Most people sense from their own experiences that men and women handle negative emotions differently. When things aren’t going well for women, they have a propensity to experience it as depression. When men are feeling down, they often express it as anger.
While these statements are (of course) generalizations, men and women have proven differences in brain function when it comes to processing negative emotions.
One negative emotion that men and women clearly have in common is loneliness. This raises a few questions: Do men and women process loneliness differently? Is one gender more prone to it than the other? Who’s better at overcoming it? Let’s ask the research.
1. Who’s more prone to it?
According to substantial research, women across all ages and lifestyles report higher levels of loneliness than men do. Except, perhaps surprisingly, in one subset of people—single people. While married women inch out married men for the lonelier group, single men vastly outweigh single women as the lonelier bunch.
The studies that demonstrate this difference provide no causal reason for why this is the case. But knowing what we know about the social habits of men and women, we can speculate. Women tend to be more socially minded than men and may, therefore, maintain more close friendships outside of a primary romantic relationship, leading to less loneliness when without a spouse.
Of course, there’s a flip side to the socially conscious tendency of women. Because they generally focus on relationships more than men do, when their relationships sour, they may fall more easily into loneliness.
2. How does culture affect how men and women process loneliness?
While many studies indicate that women are lonelier than men in general (barring the exception of single men discussed above), one study conducted by Shelley Borys at the University of Waterloo found that women may not necessarily be the lonelier gender, they may simply be more comfortable admitting vulnerability.
As Borys puts it, “… women are more apt to acknowledge their loneliness than men because the negative consequences of admitting loneliness are less for women.”
This conclusion is supported by another study that aimed to understand the role of masculinity in expressing vulnerability. In it, researchers found that men were indeed more reluctant to admit any “weak” feelings, including loneliness. In fact, the more “masculine” a man perceived himself, the more reluctant he was to acknowledge any social deficit of any kind.
3. Who deals with loneliness better?
While it’s not evident which gender has better coping mechanisms when it comes to loneliness, it is clear that each gender has its distinctive style of coping. When feeling lonely, men tend to pursue groups of casual friends—groups of acquaintances, really—while women tend to throw themselves into more serious, one-on-one relationships.
As a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed, men generally reported feeling less lonely when their friend groups were more “dense,” whereas women showed little correlation between feelings of loneliness and friend group density. In other words, for men, it seems to be more about quantity. For women, it’s more about quality.
As the authors explain it, “It is suggested that men may use more group-oriented criteria in evaluating loneliness, whereas women focus more on the qualities of [one-on-one] relationships.”
Some possible conclusions
Based on the findings of these studies, we can hypothesize a possible model for how men and women experience loneliness differently:
Women tend to value close, one-on-one relationships. But because these relationships take more time and energy to maintain than casual ones, women have fewer relationships that stave off loneliness than men do.
If and when these close relationships end, women may feel extremely socially disconnected and experience high levels of loneliness. For social and cultural reasons, they are likely to readily admit having these negative feelings.
On the other hand, men tend to thrive with lots of casual relationships. They feel most socially connected and least lonely when they’re a part of a dense network of friend, family, and romantic connections.
But if this network thins out, men – especially single men – become primed to experience high levels of loneliness. For cultural reasons, this loneliness is likely to go unacknowledged. And the “manlier” the man, the less likely he is to address his loneliness.
I hope this review of loneliness and gender helps you better understand your own experiences with loneliness—and what to do if loneliness hits.
Kira Asatryan is a certified relationship coach and author of Stop Being Lonely: Three Simple Steps to Developing Close Friendships and Deep Relationships; find more information at kiraasatryan.com.