An Army of the Lonely

This 2017 article on the legion lonely from Hazlitt magazine makes a number of great observations about the growth and nature of loneliness in today’s world. I probably took note of this piece when it originally came out, but it’s worth revisit. I’d encourage you to read it and I’ll also share some excerpts.

The article starts by noting the 1995 heatwave that killed over 700 largely older people in Chicago. I was living there at the time and remembered it well, but never recall anyone noting the fact that more men than women died, even though there are more elderly women than men in Chicago.

What made these men more vulnerable than the women? It wasn’t physical circumstances. Both groups lived mostly in “single room occupancy” buildings, or SROs—apartments of one room in what used to be called flophouses. It was social circumstances. The phrase “No known relatives” appears repeatedly in police reports of the dead men’s homes. Letters of regret were found on floors and in backs of drawers: “I would like to see you if that’s possible, when you come to the city”; “It seems to me that our family should have gotten along.” The single rooms of the deceased are described as “roach infested” and “a complete mess,” indicating few or no visitors. The women, according to Eric Klinenberg, who wrote a book on the heat wave, had people who checked up on them and so kept them alive; the men did not. “When you have time please come visit me soon at my place,” read another letter, unsent.

The author sees that he himself may be on a path that leads to a more lonely future existence.

Is this my future?  At first glance it seems unlikely. I’m 34. I have what seems to me a pretty active social life. I’m integrated into my community and I go to arts events regularly. I’ve lived here in Toronto off and on since I was 18. I went to university here. I helped found an arts venue here. I know hundreds of people here, if not thousands. I have multiple jobs—college instructor, freelance writer, tutor. I have friends. Whatever path led to these lonely destinations, I want to believe, is not the path I’m on. When I die, my floor will be tidy, and my letters sent.

And yet, there’s something about their stories that seems eerily familiar. Slowly but surely, I feel my social world slipping away from me. All three of my jobs combined require me to be around other humans a total of about eight hours out of a week’s 168. The other 160, I’m mostly at home. It’s not unusual for me to go several days in a row with no social contact of any kind, and the longer I go without it, the scarier it feels.

The author also highlights a danger that I’ve also repeatedly stressed. Too many men have friendships that are entirely mediated via their wives. This means if they ever get divorced (or if their wife dies) that can find themselves in real trouble.

It may seem like the answer is a relationship, or marriage. Married people in general are less lonely than single people, and married men are less lonely than married women. A 1991 meta-study summed it up: marriage is “particularly rewarding for men.”

However, closer inspection reveals a more complicated, and hazardous, picture. Though less lonely, married men are more socially isolated. Compared to single men, and even unmarried men cohabiting with a partner, married men in a 2015 British study were significantly more likely to say that they had “no friends to turn to in a serious situation.” This seemed to capture the situation of Roger, 53, in Indianapolis, who’s been married for 24 years. “The friendships I had in college and post-college have kind of dissipated,” he said. “My wife and I have a few friends in couples, but I don’t really see friends outside of that.” He confides in no one other than his wife. “There’s very little need to,” he said. Roger is typical: married men “generally get their emotional needs met by their spouses/partners.” Why, then, would Roger need to keep up with anyone else?

In contrast, married women “often get their emotional needs met by their female friends.” That married women’s friends are more important to them than married men’s friends may be one reason why a 2014 British study found that women organize and encourage a couple’s social life more than men, and, in general, “men are far more dependent on their partner for social contact than women are.” When I shared this fact with the men I interviewed, several of them admitted that this was true of them, with one saying his partner spoke with his own mother more than he did, another saying he wouldn’t be in touch with his friends from college if it wasn’t for his partner, and a third saying, because most of his pre-marriage friends were female and there was tension with his wife when he hung out with them, he saw mostly her friends now.

There are clear dangers for married men shunting all this social planning to their wives. (It can be grimmer still for gay men, who struggle with loneliness even more than straight men.) Aside from the questionable morality of offloading all this emotional labour, what are you going to do if your marriage ends before you do?

It’s a great article and I hope you’ll click over and read the whole thing.

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