I am going to start this article by being honest – I am lonely. And often I feel alone.
Now that might be a big statement to make but let me explain. As we age, as males, we become more and more isolated not necessarily because we have a network of people we do things with or hang out with – but because we have very few long term, significantly connected friends. According to research the average middle aged male, let alone someone over the age of sixty, will have fewer than three close, connected friendships and, they are not always close geographically. And its not new – we have apparently been lonely for a long time.
Again it might sound strange that someone as public as I am, a former radio broadcaster and so on could be lonely but here’s the thing (and I do love you all!) – like most men I know a lot of people, work colleagues and employees, associates and neighbors – but in actual fact – few of them would count as a close friend – the type of friend that you would tell your closest secrets to, share your worries and challenges; someone who would never cast judgement over you and would be there to support to you.
In a landmark study Boston researcher Dr Jacquline Olds and found that our pattern of loneliness actually begins at a very early age: There is a current tendency for men to foster stronger, more intimate marriages at the expense of nearly all other social connections. When a marriage fails or an intimate relationship goes south (as is the case with an ever increasing divorce and separation rate) and men age their ability to form friendships with other men becomes less.
When these men are older and work no longer defines their social contacts, “there’s a lot of rebuilding that has to be done” if they are to have meaningful friendships with other men, Dr. Old’s said in an interview.
From childhood on, Dr. Old’s said, “men’s friendships are more often based on mutual activities like sports and work rather than what’s happening to them psychologically. Women are taught to draw one another out; men are not.”
Then there is the challenge of that good old manly thing we all have where we don’t like talking to people about the real tough things that are going on in our lives because its not manly enough. In other words we are taught from a very young age not to share, not to tell and not to go into detail for fear your brothers will think less of you.
During childhood we do build strong friendships – for me personally I had a great childhood growing up in a small City in New Zealand. The air was fresh, summer was amazing and we spent a lot of time outside (well you would because there was no internet! Or smartphones). I thought that as we aged we would remain close – but then something happened. As we grew older things in our own lives began to change. People moved away, we went to different schools and some even left Upper Hutt. Then you make new friends and the same thing happens over time. The biggest challenge is that we all live in the moment and very rarely do friendships carry through from childhood to our teenage years, from early adulthood to middle age and from middle age to aged. Over time we also begin to care more about how other people see us. What other people might think about us.
Instead what happens is we bottle it all up. When a relationship or marriage breaks down we keep it to ourselves. Even though we might be in fear of losing our jobs and have struck middle age and worry about if we will get another one – we keep it to ourselves. When we have done something wrong and see no way out – we keep it to ourselves. In actual fact its not others that cause our loneliness – we do it to ourselves because at the very heart lies fear.
So even though I might know thousands of people, have great relationships with my neighbors, appear on television and in the media and appear to have all these wonderful roles – less than three people really know me and even they don’t know everything about me. You see – this is the other thing. We very rarely ever get to the point when a single person knows everything other than ourselves. We still have secrets we like to keep. This became obvious to me when a close friend of mine passed away – Thomas Cosgrove. I thought I knew Thomas well. But, at his funeral the most remarkable thing happened. It turns out I only knew less than 20% of who he was.
Thomas, you see, had the remarkable ability to compartmentalize every aspect of his life around what I would call tribes. Each tribe played a role depending on how he wanted them to fit in and never did these tribes intersect or run together. Each tribe was different and the only common thread was Thomas.
When Thomas died so did the tribes. This is when I discovered I also have tribes.
Ultimately the challenge with loneliness is something I know only too well in my role as Chairman of Suicide Prevention Australia. We often talk about the challenges faced by a number of demographics and population groups but very rarely do we have open conversations about men in their middle years and that needs to change.
For my part I want to make some suggestions:
As men we need to know its ok to connect with people and form friendship groups – you’ll find all of us are fighting battles that no one else can see and we have more in common than we do differences
As families we need to understand that our fathers, brothers and partners are often challenges and carry an enormous number of burdens. So its ok to give them space just as it is ok to give them support. Even if this means sharing them for a small part of the week with their friends and not complaining about it! And yes; it does happen.
As men there is nothing wrong with reconnecting with friends of the past; this new world social media can find the most complicated of surnames!
Its ok to connect the tribes – its okay if people know more about you than sometimes you want to let on because like I said before each of us has our struggles
So there you go; it’s a massive step for me in my life to tell you I am lonely and often feel alone.
Its not easy and while I am a resilient human being and a very strong willed and determined man – like everyone else I have a fear that by letting you all in too close some of the sheen might be stripped off. But; as I sit here writing this; I don’t want to be like Thomas I want to be ok with people knowing more about the struggles I face just like the many aspirations and hopes I have for all of you .... and me.
Remember each of us fighting something you might not be able to see.
About the Author: Matthew Tukaki is the Chairman of Suicide Prevention Australia, Chairman of New Zealand National Maori Authority, Ngangaru and a member of the New Zealand Maori Council. He is a former national Radio broadcaster and host of Talking Lifestyle Second Career on the Macquarie Network in Australia and Chair of NewsNow and Sustain Group. You can follow him on Twitter @tukakimatt
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