by Tony Wyman
Guys, if you were awake at 2 A.M., so worried or scared about something that you couldn’t sleep, who would you call for emotional support and comforting advice?
If you are like most men, the answer to my question is: no one.
And, if you are like most men, you were as uncomfortable reading my question as I was writing it. When I wrote it, after four or five failed attempts to type out the 28 words in the sentence, I couldn’t help but cringe at the words “scared” and “emotional support.”
Men, you see, aren’t supposed to feel scared or need emotional support. Instead, we are supposed to be tough and resilient, rugged individualists who don’t need anyone as we punch our ways through life. We buy big trucks, fill them full of gun racks and footballs, and drive them to the gym where we fist bump our brothers after benching more than our trucks weigh.
Those things are what make us men. Or, at least, that’s what we are taught to believe.
We are not supposed to need affection or crave connections with other people that help us through dark periods of our lives. Instead, we are supposed to put our heads down and power through without the help of others.
The problem is, it isn’t working anymore, at least not for middle-aged men.
Men in my age group have become increasingly socially isolated over the years and this is having a serious impact on our health and well-being. In fact, suicide rates for middle-aged men have increased nearly 50% since 1997. And while rates for both genders are up over that period, the increase for men is four-times greater than for women. According to Dr. Christine Moutier, a suicide prevention expert, white, middle-aged men make up 70% of deaths by suicide.
Many are killing themselves slowly, using alcohol and drug abuse to kill themselves over time, drawing out their deaths in the hopes that something will change, something will improve in their lives that replaces the despair they feel with a sense of hope.
The problem is, if things don’t get better, if their economic situation or job prospects don’t improve, if their romantic or marital lives don’t heat up, men have no one to turn to, few close friends with whom they can confide and commiserate.
I see this all the time in my personal life. Since I turned 40, I’ve lost two friends to suicide by gun and seen several others begin killing themselves slowly through alcohol abuse. In lower moments of my life over the past 16 years, I’ve had periods where I suspected I was doing the latter, myself. In none of these cases, including my own, none of the men involved gave off any signs they were heading downhill.
In fact, one of my friends who killed himself had promised me earlier in the day that he would give me a few days to help him find a new career. He had lost his job as an executive and was facing slim prospects as a 55-year-old whose skills were honed in the 1990s.
He didn’t have a grasp of new technology like the young men he would have to compete against to land one of the few six-figure jobs available in his area, but he did have decades of experience running successful departments for major companies. I told him those skills were marketable and that I could help him find a new direction in life. Those were the last words I spoke to him before signing off with a promise to help him starting the next morning.
I never got the chance. Later that night, he wrote “goodbye” on Facebook and put a bullet through his head.
When I learned the next day what he did, I was stunned, shocked that he had no faith in himself or in the ability of friends like me to help him find another job. But, after all this time since his death, I don’t think that is why he killed himself. Instead, I think he killed himself simply because he was lonely, full of despair and unable to see things getting better, even if he landed a well-paying job.
He was lonely when he was working, lonely even though he was married, lonely when he got divorced, lonely when his grown kids stopped returning his calls, lonely when nothing he did seemed to make a difference in his life or the lives of the people he cared about. He was so lonely, his suicide note was to people like me, “friends” he only knew through a social media platform.
And that is the price we middle-aged men pay for the hegemonic masculinity, as Dr. Cheryl Meyer calls it, that we live by. To try to live up to a social stereotype that no one can live up to forever, a construct of toughness, independence and bottomless emotional strength, middle-aged men often find themselves feeling isolated and adrift.
In her book, The Men We Never Knew, author Daphne Rose Kingma wrote,
Because of the way boys are socialized, their ability to deal with emotions has been systematically undermined. Men are taught, point-by-point, not to feel, not to cry, and not to find words to express themselves.
Everyone feels vulnerable sometimes, even men who bench press more than their bodyweight and have “Mama didn’t love me” tattooed on their tree trunk arms. Everyone needs emotional support from someone with whom they can confide their vulnerabilities, but men are taught at an early age to be ashamed of such feelings.
We are told, by our fathers, coaches and teachers, that being emotional is unacceptable for men, that it is something only liberals and pussies need, that it is something we should hide and secretly feel shame about.
And that shame is killing us in growing numbers.
The world in which middle-aged men grew up no longer exists.
We no longer have the social time we used to have to bond with our neighbors, to play golf twice a week with close friends, to just hang out and form communities within our circle of acquaintances.
This social part of our lives has been scheduled out, replaced with longer hours at work, with civic or parental obligations that take up all our free time, but don’t fill our need to connect on a deep and emotional basis with our peers. Mark Greene, of the Good Men Project, wrote,
I would suggest that many men accept being scheduled out of our friendships because its really not that big of a loss for us anyway. I mean, lets face it, our friendships are only half way there anyway, feint shadows of the joyous, ecstatic friendships of our youth, so we let them go. Which speaks not to the challenges of schedules and family life but to the collective inability of millions of men to form vibrant meaningful friendships; friendships we are willing to fight for and maintain.
He’s right. Men give up friendships all the time because that is what we are expected to do to support our families and pay our bills. I did just this, leaving behind two teams of soccer players I loved and friends that mattered to me, to keep a big paycheck coming in for my family, who now live 15 hours away. It is what we do, no matter the cost to us.
We are trained from birth to believe we don’t need close connections with other people, that our duty to others is more important than our duty to ourselves. We convince ourselves, and other men around us, that all we need is a purpose, a task, a job to do to be content. Content, not happy.
Happiness, for most men my age, is an extravagance that we claim not to need, that we laugh off as something for less serious people. We need a sense of satisfaction, a sense that we got something done, something built, not a feeling of joy or elation.
We are more comfortable being stoic than we are being emotional, even if that stoicism is killing us. This is because we have been trained out of our natural ability to connect emotionally with other men. Sociologists call this the “Man Box,” a sense of rigid expectations that define what it means to be a man in American society.
The first rule of the Man Box is the only emotions that men should show are anger and excitement. Not love, not vulnerability, not compassion or sympathy. Anger when we are wronged. Excitement when some other man scores a touchdown.
Men are trained from an early age to restrict their emotions to only those decreed by society to be “manly,” leaving them without the emotional tools that are needed to create effective communities with their brothers.
The reason we’ve reduced emotional expression for men to these two things is because we’ve genderized emotions, as a whole.
Empathy, compassion, sadness, grief, are seen as feminine emotions that are shameful for men to express.
And because those emotions are the ones that inform our ability to connect with others in meaningful and supportive relationships, men, by our own choice, find ourselves emotionally alone, isolated and adrift in our later years when the number of social connections we have with others begin to dramatically tail off.
To correct this, we need to begin teaching our sons, coaching our players and mentoring the young men with whom we work, that emotional strength includes being willing to open oneself up to others. We need to show that connecting emotionally with others is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness, as we have been indoctrinated into believing for so long.
If we want the next generation to be healthier than ours, if we want the boys in our lives to live more complete and happier lives in their middle years than we are living, we need to step up now and break out of the Man Box ourselves.
It is okay to tell other men you love them, that you care about them and, like them, you, too, have a need to connect. Connecting on a real and emotional basis doesn’t make you weak, but it may keep you strong.
Now, I’m going to the gym to lift a lot of weight and fist bump my brothers, none of whom I know by name.