Lonely Women and … Lonely Men?

An article by Jean Hannah Edelstein featured in the Sydney Morning Herald today opens with the line ‘Loneliness kills’. She is referring primarily to women. Edelstein draws on literature compiled by Judith Shulevitz in the New Republic, and suggests that women experience loneliness more deeply than men.

Edelstien then goes on to discuss the implications and the strategies many women undertake to ensure that they don’t lead lonely lives. She reflects on how important it is for women to have friends, a supportive community, a life partner, and love.

Central to her argument is the belief that women (unlike men) draw much of their sense of personal self-worth and value from the relationships in their lives, and it is the loss of these supportive and affirming relations that induces the worst experiences of severe loneliness.

Some might take this as somewhat disempowering of women. It might be interpreted as saying that women’s happiness depends on others, whereas men can derive satisfaction from some innate sense of confidence and self-worth associated with their achievements at work, sport, civic life, just being a man etc.

I would suggest, however, that where loneliness is concerned, humanity trumps gender. The need for human connection vaunted by Edelstein is as prevalent amongst men as women. This is, in fact, the line taken in most of Schulevitz’s article. Loneliness is associated with a host of not only mental but also physical illnesses, for men as much as women. There is no gender distinction made in the literature she reviews; Schulevitz in fact makes only the briefest mention of gender in her article, noting that ‘studies’ (unreferenced, and from unspecified countries and times) suggest that women are lonelier than men, with the exception of single women and men.

In Australia, this is not the case. Analysis of the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes by Adrian Franklin from the University of Tasmania shows that men endure loneliness as a serious problem for longer periods than women, are less able to deal with loneliness, and that loneliness is particularly serious amongst separated men.

My own work analyzing various Australian national surveys shows that older men report less social support and social contact, while separated men experience less social support, are less likely to have friends to confide in, and feel less likely to have say in family members compared to partnered men, and either partnered or separated women.

Australian men also spend less time in social contact with friends and family outside the household, and it is time-pressured, partnered fathers who spend the least time in this activity.

It is possible that men simply prefer less social contact, and that this doesn’t translate to more loneliness. However, a unique survey run by the Social Policy Research Centre asked Australians not only whether they lacked social contact, but also whether they thought social contact was ‘essential’ for most Australians. Analysis of this survey shows that Australian men were less likely to have social contact that even they themselves said was ‘essential’.

The upshot of all this is that, in Australia at least, while women might experience the feeling of loneliness more deeply then men, men experience the consequences of loneliness more often than women in terms of reduced contact and isolation. This is the classic distinction made by MIT’s Robert Weiss between ‘social’ and ‘emotional’ loneliness – men experience it even if they do not always show that they are feeling lonely.

A final issue is that Edelstien’s claim on the deeper experience of women’s loneliness may also reflect cultural and gender differences in the expression of emotions such as loneliness. Men may just not feel comfortable showing their loneliness, and may feel bound by social rules preventing them seeking our social contact, support and friendship in the same way as women. The evidence showing greater lack of social connection and social loneliness amongst Australian males is clear and disconcerting, and shows that the loneliness question is not confined to one gender.

Loneliness kills men and women alike.