stifling that occurs during boys’ childhood and youth is borne out in research. Gilligan and Snider cite work by Judy Chu, who studied relational acuity in a cohort of boys starting at ages 4 and 5. Over the two years of Chu’s study, the boys became “more inattentive, more inarticulate, more inauthentic and indirect with one another and with her.” This dynamic shifted by the time the boys were in first grade, when the boys had replaced “relational presence” with “relational pretense and posturing.” Another researcher, Niobe Way, studied boys who, in early high school, were willing to call other boys their best friends and say that they love them—to depend on them utterly. By the end of high school, Way’s subjects didn’t have those friends anymore.

One way these friendships dissolve is through internalized homophobia. Way writes: “As boys enter manhood, they start using the phrase ‘no homo’ following any intimate statement about their friends, and they begin to say that they don’t have time for their male friendships, even though they continue to express strong desires for having such friendships.” The slang may be different now—Way’s book was published in 2011, and I’m old and therefore clueless—but the meaning remains. Citing Way’s work, writer Mark Greene described a tweenage friendship that evaporated through neglect because, he realizes in retrospect, his parents were feeling “vaguely uncomfortable” with his intense affection for his male friend. Way writes: “Boys know by late adolescence that their close male friendships, and even their emotional acuity, put them at risk of being labeled girl, immature, or gay.” This, to Greene, is a huge loss: “We keep the loving natures that once came so naturally to us hidden and locked away,” he commented. “This training runs so deep, we’re no longer even conscious of it.”

Part of the reason it’s so hard for us to talk about the ways patriarchy harms men is the fact that there are already people claiming that the current social order is bad for men, and they’re called men’s rights activists. Like feminists who’ve become conscious of the shortcomings of a patriarchal structure, these groups of “red-pilled” men resist the idea that they should be required to be strong-jawed, stoic providers who work for their wives’ comfort. But unlike those feminists, they blame women for their problems. The line between a men’s rights forum and a men’s therapy group like the ones Hamlett describes starts to look mighty thin when you consider the existence of a borderline case like Jordan Peterson, the professor of psychology–turned–self-help guru who advises men on ways to take control of their depressed lives, while reinforcing the basic patriarchal messages of domination and hierarchy.

There is a tradition of men’s rights activists who are anti-patriarchal—who combine trying to feel better in their own lives with an enlightened critique of our social order. In the early 1970s, gatherings of men who explicitly identified themselves as sympathetic to feminism held gatherings titled things like “Men Overcoming Sexism.” “A number of conference activities were simply about men enjoying being with men, learning to communicate and express feelings more openly,” Amanda Goldrick-Jones wrote in her history of the pro-feminist men’s movements of that time. These organizations focused on encouraging playfulness and practicing emotional closeness. Their newsletters even included articles on child care. (The latter-day equivalent of this might be something like the Good Men Project, where Greene published his essay about his lost friend.)

I understand why an article like Hamlett’s goes viral among women. This male-female dynamic, where it exists, can be extremely toxic and burdensome to the women who experience it precisely because the experience of loving men who need us to be ever-present audiences for their problems taps into all our early training in denying ourselves happiness in order to make men feel good. And I’d venture to say that in general, women are more hurt by patriarchy than men are. But casting male emotional dependence on women as a transgression perpetrated by individual men also misses an opportunity, Gilligan and Snider would argue, to call men to the barricades in the fight against patriarchy. Because, after all, they’re losing, too.