Loneliness is killing millions of American men. Here’s why.

When I was 7, my best friend’s name was George.

He lived around the corner from me. George was tall and lanky. His elbows always akimbo, his cowlick stellar in its sheer verticality. He had an aquarium. He had a glow-in-the-dark board game. He had the 45 rpm of "Hang On, Sloopy," and he was a Harry Nilsson fan, just like me. I can still recall his house, and all of the luminous joy it held, perfectly in my mind's eye — all part of the frozen 7-year-old's mosaic that exploded into pieces when my parents' marriage failed.

After my parents split, George and I lived just an hour apart. But our parents weren't willing to ensure that George and I stayed in regular contact. Once or twice a year, we were allowed a sleepover, and George always came to spend the night on my birthday. His visit was the one gift I asked for.


Then one day it ended. My mother simply said, "no more." To this day, I don’t know what triggered that choice, but my guess is she was feeling vaguely uncomfortable that two boys, by then around 11 years old, were moving on to things more productive than comic books and sleepovers. I suspect she felt she could no longer sponsor something so ... intense. From her perspective, it was unnaturally so.

With that decision, it wasn't just my friendship with George that died. I lost my understanding of where close male friendships fit into my life.

The topic of male friendships remains largely undiscussed, but for American men, it can be a matter of life and death.

Niobe Way is a professor of applied psychology at New York University and the author of "Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection." A number of years ago, she started asking teenage boys what their closest friendships meant to them and documenting what they had to say.

It seems that few scholars have thought to ask boys what was happening with their closest friendships because we assumed we already knew. We often confuse what is expected of men (traditional masculinity) with what they actually feel — and given enough time, they confuse the two as well. After a lifetime of being told how men "typically" experience emotion, the answer to the question "what do my closest friends mean to me" is lost to us.

Way’s research shows that boys in early adolescence express deeply fulfilling emotional connection and love for each other, but by the time they reach adulthood, that sense of connection evaporates.

This is a catastrophic loss; a loss we somehow assume men will simply adjust to. They do not. Millions of men are experiencing a sense of deep loss that haunts them even though they are engaged in fully realized romantic relationships, marriages, and families.

Photo by Anastasiya Lobanovskaya/Pexels.

This epidemic of male loneliness is more than just melancholy. Research shows us it can actually be lethal.

In an article for the New Republic titled "The Lethality of Loneliness," Judith Shulevitz writes (emphasis added):

"Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer's, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer — tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people."

Loneliness can also affect the mortality rate more directly. Research also shows that between 1999 and 2010, suicide among men aged 50 and over rose by nearly 50%. The New York Times reports that "the suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000."

The boys featured in Way's book express, in their own words, a heartfelt emotional intimacy that many men can recall from their own youth.

Consider this quote from a 15-year-old boy named Justin:

"[My best friend and I] love each other ... that’s it, you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. It’s just a thing that you know that that person is that person and that is all that should be important in our friendship. 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."

This passionate and loving boy-to-boy connection occurs across class, race, and cultures. It is exclusive to neither white nor black, rich nor poor. It is universal and beautifully evident in the hundreds of interviews that Way conducted. These boys declare freely the love they feel for their closest friends. They use the word "love," and they seem proud to do so.

But Justin also senses, even as it's happening, the distancing that occurs as he matures and male intimacy becomes less accepted. He says this in his senior year, reflecting on how his relationships have changed since he was a freshman:

"I don’t know, maybe, not a lot, but I guess that best friends become close friends. So that’s basically the only thing that changed. It’s like best friends become close friends, close friends become general friends and then general friends become acquaintances. So they just, if there’s distance whether it’s, I don’t know, natural or whatever. You can say that, but it just happens that way."

According to Way, this "natural" distancing is a lot more artificial than it is innate — a result of toxic judgments leveled against boys by their environment and society.

"Boys know by late adolescence that their close male friendships, and even their emotional acuity, put them at risk of being labeled girly, immature,� or gay," Way writes. "Thus, rather than focusing on who they are, they become obsessed with who they are not — they are not girls, little boys nor, in the case of heterosexual boys, are they gay."

The result? "These boys mature� into men who are autonomous, emotionally stoic, and isolated," as Way puts it. In other words, the pressures of homophobia and toxic masculinity push boys into isolation until they become swept up in the epidemic of male loneliness that haunts the majority of American men.

Photo by Myriam/Pixabay.

It is a heartrending realization that even as men hunger for real connection in male relationships, we have been trained away from embracing it.

Since Americans hold emotional connection as a female trait, many reject it in boys, demanding that they "man up" and adopt a strict regimen of emotional independence and even isolation as proof they are real men. Behind the drumbeat message that real men are stoic and detached is the brutal fist of homophobia, ready to crush any boy who might show too much of the wrong kind of emotions.

We have been trained to choose surface level relationships or no relationships at all, sleepwalking through our lives out of fear that we will not be viewed as real men. We keep the loving natures that once came so naturally to us hidden and locked away. This training runs so deep, we're no longer even conscious of it. And we pass this training on, men and women alike, to generation after generation of bright eyed, loving little boys.

When I was in my early 30s, I ran into George again.

He was working for a local newspaper and living in an apartment in Houston, where I visited him. To my surprise, he happily split up his comic collection (I had sold mine when I was 16 or so) and gave me half of his huge collection. It was an act of profound generosity, and I’m sure I was effusive in my thanks.

I ran into George again in my 40s. He had married and moved to California. On a business trip, I spent the night at his house. We fell into our old pattern of reading comic books and drawing while his wife hovered, declaring over and over how great it was that I was visiting. The next day I packed up and went home to New York feeling vaguely disconnected but happy.

About two years later, his wife called me, screaming and weeping. George 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?

Don’t parents understand? Don’t they know that we love each other? That our children’s hearts can be broken so profoundly that we will never rise to a love like that again?

Photo by Juan Pablo Rodriguez/Unsplash.

The loss of my friendship with George set a pattern in my life that I am only now, decades later, finally conscious of.

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.

Way’s work has given me the piece of the puzzle I was never conscious of. That the love I had felt for George and others — Troy, Jack, David, Bruce, and Kyle — was right and good and powerful and could move mountains. I didn’t realize what they were then. But I do now. That the slow withdrawing of those friendships from my life had not been a killing blow. Not quite. And that I’m back in the game of loving my friends. Fiercely.

So know it, guys: I love you all.

This piece was originally published by The Good Men Project and is reprinted here with permission.

Courtesy of FIELDTRIP
True

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected diverse communities due largely in part to social factors such as inadequate access to housing, income, dietary options, education and employment — all of which have been shown to affect people's physical health.

Recognizing that inequity, Harlem-based chef JJ Johnson sought out to help his community maximize its health during the pandemic — one grain at a time.

Johnson manages FIELDTRIP, a health-focused restaurant that strives to bring people together through the celebration of rice, a grain found in cuisines of countless cultures.

"It was very important for me to show the world that places like Harlem want access to more health-conscious foods," Johnson said. "The people who live in Harlem should have the option to eat fresh, locally farmed and delicious food that other communities have access to."

Lack of education and access to those healthy food options is a primary driver of why 31% of adults in Harlem are struggling with obesity — the highest rate of any neighborhood in New York City and 7% higher than the average adult obesity rate across the five boroughs.

Obesity increases risk for heart disease or diabetes, which in turn leaves Harlem's residents — who are 76% Black or LatinX — at heightened risk for complications with COVID-19.

Keep Reading Show less

Empathy. Compassion. Heart-to-heart human connection. These qualities of leadership may not be flashy or loud, but they speak volumes when we see them in action.

A clip of Joe Biden is going viral because it reminds us what that kind of leadership looks like. The video shows a key moment at a memorial service for Chris Hixon, the athletic director at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018. Hixon had attempted to disarm the gunman who went on a shooting spree at the school, killing 17 people—including Hixon—and injuring 17 more.

Biden asked who Hixon's parents were as the clip begins, and is directed to his right. Hixon's wife introduces herself, and Biden says, "God love you." As he starts to walk away, a voice off-camera says something and Biden immediately turns around. The voice came from Hixon's son, Corey, and the moments that followed are what have people feeling all their feelings.

Keep Reading Show less
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
True

Glenda moved to Houston from Ohio just before the pandemic hit. She didn't know that COVID-19-related delays would make it difficult to get her Texas driver's license and apply for unemployment benefits. She quickly found herself in an impossible situation — stranded in a strange place without money for food, gas, or a job to provide what she needed.

Alone, hungry, and scared, Glenda dialed 2-1-1 for help. The person on the other end of the line directed her to the Houston-based nonprofit Bread of Life, founded by St. John's United Methodist pastors Rudy and Juanita Rasmus.

For nearly 30 years, Bread of Life has been at the forefront of HIV/AIDS prevention, eliminating food insecurity, providing permanent housing to formerly homeless individuals and disaster relief.

Glenda sat in her car for 20 minutes outside of the building, trying to muster up the courage to get out and ask for help. She'd never been in this situation before, and she was terrified.

When she finally got out, she encountered Eva Thibaudeau, who happened to be walking down the street at the exact same time. Thibaudeau is the CEO of Temenos CDC, a nonprofit multi-unit housing development also founded by the Rasmuses, with a mission to serve Midtown Houston's homeless population.

Keep Reading Show less
via Witty Buttons / Twitter

Back in 2017, when white supremacist Richard Spencer was socked in the face by someone wearing all black at Trump's inauguration, it launched an online debate, "Is it OK to punch a Nazi?"

The essential nature of the debate was whether it was acceptable for people to act violently towards someone with repugnant reviews, even if they were being peaceful. Some suggested people should confront them peacefully by engaging in a debate or at least make them feel uncomfortable being Nazi in public.

Keep Reading Show less

The English language is constantly evolving, and the faster the world changes, the faster our vocabulary changes. Some of us grew up in an age when a "wireless router" would have been assumed to be a power tool, not a way to get your laptop (which wasn't a thing when I was a kid) connected to the internet (which also wasn't a thing when I was a kid, at least not in people's homes).

It's interesting to step back and look at how much has changed just in our own lifetimes, which is why Merriam-Webster's Time Traveler tool is so fun to play with. All you do is choose a year, and it tells you what words first appeared in print that year.

For my birth year, the words "adult-onset diabetes," "playdate," and "ATM" showed up in print for the first time, and yes, that makes me feel ridiculously old.

It's also fun to plug in the years of different people's births to see how their generational differences might impact their perspectives. For example, let's take the birth years of the oldest and youngest members of Congress:

Keep Reading Show less