liv: Composite image of Han Solo and Princess Leia, labelled Hen Solo (gender)
[personal profile] liv
This is liable to be controversial, and I should emphasise that I'm trying to work out what to think here, not proclaiming the right answers.

So it happens that the latest Captain Awkward discussion is about loneliness and how it can be a vicious cycle, if you don't have enough fulfilling social contact you can become miserable and self-hating and push people away or think everyone's out to get you.

The Awkward Army are being very good at firmly squashing the idea that all problems are just caused by bad attitudes, and pointing out that plenty of people have disabilities or external circumstances meaning they can't "just" make more friends. But still, loneliness is one of those types of suffering that people seem to treat as mostly the sufferer's own fault; the most comparable example I can think of is physical fitness. Like somehow, if you're likeable enough, whatever likeable means, in a fallaciously just world you should have as many friends and lovers as you wish. But that means it's very common to assume that anyone who complains about being lonely must in fact be an obnoxious person. And problems which are stigmatized like that are particularly hard to tackle!

The other thing is that "lonely" means two related, but to my mind different, things. Sometimes it means not having enough social contact, but sometimes it means not having a romantic partner. Or perhaps more precisely, the feelings of sadness and inadequacy that come from not having those connections. A really striking example is the guy in the Captain Awkward comments who says
The article is bull. I am horribly lonely. I shoot pool with friends once a week. I go to church every week. I go out to a party every month. I am active in two local communities. I have hundreds of friends [...]
I mean, sure, it's possible to be lonely in a crowd, but it's clear from the rest of the comment and subsequent thread that what's eating this guy is that he's middle-aged and doesn't have and never has had a romantic partner. And being stuck without a partner but wanting one means being perceived as a failure, to an extent that really worries me.

I think loneliness is a very serious problem, and from what I can understand a pretty widespread one. Some people are lonely because they're obnoxious, yes, but it's still a problem; you have to be a lot worse than just obnoxious to deserve how miserable it can be to be deprived of meaningful contact and emotional support. Anyway, lots of entirely lovely people are lonely because they have other stuff going on making it hard to make friends, or because they're just plain unlucky. That includes the not having a spouse-type partner side of being lonely. It's easy enough to say that marriage isn't everything, that people should be able to manage without that specific type of relationship set-up, but the fact is that lots of parts of society are set up so that it's really hard to function at all if you're not in a romantic dyad. Also, it's perfectly reasonable for an individual to want that in their life, even if it's not necessarily the only road to happiness for everybody.

This issue also intersects with gender stuff; people of all genders can be lonely, and people of all genders can be excluded because they don't have a spouse or aren't romantically "successful" as society measures it. But I'm getting the strong impression that there are aspects of this problem that affect men specifically, and that there are very few sensible conversations covering male experiences of loneliness. I doubt we can magically fix this, but I'd most certainly like to start some discussion if I can.

One thing that prompted me to think about related issues is Lis Coburn's essay Anatomy of a scar, which has an original and really insightful take on what's sometimes called the Nice Guy™ phenomenon. In some ways Coburn is much more sympathetic than a lot of the folk on the internet who use the term Nice Guy™, while she also buys into the idea that Nice Guys, men who are upset because they don't have a girlfriend even though they do their best to behave decently and treat women well, are potentially dangerous misogynists.

The thing is, I don't doubt that there are some misogynists who think that attractive women "owe" them sex in exchange for basic human decency. I've seen them around on the internet, there are plenty of people who will take over any comments section of any vaguely feminist discussion and post angry screeds to dating sites and so on to complain how it's not fair that they're not getting laid. I also understand the need for spaces where women can vent and share stories about awful sexist men. But I'm really uncomfortable with some of the name-calling that goes on in overtly feminist spaces, Nice Guy™, neckbeard, dudebro, teh menz etc. Partly because I am generally a fluffy sort of person and I don't like calling my political opponents names, but mainly because I am worried about conflating all lonely single men with opponents of feminism.

I strongly suspect that groups like pick-up artists and so-called men's rights activists are in fact preying on such lonely, vulnerable men. Yes, those groups are more of a problem for women because they (more or less tacitly) promote sexual assault, but if Coburn's piece is right, men who did the only thing they know to make themselves worthy of love, and it failed, and now they’re afraid that no one will ever love them are being exploited by these manipulators. Clearly, it's a myth and a damaging myth that men who meet the minimum requirements for manhood will eventually meet a woman who will do [their emotional] work for them. She’ll comfort them when they’re sad, soothe them when they’re angry, and take away their loneliness and pain. But if you can tell yourself that this scenario used to be true in some romanticized time in The Past, and now it isn't any more because feminism, that's a lot less scary than thinking that you're simply not worthy of love.

In theory, feminism ought to be good for this problem. It ought to be helpful to break down gender roles such that men don't have to constantly live up to this impossible standard of manliness, where success is measured by whether you can "get" a woman. The more feminist a society is the smaller the problem where men have to do all the initiating and approaching in all kinds of romantic and sexual interactions, leaving them vulnerable to being rejected, which is perceived as being found wanting, not living up to this imaginary standard. Feminism means that women can choose partners for themselves, not superficial qualities like wealth or status. Now obviously helping lonely men to find partners isn't going to be the main priority of a feminist movement, but I don't think the problem of men being lonely is antithetical to feminist goals.

I agree with Coburn's proposed solution that:
Instead of waiting for a single relationship to fix everything, the way to take the edge off that desperation for a significant other is to build and enrich ones in other roles. Someone may not be the person who will love you forever, but with them you can still work on the process of letting someone care about you and learning to believe that you have value.
I am absolutely one hundred percent in favour of taking some of the weight away from monogamous, romantic, heteronormative, marriage-like relationships. I'm a great fan of Meg Barker who's doing some really good work trying to figure out a better model for relationships. I want to see a lot more regard for non-romantic friendships, for non-dyadic romances, and for communities. (This is almost certainly a different post, but a lot of the reason why I'm involved in religious communities is because I don't see a lot of other places where people who are not particularly charismatic or outgoing can find a group of people they can rely on for emotional and practical support.)

However, identifying something as a social problem more than an individual failing doesn't mean that the answer is simply "fix society"; people have to live in the society that currently exists while that fixing is still going on. While marriage does carry such a disproportionate burden of meeting people's needs, it is genuinely hard to go through life unpartnered, and people who are upset about this are not wrong to be upset. Yes, you can have friends and chosen family as well as a partner who's supposed to provide all your social support. But you're still missing something if you don't have someone to come home to, someone to be part of your life even when you're not being specifically "social". Yes, you can have sex with people you're not in an ongoing official relationship with, but lots of people don't find that emotionally appealing even if it were more socially acceptable. Yes, you can be emotionally open to people other than romantic partners, but it really goes against social expectations, especially for men. Yes, you can raise children as a single parent, but parenting really is much better as a multi-adult job, and besides most men don't have the option to get pregnant and I imagine it's a major uphill struggle for a single man to convince the powers that be that he's the right person to adopt a kid. The idea that you can take on all domestic and personal tasks unaided relies on a lot of unexamined assumptions; unless you're either richer or a lot more functional than many people, preferably both, it may in fact be impossible to be what's called "independent", to be your own household without ongoing practical support.

So I think a lot of people who worry about being rejected a lot, or who struggle with approaching potential partners, are much more genuinely scared than they are entitled. Absolutely, one hundred percent, no specific individual owes you a relationship or a date or sex or emotional support. But it totally is terrifying to be afraid you're not good enough at what is after all a mostly arbitrary game to have a chance of finding someone. And it doesn't do to be glib, there's no point saying there's someone out there for everyone, cos there really isn't, some people in fact never find a life partner or never have any satisfying romantic relationship at all. It's quite often not random bad luck that leads to this outcome, it's people who are disadvantaged more generally who are also disadvantaged in the marriage market (and boy is "market" a terrible model for partner-finding!)

It's perhaps a more minor problem, but it is something of a problem, that the fact of strongly wanting sex or intimacy or a relationship is itself devaluing. I really wish "needy" weren't an insult, it's completely normal and human to need others! Of course it's not pleasant for a potential partner to feel like somebody's entire happiness and self-worth rests on their acceptance, and it's absolutely not acceptable to get angry with a particular person, or with women in general, for not choosing the kind of emotional connection one wants. Also, confusing "sex" with "intimacy" or, to quote Coburn again, magical ability I believe to women have to fix me and make me feel loveable is a really really bad idea for all concerned. It's still kind of a horrible double bind, though, that the more you want a relationship which if not absolutely essential to happiness and wellbeing is pretty important, the more you're likely to be rejected.

I've read somewhere, I can't remember if it was a respectable source or not, that in situations where women have relative equality, men are much more keen on marriage and have much more to gain from it, than in sexist situations where women really need to marry as the only source of economic security and social respectability. A sociologist colleague at work has mentioned current research showing that, in properly anonymous interviews and surveys, men are about equally likely as women to be broody, desperate to have a child, or deeply sad about never becoming parents. But there's really not much acceptable social structure for men to express those kinds of things, we have a stereotype of women having a "biological clock" and women over 30 being marriage-fixated, while men sort of only reluctantly agree to marriage and parenting because it's the only way to get access to women. My anecdotal experience supports this view; I know plenty of men for whom marriage and parenthood are really, really important, and it's not because they feel "entitled" to someone who will wait on them and do all their emotional work. Many people, regardless of gender, really want the kind of life partner relationship that really doesn't have all that many good alternatives in our society, and many struggle to find someone willing to commit to that.

I'm in a somewhat weird position, because although I do have the wherewithal to cope just fine without a romantic relationship, I have in fact been single for less than a fifth of my adult life. So I'm absolutely and completely the wrong person to assert that people who are sad because they don't have a partner should just learn to be satisfied with other sources of happiness and connection. I also feel like I have some experience of being attracted to women who not only don't reciprocate my feelings, but find the whole idea of my having a sexuality disgusting. And believe me, plenty of straight women have experience with being rejected or friendzoned or mocked for wanting a partner. So I sometimes roll my eyes at men who declare that women can't possibly understand how hard it is to be unsuccessful at dating. Equally, I strongly suspect there are aspects of that experience that are simply invisible to me, and I would very much like to hear more about them. Anon comments, as ever, welcome, and I'm interested to hear everyone's thoughts, whether it's first hand experience of being male or not.
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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