To differing degrees, we all feel lonely from time to time. It’s an experience that is a natural part of our existence. And often, feelings of loneliness act as a signal that lead to some type of change in one’s life. This change might involve the decision to start dating (if you’re single), or reaching out more to others already in your life (your spouse/partner, a family member, friend, etc.), or getting involved in some community or social activity (joining a book club, volunteering).
Such a course change is often enough to satisfy the hunger that we know as loneliness.
But to satisfy the pangs of loneliness, you have to know that you are indeed craving connection with others. This might seem straightforward, but for some, the experience of loneliness isn’t that easy to identify; loneliness can have a shadowy, ill-defined quality that is obscured by our busy, externally-focused lives.
And while it may sound like a strange paradox to think that someone can actually be lonely yet not have full awareness of this painful experience, the truth is that many of the men I’ve worked with in therapy too often reside in a painful state of disconnection—a disconnection from others, and even more fundamentally, a disconnection from themselves.
Relationship Help for Men: You Just Might Be Struggling with Loneliness
“I’m a guy. Guys don’t get lonely…Do they?” ~Jim (At a men’s workshop)
Emile didn’t know he was lonely.
He knew he was “stressed”; he knew he was having trouble sleeping; he knew he was quick to anger; he knew his wife and son complained about him, about his emotional distance and impatience; he knew that even on a good day, he existed in a perpetual state of tenseness that bordered on agitation. He knew what many men are able to acknowledge about themselves but, like many men, none of his emotional struggles suggested to Emile that he was lonely.
To understand loneliness, you have to acknowledge one of the most fundamental needs that people have: the need for emotional connection-closeness to important others. Psychologists talk about this need using different terms (relational needs, attachment, emotional intimacy or connection, interpersonal needs, dependency needs), all suggesting that others matter to our ongoing psychological, emotional and physical well-being, and in far-reaching and profound ways.
Of course, people differ in the intensity of their need for connection, as well as in how they go about fulfilling these needs—for some, the need for connection may feel like a soft whisper that gives gentle reminders to reach out, while for others, this need may demand attention until attention is received. Either way, we must be attuned to the undercurrents of our need for connection, and when we fail to do so, it usually has far-reaching, negative consequences in our lives.
Men and Loneliness: Do Masculine Ideals Obscure Men’s Need For Connection?
Why was Emile struggling with underlying issues of loneliness? (A loneliness that manifested as agitation and “stress.”)
Like many men, Emile placed a high value on self-reliance, a sense of self-sufficiency that was handed down from his father and grandfather. And while this masculine ideal (the ideal of the independent, “strong” male) served Emile well in the world of business and supporting his family financially, it cut him off from his underlying need for emotional connection and his ability to be emotionally vulnerable with his wife in particular. To rely on others emotionally (even others he knew had his best interests in mind) violated a core aspect of his masculine identity.
Emile’s need for emotional intimacy-connection (which includes the need to be emotionally vulnerable at times) didn’t cease as a result of the masculine ideals he internalized. Instead (as is often the case), Emile’s attachment needs went underground, unseen and unacknowledged—stored in the cellar of his psyche where they continued to poke at him in an effort to be noticed. But rather than identify and ultimately integrate these needs into his masculine identity (where they might exist alongside the trait of self-reliance, offering balance depending on circumstance), Emile remained estranged from his own internal world, and as a result, estranged from others as well.
Although many men, like Emile, are committed to and love their spouses/partners, they remain lonely– a loneliness that arises from a disconnection with one’s most fundamental humanness, the need to share one’s deepest desire to feel understood and emotionally connected to a loving other.
Male loneliness starts from within, and it’s here at its source where men must open themselves so that they can share themselves emotionally with the people they love.
Marriage and Relationship Resources
For information about how to make effective communication a regular part of your marriage/relationship, click communication workbook.
So many of us simply don’t know if our relationship is healthy or in serious trouble. I’ve created a relationship checkup to help you assess the health of your marriage or relationship.
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro