February 6, 2024

International Men's Day: Feelings of disconnection and loneliness

Over and over again in my therapy room I see men struggling with relationships, with feelings of disconnection and loneliness, with how to reconcile traditional views of masculinity with the modern world. I help them find the courage to be vulnerable, imperfect and show all of themselves; learn to emotionally connect with others, live with the fear of disconnection and find a new perspective on how to be a man. It’s a very common story that leads to men in the UK on average reporting lower levels of life satisfaction, happiness and belief that what they do in life is worthwhile compared to women. Yet they are less likely to seek help, accounting for only 32% of referrals to NHS psychological services.

19th November was International Men’s Day, a chance to put these issues in the foreground. It can be an opportunity for businesses to highlight men’s stories, normalise discussions of mental health and encourage employees to seek help. This is very much my story as well, so to mark International Men’s Week I decided to turn the spotlight on myself, to talk openly about my personal struggle to accept my own vulnerability in the hope that it might help others.

After 40 long years of ups and downs I am learning that when it comes to my own emotional experiences I am very much still a work in progress. Looking back I see that I was brought up to be stoic. The dominant narrative in my family was to ‘just get on with things’. Problems were to be endured with minimal fuss. It was drilled into us to always look on the positive side. Negative emotions were suppressed - not expressed or validated. So it is no surprise that in the first 10 years of my marriage I mistakenly believed that my wife wanted me to be self-reliant, strong, decisive and calm. I saw these as desirable male characteristics and so when she was feeling vulnerable and reaching for me she would often experience me as detached, withdrawn and cold. This led to us both feeling lonely and disconnected.

Sue Johnson in her book ‘Hold me Tight’ describes the feeling of disconnection as attachment panic, whenever we feel unloved, uncared for and unworthy of connection. These softer attachment emotions are universal to the human experience. Reading ‘Hold me Tight’ and applying this learning to my own attachment relationships has been life changing for me. It has helped me as a husband, father and therapist. It has allowed me to develop compassion for myself, which has led me to be more compassionate with others. I now understand the visceral panic that takes over my whole body when I have arguments with my wife.

It was only when I started to connect with my softer emotions, acknowledge my wounded parts and my insecurities that I began to accept and understand these emotions as what they were, rather than see them as weaknesses, character flaws or unattractive qualities. I got to know my angry part that takes over when I feel the fear of disconnection and how I jump so quickly to anger when I feel this attachment panic. I also got to know the anxious part of me, and how I become anxious when I feel not good enough or pick up on any signs that I am unworthy of love or connection.

So I have learned to share my softer emotions; to tell my wife and children when I feel scared, anxious, hurt, rejected, unloved and uncared for, and to express what I need (which is often just a hug or a listening ear). Even now though when I do this, I still look into my wife’s face, studying her eyes and facial expressions looking for any sign that she is repulsed by me. I am learning to trust myself and all I see in my wife’s eyes is love and compassion.

This is my story, and the story of many other men I see in my practice. So this year, let’s use International Men’s Day to start a conversation: to normalise these feelings of disconnection, to help men begin to understand vulnerability, to tap into their softer emotions.

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