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A Pivotal Moment for Men to Find More Connection

May 26, 2020
Sebastian Betzer

Sebastian Betzer currently works at an immigration law firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He studied philosophy and political science at the University of Michigan. He is primarily concerned with eradicating barriers to equality and ending toxic masculinity.

On a recent performance of Saturday Night Live, comedian John Mulaney remarked, “My dad has no friends, and your dad has no friends.” While this remark was part of a comedic act, the statement was particularly impactful as social commentary; it was clear that what he said resonated with the audience. After viewing this, two questions stuck with me. Why are men prone to social isolation? And what will be the impact of this tendency during the COVID-19 crisis?

In their 2009 book, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century, Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, professors at Harvard Medical School, found that men don’t work as hard as women at maintaining friendships, tend to lose connections with male friends over their lifespans, and critically, don’t work as hard at making new friends. 

Society has traditionally encouraged men to develop so-called ‘masculine’ characteristics that are ill-suited to developing deep social connections. Men are also typically encouraged to be in control and repress their emotions. Healthy relationships are inherently emotional and involve an understanding of the completeness of the other person’s agency. They are rooted in trust, compassion, and reciprocity. 

This repression of feelings can also translate to a tendency to withdraw. Withdrawal can be physical, like disappearing into an office or “man cave.” It can also be emotional and involve tactics to make others feel unwelcome or burdensome. This is different from taking a moment to calm down or privately gather oneself, as the goal of this withdrawal is not aimed at eventually re-connecting with others. Such self-imposed isolation can also feel like control because it shuts out external chaos and allows the man to control the suppression of his own emotions. Despite being unhealthy, this suppression can make the man feel more responsible, courageous, or create other positive feelings because men often learn these behaviours in conjunction with rewards and praise during their formative years. In this way, self-imposed isolation can become a self-perpetuating cycle. 

While interrupting this cycle can be a daunting task in the best of times, the COVID-19 pandemic presents new challenges and opportunities.

The pandemic reasserts a greater need for control due to the uncertainties of rising job insecurity and safety precautions that may interfere with immediate and future plans. The quarantine situation is a case in which withdrawal will not provide a sense of control because the challenges cannot be ignored. For men who need control, this will likely cause even greater emotional strife because the frustration, fear, or sadness will not be tempered by the usual positive associations that come from guiding their own choices. As a result, men will find themselves with stronger emotions that are harder to ignore or minimize. This is a pivotal moment.

The quarantine situation means that men will either be alone or quarantined in close proximity with others. As we face the rest of this health crisis and economic downturn, men need to attend to the critical task of reaching out to other men who will also be struggling at this time. A recent survey by Statistics Canada revealed that men, both young and old, are less likely to reach out and communicate with friends and family during COVID-19. While the natural instinct of many men may be to withdraw further at this time, we would benefit ourselves and other men, by reaching out, spending time listening to one another, and sharing our vulnerabilities. Any degree of communication about feelings and emotions is not only helpful now, but can sow the seeds for recognition that, despite feeling normal, the learned behaviours of emotional distance and a need for control are actually harmful to us and our relationships. This complex crisis will undoubtedly lead to a great deal of confusion, but resisting the urge to isolate, and instead inviting other men to share their emotions will be especially impactful. 

While COVID-19 has brought more attention to the harms of social isolation and highlighted the importance for men to build greater social connectedness, I sincerely hope that this work can continue beyond the end of this pandemic as it is needed for building a more equitable and healthy society for all.