All sorts came seek therapy, and despite being of different backgrounds, races, and sexual orientations, they appear to be consistently hungry for connection, especially with other men.
Men often report having fewer friends and social connections to rely on, with 15% saying they have no close friends at all.
The struggle with vulnerability makes it more difficult for men to find the connection they crave.
By taking gradual steps to build trust with others, men can develop more meaningful and rewarding relationships.
Male clients often have smaller social networks and support systems than female clients. They have fewer people to turn to when life got rough. Even amongst the most social of them, there is an undercurrent of loneliness, something that was felt more poignantly if they were single.
It seems counterintuitive that the more the digital world has connected us, the lonelier we have become. Statistically, we have grown lonelier over time, and report having fewer close friendships than ever before. We are a social species, and these declines in human relationships have an impact on our health. Beyond the negative mental health impacts, research indicates that those who are lonely are at a higher risk for dementia, heart failure or stroke, and even premature death.
Men have often reported having fewer friends and social connections to rely on, with 15% saying they have no close friends at all. Yet, when surveyed, men often report wanting more fulfilling relationships. What is keeping men from these connections when it’s such a fundamental need? Part of the issue lies in the unspoken rules men are handed in boyhood.
Especially in the West, masculinity has become tied to an unrealistic individualism. Men are taught they can do everything themselves without help. They’re lone wolves, forging their way through sheer grit. In relationships with other men, they keep themselves at a distance, stereotypically talking only about sports, or hunting, or beer. At a pinch, men default to talking about work, the topic that dominates their world and their impression of their own self-worth.
Beneath this facade, there is a deeply felt lack of permission to be authentic and to show the complex inner world in which they live. This lack of permission can become so internalised that men shut off their emotions altogether, hiding them from others and even from themselves.
Emotional expression can become so foreign that men may actively avoid it in others as well. Just witnessing the emotions of other men becomes uncomfortable. They may self-distance as a form of self-protection, yet this only perpetuates isolation and loneliness.
Vulnerability is the common thread through all of this, and it underpins the invisible wall men often feel between one another. Vulnerability comes from the Latin vulnerare, meaning “to wound.” Vulnerability creates the potential to be wounded, an emotional experience that exposes the parts of us that can be hurt. This exposure can be uncomfortable, even excruciating, considering the deeply ingrained belief of many men that they must avoid feeling weak. Yet making themselves vulnerable is the only way that men can truly find a sense of connection and feel seen by others.
It's not just internal - our culture can be hostile toward men who show their emotions, especially if those emotions are perceived to be “soft” or “weak.” Even as men are encouraged to get in touch with their emotions, the reception to their feelings of fear, anxiety, or grief can be cold, to say the least.
This leaves men in an impossible position: they crave connection, love, and friendship, and in order to achieve that connection and feel truly seen, they must be vulnerable. Yet vulnerability is an emotional risk, and many men have been punished for taking that risk.
What Men Can Do
The need for connection and belonging is non-negotiable. We must find a way through the mire of fear and self-doubt. Vulnerability can be uncomfortable but it is also honest, and showing our authentic selves is the only way we can find a sense of true connection with others.
Trust is the one guiding light for men. Roughly defined, trust is that invisible feeling of kinship that comes when someone shows that they care and can honour and receive our vulnerability. As author Brené Brown often puts it, they have earned the right to hear our story.
1. Identify people who have already earned some trust.
Surely, there are some people who have already earned some trust from you. This may not be a long list, and that’s OK. Deep, trusting relationships are not built with just anyone.
A few qualities to look for in those who are worthy of trust (and qualities you will want to develop to earn the trust of others):
Honest, but non-judgmental
Knows how to listen sincerely
Consistent and reliable
2. Seek out moments for connection.
Be intentional about spending time with the people you’ve identified. Show that you’re invested in the relationship by giving them a call or asking them out to coffee.
3. Take incremental emotional risks.
When connecting with these people, take the risk of sharing more of yourself than normal. Don’t worry about saying it just right. The important part is letting this person see more of who you are beneath the surface. If emotions come up, breathe and let them be seen.
4. Open up a step at a time.
Trust is built through gradual self-disclosure, and sharing more does not always mean it builds faster. Start gradually, a step at a time, one brick on top of the other. “Oversharing” or “trauma-dumping” is not vulnerability and doesn’t lead to real connection. When opening up, think about whether you’re talking with this person, or talking at them. It’s meant to be a conversation with give and take.
5. Be present and return the trust.
Make space for the other person to open up as well. Listen to understand, not to respond. Use body language that shows you're present: facing them, arms uncrossed, with good eye contact and steady breathing. If they open up and share something painful or difficult, breathe through it and sit with them in discomfort. Holding that space for them is a powerful way to build trust and connection.
6. Breathe through the vulnerability hangover.
Sometimes, after we take those emotional risks we can walk away with the feeling of “yikes, maybe I shared too much.” This is a normal feeling after we share something vulnerable. It’s much like a good workout, leaving our vulnerability muscle with a bit of an ache. Take steady breaths and let the feeling pass. Vulnerability is an act of courage and you’ll be stronger for it.
Adapted from the article “Why So Many Men Are Lonely... and 6 steps for making deeper connections”
Sally Edwards Counselling
I am a fully qualified counsellor based in Orpington, Kent
I work with clients with problems including: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, identity issues, relationship problems, self-destructive behaviours, self-harm, childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence, domestic abuse, trauma, PTSD, eating disorders and body image problems.
I am easily accessible from local areas near me including Orpington, Bromley, Chislehurst, Petts Wood, Sidcup, Beckenham, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Knockholt, West Wickham, Chelsfield, Swanley and Bexley
Face-to-face in person or online counselling