Male Loneliness Starts in Boyhood

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This article was originally published on Slate.com.

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.

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