Practicing toxic masculinity will lead to a lonely, unhappy life

Angry businessman shouting isolated in a black background

Whatever happened to the strong, silent type? According to a new study examining the long-term repercussions of practicing toxic masculinity, he’s probably feeling pretty lonely and unhappy these days.

Pop culture’s idea of a “real man” has changed quite a bit in recent years, and men are generally more able to show some vulnerability from time to time. Decades ago, however, boys grew up on a healthy diet of movie stars like Gary Cooper and John Wayne; men who conveyed characters showing little to no emotion, sadness, or dependence on others.

While it’s undeniable that more and more men are abandoning these one-dimensional ideas of what it means to truly “be a man,” many continue to cling on to the idea that men should never talk about their feelings or show weakness, especially in front of a woman. Now, researchers from Michigan State University have found that practicing these ideals usually leads to social isolation, poor health, and overall unhappiness later on in life.

These findings certainly make sense. Imagine a man who spent his entire life ignoring his personal feelings, talking down to women, and demeaning his sons for not meeting his own standards of masculinity. By the time old age arrives, all of his feelings will be just about ready to explode, and he’ll have pushed away his own family.

“When we age, there are certain ways that we can ensure we maintain our health and well-being,” says Stef Shuster, MSU assistant professor in Lyman Briggs College and the Department of Sociology, in a press release. “Having people with whom we can talk about personal matters is a form of social support. If people only have one person that they can share information with, or sometimes even no people, they don’t really have an opportunity to reflect and share.”

When you’re 30 years old and successful, it’s easy to feel invincible. As the decades pass, though, men and women alike are bound to encounter more health and financial hurdles. Careers end and our bodies inevitably break down. Suddenly, those emotions and people that were pushed away seem pretty important.

“Social isolation is common among aging adults. Changes such as retirement, widowhood or moving to a new home can disrupt their existing friendships,” says study co-author Celeste Campos-Castillo, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“Toxic masculinity” is a new term, but the behavior it represents has existed for a long, long time. Just because something has existed for centuries, though, doesn’t mean it is correct. Europe was ruled by hereditary bloodlines of kings and queens for centuries, and we can all agree that sounds entirely silly within a modern context.

“Older men who endorse the ideals of toxic masculinity can become siloed off as they age,” Shuster adds. “Not all older men are at risk — just those who favor a particular set of ideals.”

For the research, a total of 5,500 older American men and women were surveyed.

“A lot of gender research is based on simplistic binaries of women or men, feminine or masculine, either you’re hegemonically masculine or you’re not,” Shuster notes. “Because of the data set that we’re using, our study actually looks at masculinity on a spectrum.”

Moreover, toxic masculinity often begets similar behavior. A man will likely be even more inclined to adopt an autonomous, emotionally cold attitude if he is constantly exposed to such behavior by his peers.

At the risk of opening up a millennial versus baby boomer discussion, there’s really no denying that older adults are more prone to this line of thinking than people born after 1980. Today, more and more boomers are preparing to leave the workforce for retirement. As these older adults enter the next phase of their lives, researchers suggest that they at least attempt to adopt a more holistic, emotionally open approach to communication.

Unfortunately, the study also found that the higher a man scored on the scale of toxic masculinity, the more difficult it will be for him to change his habits or seek out emotional support.

“Can you change someone’s ideological principles? I think that’s a harder sell than trying to get people to believe that social isolation is incredibly detrimental to their health,” Shuster concludes. “It’s about learning how to offer tools for people not to be socially isolated and helping them develop the capacity to recognize that all of the ways they have upheld being so-called ‘real men’ is not going to work for them as they age.”

When we’re on the receiving end, toxic masculinity is obnoxious, off-putting, and even abusive at times. But, those practicing such behavior are ultimately doing just as much, if not more, harm to themselves.

The full study can be found here, published in Sex Roles.