Advice for lonely men living lives of quiet desperation

Lonely, unhappy, despondant man contemplating his marriage

I don’t know if this advice will find its way back to the man who needs help resolving the problem that was posted here. Maybe someone who’s good at doing the footwork can help get the word back. I committed to an answer because other men can benefit too. Here’s the heart of the original letter as posted on American Conservative:

Because I write anonymously, I will lay my cards on the table. I am a church-going Republican who has been married for 18 years, with two children. I have never been unfaithful to my wife, and have a close relationship with my children, who get high marks in school, and by all indications are well-adjusted. My life looks attractive from the outside, but within, I am in a substantial amount of pain.

My marriage has emptied out. Our firstborn came shortly after our one-year anniversary. My wife, who holds a master’s degree and planned to teach, wanted to be a stay at home mother, because she wanted our children to have what she had not. Though this plan was not without obvious sacrifices, I readily agreed to it. We could get by on my salary alone, and I could see the benefits to our child, and future children. It made her happy … for a while. Our second child came, and soon my wife began to complain that she was unfulfilled at home. She began to show resentment towards me for my work. To make a long story short: we decided that she would take a job. Given the complications of the academic job market, I had to resign from my position to take one at another college that offered my wife a teaching gig as part of a package deal. We moved a thousand miles away.

The results have been unsatisfying, to put it charitably. Professional life has not been the cure for dissatisfaction that she had hoped it would be. She complains about her colleagues incessantly, and resents me for the pleasure I take in my teaching. I can do no right by her. Though I enjoy my students, and get on tolerably well with my co-workers, I grieve for the old friends I left behind in our previous residence. My colleagues are pleasant, but if I dropped dead tomorrow, nobody would miss me. People here keep to themselves. I am not permitted within my marriage to talk about my loneliness. I am not permitted to do anything but listen to my wife, angry at the world, blame me and others for her unhappiness. I have to force myself not to think for long about this, or I would derail myself with my anger. Self pity is a luxury I cannot afford.

Here is a man who is lonely despite being married with family. As a result, he’s unhappy. If I could talk to him directly, I’d let him do more talking while I did more listening, but I don’t know him personally and he might never find out I responded, so we’ll have to go with what we have.

Happiness isn’t a matter of any specific level of comfort, wealth, things to enjoy, or a relationship with any specific person. I know a man who has permanent injuries from a horrible car accident. He has nerve damage and his mobility is impaired. He’s in chronic pain. He’s unlikely to find a wife who is willing to share his lot in life. He does have a job, and lives with his brother who looks after him, at the cost of giving up his own independence. His brother makes the decisions that impact his life. He accepts his circumstances and makes the best of them. He’s not only cheerful, he enthusiastically greets customers where he works and tries to bring some sunshine into their lives. Truth be told, he’s happier than most of them.

On the other hand, there are seemingly a lot of celebrities who had everything: fame, fortune, good looks, career success, who ended up overdosing on the drugs they were trying to find happiness in, or got depressed and committed suicide.

Happiness is largely a function of expectations. The more prerequisites you think you need before you can be happy, the harder it becomes to achieve happiness.

If you think “I can’t be happy without a career”, then indeed you can’t.

But here’s the thing: it turns into a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition. In other words, if you believe that you can’t be happy without a career, then you’ll be dissatisfied. But having a career is no guarantee that you’ll be happy! So suppose that you believe that you need a career to be happy, you get one, but you’re still not happy. Then what? You add more preconditions to your happiness, of course! “I can’t be happy unless my colleagues treat me the way I want them to.” Instead of getting closer, fulfillment gets ever more elusive.

Generally speaking, happiness is largely a function of

  • Setting realistic goals for your life.
  • Enjoying the process of reaching those goals itself, instead of just achieving the goal. In other words, let’s say you wanted to lose a little excess weight. You should enjoy your healthy diet and exercise long before you achieve your goal. Chasing goals is not the key to happiness; you put off being happy until you achieve them, get frustrated when you don’t, and take them for granted after a while if you do achieve them.
  • Being grateful for your blessings. Whatever you are grateful for contributes to your happiness. Whatever you take for granted, doesn’t.

How to deal with your wife’s unhappiness

Now maybe you’d like to know how to fix your wife. You can’t. You might be able to help her, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but she’s not your problem. You are.

You too put unnecessary prerequisites on your own happiness. For starters, you apparently don’t know how to be happy if your wife isn’t. More to the point, you make your own happiness depend on something you have NO control over. That’s a guaranteed formula for unhappiness.

You can’t open up her head, push a button, and make her be happy and say nice things to you.

You only have control over your own feelings, and that only to the extent that you accept your own responsibility for them and take charge of them. You might need help doing that, and that’s what I would like to accomplish.

She complains about her colleagues incessantly

That’s not the problem. The problem is never the problem; the problem is your reaction to the problem.

Suppose that she comes home from work, grumpy and complaining. How do you react? Do you feel miserable because she’s miserable? THAT is the problem.

Sympathy means “I am happy when you are happy. I am sad when you are sad.” It can be useful in some circumstances to build rapport, but it’s dangerous, especially for a man, and especially when negative emotions are involved. Even women only get away with so much. I’ve seen a lot of women’s friendships blow out because eventually one or the other got tired of them both dragging each other down.

What works better than sympathy is compassion. “I want you to be happy. I don’t want you to be sad.” Compassion does not require sympathy, and in fact works better without it so that one doesn’t drag the other down.

The best version is

“I am happy. I want you to be happy too.”

When she comes home in a bad mood, instead of you reacting sympathetically to her bad mood, how about she reacts sympathetically to your cheerful, compassionate mood?

If your mood depends on her mood, then your willingness to listen to her complaints is probably minimal. You’d probably rather be doing something else, maybe with someone else. If instead you can maintain your own good mood regardless of hers, then you can listen and let her talk herself through it.

One thing it’s important for men to understand: when she complains, she’s not asking for advice. It makes women angry when men respond to complaints with advice. What she expects is for you to shut up and listen. Once she calms down and is in a better mood, you might give some good advice after you’ve listened long enough to understand what the problem really is. But first you have to do your homework. If a salesman starts launching into his sales pitch the moment you walk in the door, that’s called “sales pressure” and it makes most people feel uncomfortable. What works better is if he shuts up, lets you do most of the talking, listens, asks questions, and really tries to understand your needs before making any recommendations.

How to respond to criticism: as little as possible!

I can do no right by her.

Do you need her approval to be happy? You’re guaranteeing that you won’t get it. There’s somewhat of a paradox as regards approval: if you’re needy for it, other people assume you’re unworthy of it.

Suppose that she criticizes you. Really digs in. Here is a template for responding:

“OK. It’s too bad you think so.” Then shrug it off, and take the kids roller-skating. She can either come along, or sit in the dark and suffer.

You don’t need to try to change her mind about you or anything else. Nothing you say or do will help, and if you assume otherwise, it’s just going to set you up for frustration and despair.

I am not permitted within my marriage to talk about my loneliness.

Welcome to the club; neither can any other married man on the planet. Telling your wife your problems will only undermine her confidence in you. That’s why most men confide in a male friend if they have any. First of all, he’s not married to you so doesn’t take your problems as personally. Second, he’s less likely to get upset over them.

That said, you’ll start losing friends if you make drag them down complaining too much.

The problem with complaining at all is that it’s impotent. It doesn’t contribute to a solution, but instead keeps your attention focused on the problem.

If you have a problem, you only have two options for dealing with it:

✔ Come to terms with the situation
✔ Take action

They’re not mutually-exclusive. Try first coming to terms with the situation. Take a deep breath, sigh, and tell yourself “so it is”. Then, once you calm down and realize that life goes on, ask yourself “OK, what’s the next step?”

Sometimes you need help talking yourself through a problem that’s bigger than you can handle. Try taking it to God through prayer. That’s the suggestion offered by Miles Christi.

If you catch yourself starting to sound whiny, or you’re going in circles over and over about the problem and getting stuck there, remind yourself that’s not helping. Accept the situation and move on.

Now one of your stated problems is that you don’t have friends you can confide in, so let’s address that.

How to have friends

Your lack of friends is part of a bigger problem related to your marriage and family: you can’t use relationships to fill an emptiness. “I need you to make me whole”. It doesn’t work.

Relationships are made out of integral wholes, not broken pieces hoping that other broken pieces will fix them.

Think of it this way: how do you feel when a beggar in a park makes eye contact with you, and starts to approach you? Do you feel eager for the interaction, or do you roll your eyes and think “oh NO!” If he thinks you look like an easy target, he’s probably quite eager for the interaction. Notice that there’s an asymmetry to the situation?

The beggar is needy. He has a problem and would like to transfer some of it to you. He has nothing to offer in exchange, and it’s a zero-sum game: he only benefits to the extent you incur a net loss.

Functional relationships are based on transactions and synergy. Each party to the transaction benefits from the exchange. If you buy bread from the baker, it’s because you want the bread more than you want the money you spent to buy it. The baker wants the money more than the bread. You’re both happier than you were before the exchange.

It might be strange and maybe even taboo to think of it that way, because you’ve probably been trained to be altruistic and sacrificial, but personal relationships are the same way. You have to take care of your own needs, or you have nothing to offer anyone else, at least, not once your time and resources are used up. There is a sneaky paradox that the same people who encourage you to be altruistic and sacrificial are not themselves altruistic or sacrificial; they’re only trying to win points with third parties by shaming benefits out of you at your cost. They don’t care about you. I do, so I’m giving you better advice. Each party to a relationship, whether of marriage, friendship, or parent-child relationship, has to benefit some way from the deal. Even parents benefit from the otherwise thankless job of raising children, by way of genetic continuity. If there’s no mutual benefit, there’s no potential for a functional relationship. So instead of telling you to give to others, I’m telling you to have something to give in the first place, so that you can receive as well.

What do you have to offer potential friends?

Nobody is going to want to be your friend because you’re nice, or because you’re a Catholic faithful to the sacraments, or conservative, or for any other attribute you think of yourself as. Nobody is going to like you because of what you think you “are”.

Instead of complaining about lack of friends, ask yourself what you can do to give someone else a compelling reason to want to be your friend.

How do you or would you contribute to his happiness?

It’s like opening a shop, and then complaining about lack of customers. It’s not about you needing money; it’s about you making a compelling offer for something that other people want. That’s why it helps to not be needy yourself before going into a relationship, so that you can focus on thinking about what will make other people happy and fulfill their desires.

Don’t panic if you don’t have a ready answer. If other people aren’t saying nice things to you and about you, you might falsely conclude that there’s something wrong with you. The only thing wrong is the unrealistic expectation. You do have a gift to give the world. You might need to work on it, but that’s true of everyone. You come into the world with nothing to offer. Your parents loved you and took care of you only because of their instincts towards genetic continuity. Thereafter it was up to you to create value and offer it to the world.

Even whatever innate genetic blessings you were born with aren’t necessarily anyone else’s blessings except to the extent that you find ways to make them so. Did you graduate at the head of your class? Beat all your friends at chess? Handsome devil? Athletic? Good for you! Nobody cares. A more likely response is jealousy. Beware. You’d think that women would like having a prize bull to bring home, but in this narcissistic age even women more often react with jealousy than interest. She wants attention too, and the prize bull is distracting it away from her. The only way that you can turn your blessings into someone else’s blessings is by channeling them into benefits for others.

Imagine a school talent show. One kid brings his violin and plays a difficult showpiece by Paganini. Nobody cares. Nobody’s impressed. Most of them don’t have a passion for that kind of music, and they resent what they interpret as “showing off”. It doesn’t please them, it makes them angry and jealous. The kid is going to get beat up behind the school one day. If it were a more popular style of music, they’d be more forgiving, because they’d enjoy the music. If he told jokes and they laughed, better still.

This explains the seeming mystery as to why some seeming losers are popular, and some winners unpopular. Hint: the loser is supplying benefits you’re probably unaware of, maybe some illicit ones. Don’t get jealous, and don’t get your ego or your own self-esteem wrapped up in it; instead figure out what your gift to others is, or could be, and how to present it to them in a way that makes them happier.

Also beware of being nice to people and doing them favors unsolicited. That might seem like a way of offering someone a benefit, but it comes at the risk of being seen as low-status. Only make compelling offers that you have reason to believe the other person will appreciate. Use your empathy.

People don’t care who you “are”. They’ll forget what you do. They’ll remember how you make them feel.

I have reconciled myself to the fact that loneliness is my fate in this parish.

You might very well have trouble fitting in. A lot of people have similar complaints nowadays. It’s the result of widespread social breakdown. Back around the year 1900, people typically had around thirty or so friends of the caliper that nowadays at best they might have one or two. It’s fairly common for men, and white men in particular if that happens to apply to you, not to have any friends at all.

People used to sit on their porches on hot summer evenings after work, drinking lemonade, and when their neighbors walked past, they’d stop for a visit. People don’t do things like that anymore.

In some cultures, Friday night after work is time to go to a dance hall to meet friends and strangers. Especially young and unmarried people, but even married people show up to dance with their spouses. Mainstream Americans don’t do that anymore.

In Asia, people tend to do things in groups, like Tai Chi in the parks. Sometimes the participants get to know each other individually, but even if not, they enjoy the group spirit. Americans have no cultural equivalent; all that died out in several cultural shifts after the world wars and during the Vietnam War. We shifted into a self-oriented consumer culture, where people seek self-fulfillment through passive consumption of consumer entertainment and happiness pills. To explain exactly what went wrong is beyond the scope of this article; it’s not something we can fix by ourselves so let’s fix what’s within our own personal control.

What I suggest is muddling through the best you can, starting with what you have, and then taking the next step.

Yes, I am a theological conservative in a relatively liberal church, but I’m not interested in doctrinal combat, and I can’t say with confidence that the vibe in this parish would be much different if it were more conservative.

Never mind the ideology; that’s superficial. Take a closer look at the demographics, which is actually the bigger issue and possibly the basis of differences in ideology. Do you have peers? Other men you can relate easily to because they’re enough like you? Other dads of other families in the congregation? Or is your parish full of singles, DINKs, and elderly widows/widowers?

You can fit in even if you’re odd-man-out, but it gets harder, and right now you need easier. You might very well need to look elsewhere.

A lot of people I know complain that all their friends are virtual friends over the internet. The problem is finding peers. It’s probably not that there aren’t any prospects at all where you live, it’s that the density is low, and circumstances suboptimal for finding them.

That means you have to proactively go looking for peers and take the initiative to make friends. It won’t happen spontaneously.

I suggest joining a men’s group or forum online, then escalating to chat sessions and phone calls, then if at all possible, face-time. What doesn’t work very well is social media: most of the interactions are very superficial, and consist of non-stops bids for attention and validation. You need to get beyond that point.

The ultimate goal is shoulder-to-shoulder time (imagine a group of Amish men working in an old-fashioned barn-raising). More about that another time.

How to avoid depression

First stabilize your own mood so you’re an integral whole instead of a broken part looking for others to complete him. Here are some quick fixes:

  • Daily exercise. No time but plenty of excuses? Try yoga; you can do it in your own home in an area the size of a yoga mat, just before bed. You can get instruction online or through videos. Look for programs either specifically for men, or at least marketed to men; they’ll have a higher ratio of strength-building exercises to balance and stretches, not that those aren’t useful in their own right.
  • Time outdoors twice a day for at least 10 minutes each. If nothing else take a short, brisk walk.
  • Regular time spent in a natural environment. A park if nothing else.
  • Play with your kids. Start a habit of family game night. Wrassle with your boys or shoot some hoops with them. Take your daughters out for lunch or to a movie. Date night with dad. Not once; make these events regular habits.
  • Find reasons to call up old friends. Birthdays. Holidays.
  • Be mindful of the blessings you already have. What you are grateful for contributes to your happiness. What you take for granted, doesn’t.

Self-esteem

You also need to work on your self-esteem. Unfortunately, that’s a loaded term, because many psychologists use it to mean “feeling good about yourself”. Actually, it works better if you just feel good, without needing to have a high opinion of yourself (that’s arrogance, or maybe psychological narcissism, which we’re having an epidemic of at the moment).

What you want to be is what some people call “comfortable in your own skin”. You accept yourself the way you are, even as you have a plan for self-improvement. You don’t think of yourself as being “broken” and needing to be fixed, you think of yourself as being OK the way you are, on a personal path of progress that sometimes includes some experiences of learning the hard way. You accept other people the way they are. You have come to terms with your circumstances, even as you have a plan for making things more to your own liking.

I hope that this article helps you find your way to a happier, more fulfilling life. If you have ideas for improving it, have needs that I haven’t addressed, or want to give me feedback regarding what resonated, please let me know in the comments. Let’s start a conversation to give each other feedback and share ideas.

Resources:

Here’s a book written by fellow married Catholic man Michael Sebastian

Namaste! The Divine within me honors the Divine within you. I tell stories about lessons I've learned the hard way. Follow @KalkinTrivedi on Twitter.

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