by Tony Wyman
A little more than a year ago, I shared a table at an Irish pub outside Dayton, Ohio, with three fellow business executives, men all in their 50’s who held high-paying positions in major companies where they had enjoyed long and successful careers that made them well-respected and affluent members of their communities.
And all three of them were miserable.
None of them had money problems, unfaithful wives, recalcitrant children or failing health. In fact, from an outsider’s perspective, their lives were pretty much what they should be for men who spent their lives working hard, doing the right things, making the right choices.
“I don’t see the point any longer,” said Bill, a 59-year-old CFO for a local manufacturer. His thinning hair, sunken eyes and pale skin combined with his former athlete’s physique gone soft from too many years away from the gym to make him look 10 years older than he was. “It just gets harder to give a crap, to force myself to get all worked up over the numbers, the results. I mean, I’ve been doing this forever and I just can’t figure out why I keep going in.”
Bill’s problem wasn’t that his job didn’t satisfy him any more – truth be told, it never really did – but that the reason why he did the job was pretty much gone. He studied accounting and finance at the University of Dayton because he knew he would always be able to find a job with those degrees. The son of a construction worker who was frequently out of work, Bill didn’t want to put his future wife and kids through the stress that he and his mother lived with every time his father was unemployed.
And he was right. Starting as an accountant at his company right out of college, Bill rose in the ranks over his 37-year career to become the chief financial officer, one of the highest paid executives in the firm. He was able to give his wife, Shannon, and three daughters lives of financial security that he never enjoyed as a kid himself.
But, now the girls were gone, two married and the other serving in the Air Force, and he was beginning to realize that the long hours he put in and the vacations he skipped took a toll on his marriage he didn’t see coming. “Somehow we’ve just grown apart, I guess,” Bill said, “When the girls were young, we spent all our time together with them, focused on their sports and school activities. Then when the company was struggling to survive, I put all my energy into keeping it above water. I got up early, went to work, came home late, ate dinner and went to bed. It’s what I had to do.”
Putting Work First
What Bill was experiencing isn’t all that rare in America today. In fact, counselors across the country are reporting an alarming increase in middle-aged men suffering from depression associated with loneliness. In fact, it is so common that Dr. Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon-General in the Obama Administration, is warning businesses to pay attention to the impact long and stressful work hours are having on the emotional and physical health of their employees.
“Our social connections are in fact largely influenced by the institutions and settings where we spend the majority of our time,” Dr. Murthy told The Washington Post. “That includes the workplace.”
He explained that, even though we live in the most technologically advanced times where communication has never been easier or more ubiquitous, yet our real and genuine connections with others, meaningful relationships with people that fill empty spaces in our lives, are at such a low point that rates of depression have doubled since the 1980’s.
And, since middle-aged men spend the largest share of their lives at work, the ability to build meaningful friendships with work colleagues is often critically important to their mental health. This is especially true because men tend to allow childhood friendships to disappear as they focus more time and energy on work and building their careers.
The problem is few work relationships actually develop into meaningful friendships where both parties are open and trusting of one another. Dr. Murthy said this fact is a major missed opportunity to address the growing crisis of loneliness and depression in middle-aged men.
“Most people go to work wanting to enjoy their relationships with the people they’re working with, wanting to feel like they are contributing to something meaningful in the world,” he said. “But that is not the experience many people have. Many people feel that the folks they’re working with are work colleagues, but they wouldn’t call them friends. They wouldn’t describe them as people they can trust.”
And that was Bill’s problem. Even though he spent his entire adult life, from 22-years-old to just months away from his 60th birthday, at the same company, none of his colleagues were people he considered close personal friends.
“The thing is, I have a fiduciary responsibility to the company that makes it impossible to get too close to other managers at my level,” he said. “I am like the cop on the beat, that guy that everyone acknowledges but no one wants to have lunch with.”
Even though he spent 10 hours a day in the office surrounded by people who depended upon him, Bill didn’t feel emotionally connected to any of them. They were, just as they saw him, important members of the team, not because of who they were as unique, individual people, but because of the skill sets they possessed. In that capacity, they were as replaceable with a person possessing the same skill set as was Bill. And recognizing that at the end of his career, at a time when his company was preparing to retire him early to allow a younger man with more modern, up-to-date skills to take his place, left Bill wondering just what he’d spent his life building.
Empty Man Syndrome
Dr. Alex Korb, writing in Psychology Today, called what Bill was experiencing “Empty Man Syndrome.” He described those suffering from the condition as men in their 40’s or older who are either single or married to women with whom they no longer have a close and meaningful relationship. They are often unemployed or doing jobs that are unsatisfying to them, and they have no rewarding or consuming hobbies that provide them with a sense of belonging to a community of like-minded enthusiasts. While they may participate in church or civic activities and know lots of people involved in those functions, they have few or even no close, personal friendships.
The term “Empty Man Syndrome” came from one of Dr. Korb’s colleagues, who he overheard describing a patient of hers as “empty.” He asked her what she meant by that and she explained that many of her male patients didn’t suffer from clinical depression, but they felt a certain lack of satisfaction in their lives that they frequently described as “emptiness.” She told him that she called that condition “Empty Man Syndrome” and felt it was appropriate to give the condition a name because those suffering from it “never seem to get any better.”
The reason they never get better might have little to do with the medical and psychological condition of clinical depression and more to do with the conditions under which these men live.
” Her description of empty-man syndrome led me to realize the simplicity of current treatments for depression.” said Dr. Korb. “The medications used in our studies might enhance their serotonin signaling, or alter norepinephrine activity, but a simple pill could not address these complex influences that life has on the brain, and which were conspiring against them.”
Those “influences” are the lack of social support and deep, meaningful and rewarding friendships that would help men navigate the emotional tides of their lives. While it is true that women are twice as likely to suffer from depression than men, it is also true that women build more supportive relationship than their male counterparts. They are also more willing to share their emotions and their vulnerabilities with each other than men are.
I’ve seen this personally with close friends of mine. At 57-years-old, I have, like most men my age, a very small group of close friends. One day earlier this year, three of my closest friends and I were on a call together discussing an article I had written previously about the dramatic increase in suicides committed by men our age. Even though one of my friends on the call had considered suicide himself, we barely expressed our thoughts on my article, choosing, instead, to joke our way out of what had become an awkward conversation none of us was truly prepared or comfortable having.
And even though the four of us have gone through two divorces, the births of 10 children, the deaths of parents, bankruptcy, the loss of jobs, financial ruin and all the other things that adults face over the 38-year-long friendship we’ve had together, there is still a certain guardedness in our relationship, a reservedness or emotional barrier that creates boundaries between us.
Five Reasons Men are Lonely
Being emotionally reserved is one of the five reasons that Dr. John D. Moore says are why men are as lonely as they are.
“I can’t tell you how many guys have walked into my office feeling sad, depressed, rejected, and angry about the condition of their lives,” he said. “While their stories may be different, they all share one common bond – loneliness. From the Iraq War Veteran who can’t bring himself to talk about his recurring nightmares out of fear of being judged … to the Fortune 500 executive who doesn’t have a friend because he can’t let himself be vulnerable.”
He believes the rules of masculinity, demanding men show strength, both physically and emotionally, while never allowing themselves to appear vulnerable or weak, is contributing to an “epidemic of male loneliness from coast to coast” that is literally killing men.
Dr. Moore lists five reasons men are as lonely as they are today.
1. Men fear appearing weak
From an early age, boys are taught that “real men” are strong and tough, that they “rub some dirt on it” when they are hurt and shrug off emotional pain by affecting an outward veneer of psychological toughness. So, to avoid appearing weak, men keep their emotional pain to themselves.
2. Men don’t talk about their feelings
Because we want to appear strong, tough and independent, men don’t share their emotional weakness with other men. Instead, they keep it bottled up inside them. And, since other men do the same, those suffering from depression, sadness or loneliness fear they are the only ones feeling that way, which just makes their feelings of isolation even greater and more painful.
3. Men aren’t comfortable being vulnerable
And because we aren’t comfortable opening up emotionally with other men, it is impossible to form the sort of close relationships that women have with each other. I, for example, compartmentalize my male friends. There are those men in my soccer compartment, men with whom I share a love of that sport. We share our feelings about soccer and only soccer. I do not discuss politics, movies, marriage, business or anything else with those men. I have compartments for political friends, my business friends, and so on. While it is true sometimes politics bleeds over to soccer and vice versa, the reality is we stick to subjects of intellectual interest and rarely, if ever, communicate with each other about our emotions, about the state of our marriages or our fears about the future. To talk about those things would make us appear weak and vulnerable, and we won’t allow that.
4. Super-masculine assertiveness
The expectation society places on men is they will always assert their masculinity, that they will present themselves as alpha males, leaders of the pack, in every situation. For men who are unable to project this level of exaggerated masculinity, they are left feeling like they are, somehow, inadequate as men, that they don’t stack up favorably with other more “manly” men. To avoid this feeling of inadequacy, men will overcompensate in a variety of ways: excessive muscular development, ownership of symbols of masculinity such as over-sized trucks or an abundance of firearms, crude, denigrating or sexually aggressive treatment of women. These behaviors are ways men compete with each other and serve to isolate them from other men who don’t stack up equally.
5. Limited bonding opportunities
Men bond with each other by sharing experiences. Service in the military, for example, paves the path for me to bond with other men who also wore a uniform. The same goes with having competed in sports. But for men who neither served or played a sport, opportunities to bond with other men are limited. They compensate later in life by participating in activities that approximate elite pursuits like military service or competitive sports, activities such as non-competitive marathons and so-called “Tough Mudder” races.
Aging and Reminders A Man’s Best Days are Past
Add to all this the fact that aging men become acutely aware their physical prowess is declining, it becomes easier to understand why males taught to believe their virility is the currency of their worth become more susceptible to depression as they grow older.
Advertisement for erectile dysfunction medications and hair loss remedies crowd out ones for motorcycles and hunting gear on the social media pages of men over a certain age. And for those still going to the gym, the weights often serve to remind lifters they are half the men they were in their 20’s.
Of course, men talk to each other about their aching knees and their bad shoulders and all the other things that fail on a man’s body when he outlives his expiration date. But we do so in a dismissive, cavalier sort of way, plowing through the deterioration of our bodies with the same tough guy disdain we demonstrated in high school when a torn groin kept us off the pitch for the last soccer match of the year.
We don’t share our emotions about aging as much as we show other men how aging doesn’t really bother us. We are Rooster Cogburn, the old gunslinger, willing to shoot it out one more time. Fill your hands!
Instead of sharing with other graybeards our fear that, not only are our best days physically behind us, our worst are just around the next bend, we joke about it. Instead of confronting our fears, opening up with other men experiencing the same things, and benefiting from realizing we aren’t the only one saddened by the fact we will never again turn the head of a young woman, we make a comedy routine out of our aging. While we intend for our act to be seen as the way a real man handles getting old, that, with our one good eye, we can still reach for the six shooters in our holsters, the reality is it is just smoke screen to hide the fear we don’t want to show. Even if showing that fear might help us more successfully deal with it.
What Can We Do About It?
Probably not much. Years ago, when my family and I lived in Salem, Oregon, a freak snowstorm kept me from going to work one day. With two other men in the neighborhood, I spent the day shoveling our neighbor’s cars out, digging pathways for them to get to their mailboxes and clearing the snow off everyone’s sidewalks. The two other guys – I can’t remember their names – followed me from house to house, digging, drinking a case of beer I had in the garage, and cursing the snow.
When I finally came in, my wife said, “If nothing else, you’ve made two new friends.” She looked at me like I was nuts when I told her the three of us would likely never do more than wave at each other again. However, that’s how it was for the remaining years we lived in that neighborhood. We’d see each other and wave, never so much as asking how their day had been.
Even though we shared the experience of shoveling snow all day together, snow shovelers weren’t who we were. It wasn’t part of our identity. It was simply an activity in which the three of us participated. We didn’t share our emotions when we shoveled, we didn’t open up about our concerns, our fears, our hopes. We shoveled. We drank beer. We shoveled some more.
That’s how men are and that’s why we end up so often lonely at the ends of our lives. We simply choose this path because it is the one we were raised to follow.
So, if we want to do something about it, if we wish to have meaningful relationships that last our lifetimes with other men, we have to make a conscious decision to reject the way we were brought up that teaches us it isn’t manly to become emotionally attached to and dependent on other men. It won’t be easy – frankly, it was even hard for me to write those words – because it goes against everything we’ve been taught about what it means to be a man.
As Mark Greene, writing in Upworthy, warned our time, as we age, to change direction is limited. We may not get another chance.
I have walked past so many friendships. Sleepwalking past men as I went instead from woman to women, looking for everything I had lost. Looking instead in the realm of the romantic, the sexual. A false lead to a false solution. And in doing so, I have missed so many opportunities to live a fuller life.
He wrote that at the end of a story about George, his best childhood friend. From the time Mark was seven until his parents divorced when he was eleven, he and George were inseparable. They shared a love of comics, and other nonsense boys value, that bound them together. When Mark moved and was forced to end his friendship with George, more than just a relationship ended. “…it wasn’t just my friendship with George that died. I lost my understanding of where close male friendships fit into my life,” he wrote.
They ran into each other again when they were in their 30’s. Mark had sold his comic book collection by then, so George split his in two and gave his childhood friend half. A decade later, they connected again, this time at George’s home he shared with his wife who wouldn’t stop talking about how great it was the old friends were back again.
Two years later, it was George’s wife who reconnected, crying hysterically on the phone, to tell Mark his childhood friend had died.
“To this day, I remain shocked. ‘Why didn’t I connect more’ was my first thought. My second was how effusive his wife had been about my visit. So supportive. So happy for ‘George’s friend’ to be there. I was never able to follow up after his death. I don’t even know what killed him, just an illness.
How is this possible? How did I sleepwalk through the chance to reconnect this friendship? I should have cared. I should have given a damn. Why didn’t I? Because somewhere, somehow, I was convinced that close friendships with boys are too painful?”
What Mark learned from George’s death is the relationships we enjoy in life, the ones that are deep and meaningful, that penetrate our barriers and reach into our hearts, are the ones that define our lives, that make them worth living. For too long, men have been taught to erect barriers between ourselves and our brothers that, if torn down, could open up our lives to loving friendships that could add tremendous value and comfort to our lives.
Mark learned that lesson after it was too late to restore his friendship with George. Perhaps we can learn before it is too late for us, as well.