Why is it easier to imagine a solitary man than a woman on a deserted island? One reason may be because men are considered more comfortable than women with solitude. But are they? By middle age, many men have a depleted social life, but not always by choice. And this depletion often compromises their quality of life.
At an early age, boys tend to run in packs that offer little opportunity or need to connect deeply one on one. In this setting, social life just sort of happens, and you can be part of the gang without really being good friends with anyone in particular. I can remember playing baseball over many seasons with some boys I never had a single direct conversation with. I considered them my friends, but in effect I barely knew them.
This detached kind of friendship is much less likely among girls, who tend to share personal details with each other. Not having someone to confide in can be an emotional liability, no matter how many friends a person has. According to researchers John T. Cacioppo and Louise C. Hawkley at the University of Chicago, “Social relationship quality is a more potent predictor of loneliness than quantity of social contacts, and this is true of relationships with friends, family, and adult children.”
Low Tolerance for “Weak” Links in the Chain
Reluctance to reveal vulnerability also limits the quality of a male’s social relationships. Early on, boys learn the price of revealing such “weakness” to male peers. Any guy when I was young who did so would be akin to a limp wildebeest dragging behind the herd as a pride of lions looked on; the guaranteed blast of mockery would make him think twice about sharing such feelings again. While today’s adult male may be more in touch with his feelings than in the past, this tendency to bury deep feelings may persist.
Relationships with an Expiration Date
So why do men’s relationships often fade over the years? Here are three key reasons:
- “Retirement” from sports teams. Many a young man’s social life centers on team athletics, whether in official men’s softball leagues, basketball games at the Y, or pickup games of touch football on weekends. As lives get busier and physical prowess declines, men often lose this connection—but don’t find a replacement for the camaraderie.
- Single-minded pursuit of career success. According to Thomas Joiner in Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success, men often pursue career goals without nurturing personal relationships. As a result, they lose important sources of understanding and emotional support. Women who are career-focused, however, tend to sustain their social relationships.
- Ceding the role of “social director” to the wife. In many marriages, the wife makes all the arrangements for getting together with friends and family. While this provides husbands with an active social life, their bystander status may make them less personally connected to the people in their orbit. This dependence on the spouse may also mean that men lose the ability to sustain social connections or initiate new ones on their own. This loss can be especially deflating when a man becomes divorced or widowed. “Women are more likely than men to talk with friends and close relatives and to turn to their children in times of crisis,” notes Suzanna Smith, an associate professor of human development at the University of Florida, Gainesville, on StrongerMarriage.com.
How Men Can Find Their “Peeps”
It’s not easy finding a playground full of middle-aged guys to hang out with. Here are 8 more realistic suggestions on how men can find new compadres:
- Run a classified ad. Just moved into a neighborhood and don’t know anyone who shares your interests? If they can’t find you, find them by running a classified ad in the local newspaper. That’s how I found someone to play Ping-Pong with when I moved into my house. That ad started the momentum to a future table tennis club that eventually had more than a dozen active participants.
- Become a coach. Maybe you’re not on a team anymore, but if you have a child involved in team sports, you can help out as a coach. Becoming part of this milieu can be rewarding in itself, but also provides ongoing contact with other coaches who could become friends on and off the playing field.
- Organize a block party. My neighborhood has a yearly party where families share food, enjoy musical entertainment, and play games. It’s a casual, no-pressure way to get to know new people in the neighborhood who may be good friend material.
- Start/join a club. Love to read, watch old movies, play chess? Start a club where you’ll meet others with similar interests. Having something in common can be a bridge to a rewarding relationship.
- Plan a customized reunion. This can be a fun way to reconnect with friends you might have lost touch with—whether from college, a job, or another fondly remembered era of your life. (For ideas on how to create a party with your own personalized stamp on it, see “Invent Your Own Holiday.”
- Take advantage of local senior centers. These are great places for people over 50 to meet others at a similar stage in life. Some seniors may have histories similar to yours, providing seeds for a new relationship. These new connections may spawn weekly poker games, nature hikes, you name it.
- Find old friends on Facebook. It’s surprising who shows up here, and you may find some long-lost friend who lives within range of getting together. Even if many years have passed, there may still be a spark that allows the relationship to be rekindled. I recently reconnected with a guy who was my best friend in second grade, and we even ended up doing business together.
- Never assume it’s too late to start something new. Allow me to cite my father as an example. At age 60 he moved from New Jersey to New Mexico, where he ran into some guys who played tennis on a regular basis. Even though he hadn’t played for almost 40 years, he blew the dust off his racquet and became a regular on the courts. He also loved to sing, and found other seniors who got together to warble Big Band favorites. At 80, my father told me that the last two decades had been the best of his life.
Of course, men who are seriously lonely and depressed should seek counseling or get involved in men’s support groups, which are more common than they used to be. Loneliness doesn’t have to define a man’s life; no matter what his age, pathways to a new social life are waiting out there.