Is the Cure to Male Loneliness Out on the Pickleball Court?

The more I learn about the epidemic of male loneliness, the more I’m convinced that America needs to send its men out to play: fishing, golfing, hiking, biking, bow hunting — or, for the less sporty types, Ping-Pong, poker, chess, competitive grilling. You get the idea. The particulars aren’t so important. What matters is that guys start clocking quality time together, preferably without wives or girlfriends along.

No gender has a lock on loneliness, but men in particular seem to be struggling with the basics of making friends today. Surveys indicate that men have seen a much sharper decline than women in their close friendships over the past 30 years; a higher percentage of men than women report having no close friends at all (15 percent versus 10 percent); men receive less emotional support from friends than do women; and they are less likely than women to admit being lonely, making it tough to gauge, much less address, their suffering.

Which is where playtime comes in. Pursuing a hobby is widely recognized as a good way to meet people and establish connections. But the folks who study this sort of thing say it is especially useful for men because of a fundamental difference in how the genders bond. Boiled down: Women talk; men do stuff.

While women can maintain ties through conversation-heavy engagements, the experts say, men are better served by side-by-side bonding. That is, they participate in activities together, during which community and camaraderie are established. On occasion, between rounds of bocce or even rounds at the sports bar, the men may bring up how much they hate their boss or the results of their latest stress test. Behold! Male bonding in action.

I’ve long watched the magic of this approach with my father, now in his mid-70s. Over the decades, he has made and maintained friendships with other men through a shared predilection for fishing and hunting.

Especially in their younger years, Dad and his buddies got a kick out of seeing who was the best shot or who could land the biggest fish. The story of my father and his pal Larry doggedly casting for bass during a hurricane is the stuff of family legend. At this point, they mostly enjoy the excuse to get together and shoot the bull. Most of the men have partners, grown children and grandchildren. They nonetheless clearly are playing a vital role in supporting one another through illness, the death of loved ones and all the vagaries of aging.

A colleague recently noted a similar dynamic with both of her brothers. Their social lives “completely revolve around their hobbies,” she said. “Dave builds beautiful and elaborate chopper motorcycles, and Dan is a skateboarding nut.”

My longtime home base is Washington, a reputed hotbed of political snakes and workaholics. As the old saying goes: If you want a friend here, get a dog. But even in the heart of the political swamp, it’s not hard to find men who have carved out valuable playtime, establishing regular basketball games, golf outings, running clubs, jam sessions. One friend mentioned a group of guys who get together regularly to walk their dogs — which puts a sunnier twist on the aforementioned adage.

These connections can run deep. As a former colleague noted of her husband, “I am not sure he’d be functioning without tennis friends. Like, literally, not sure.”

Some men grasp the importance of these meet-ups earlier than others. For going on three decades, my friend Jon has been part of a group that rents out local high school gyms for semiweekly basketball games. (During the pandemic, an outdoor version sprung up at a neighborhood park.) At this point, Jon says, he’s not sure all the basketball is good for his middle-aged joints. But he says it definitely helps keep him sane.

Other men require more of a nudge to get with the program. Facing a looming career switch and an empty nest, my friend Cathy’s husband, Rick, formed a bourbon club. “At monthly meetings,” she said, “the neighborhood dads sit around sipping bourbon and talking about how hard it is to get the bourbon and who stood in what line to get the latest, greatest bourbon and comparing notes about the bourbon — and sometimes they talk about their own emptying nests and their evolving professional lives.”

The go-out-and-play approach is not without its challenges. Chief among them may be time. Many men already struggle to balance their work and personal lives without trying to cram a standing bowling night or P90X date into the mix. And then there’s the significant other factor: Imagine some poor guy trying to find the right time to tell his stressed-out, overloaded wife — who, let’s face it, most likely shoulders more of the life maintenance burden than he does — that he needs Thursday evenings off to go rock climbing. For men with young children, the calculation can be extra tricky. “In truth, Dad duty and work is all I have!” my friend Paul told me in an email.

As with so many aspects of a relationship, reciprocity is the key to survival.

Carving out time with friends is hard for most everyone. But it is also critical, because the crisis of male loneliness isn’t hurting just men. It’s terrible for the women in their lives as well. In heterosexual relationships, many men overwhelmingly lean on their female partners for emotional support. It also frequently falls to the woman to manage the couple’s social life. This may sound vaguely romantic: I couldn’t survive without her. She is my everything! But being someone’s everything can be a bit much, putting a strain on even the most loving relationships.

Generally, it’s healthier for both partners to have other folks available to share the emotional load, especially in times of trouble. “A male partner thinks it’s betrayal to talk to another person,” Niobe Way, a professor of applied psychology at New York University, observed to CNN. “But the female partner is saying ‘Please do it, please get other perspectives.’”

And, indeed, more than one of my female friends lamented that their husbands weren’t more independently social. “He’s fairly solitary,” texted one. “I do his play dates.”

So go on, men. Grab that pickleball paddle and run wild. Consider it a prescription for a better, healthier America.

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