In the District, where women outnumber men, "lonely men" appears to be a contradiction in terms. But a friend of mine recently drew my attention to a lot of lonely men walking around at Christmastime.
She recently took some girlfriends, who were visiting from out of town, to some of our city's best-known nightclubs. They were surprised by what they saw. Dozens of black men were drifting around, looking unhappy and lost.
"I was astonished by the numbers of black men in one club in particular -- alone, standing around, looking sad and lost," my friend said. "They were on the bar, standing on the dance floor. They didn't look happy at all."
My friend's out-of-town visitors were equally incredulous. "I thought D.C. was the place where there weren't enough men," one said.
According to one single District man, in his late thirties: "I can't stand to go into those bars anymore because I see too many men who are as lonesome as I am."
A lawyer who is in private practice in the District said he wasn't surprised by the nightclub scene. "Around Christmas, if you're part of a family setting, you feel good; if you're not, you don't. It's a family holiday. As a single man, I don't even get invited as many places as married guys."
Added another, a 35-year-old childless divorced man who dates many women but fears commitment: "It's a cruel joke. There are a lot of people out here doing well professionally. It would seem on paper there would be a lot of perfect matches, but that doesn't seem to be the case."
Many women would say, "Give us the names of the nightclubs, and we'll help any lonely men we find." But Audrey Chapman, a family therapist, says meeting women does not necessarily solve the problem.
Men who come to the workshops she conducts say they feel confused and scared by the women of the 1980s. "Men felt that initially, during the '70s when women wanted to be liberated, that was confusing, but they went along. Now there is a mood in the country toward something more substantial, but people have forgotten how to get back there," says Chapman. "They are feeling stuck and frustrated. It is a very painful period to go through."
Indeed, men and women, black and white, have increasingly found that they could not handle the fallout of the sexual revolution and now are surveying the damage and trying to make repairs. Erich Fromm, the great post-Freudian psychologist and author of "The Art of Loving," would have called this revolution another sign of the disintegration of love in the industrialized world.
"People came out of the liberation period," says Chapman, "and discovered it was a Catch-22" -- more partners did not mean closer relationships. "It liberated our bodies, but not our minds."
For some, the Catch-22 becomes doubly difficult during the holiday season. "You miss not having kids more around the holiday than the rest of the year," said one thirtyish lawyer.
To beat the holiday blues and capitalize on the holiday's family orientation, many men invite siblings to their homes or visit parents in other cities. One man said Christmas reminded him that he was single because "you're not part of a nuclear family anymore." His sister who lives on the West Coast will be visiting him.
To address the deeper problems on a longer-term basis, special workshops to help men and women work out their difficulties are on the rise. Chapman says that whereas she once was called to address just women's issues, she is now receiving more requests for workshops with both men and women.
Moreover, while many therapists and counselors say they encourage men to take more risks in love relationships, they also urge them to develop relationships with women with whom they are not romantically involved. "The women who were friends and lovers are still with me," said one man who followed this route. "The women who were lovers are gone, and the women who are just friends will always be with me."
Today's popular magazines herald a return to somewhat more traditional ways. The December issue of Cosmopolitan magazine headlines: "New Kind of Love -- the Swing to Long-Term Rational Relationships; They Satisfy."
Despite such troubling scenes as the one in the nightclub, Chapman thinks that, over time, the return to the committed relationship will be a growing trend in the District as well, if men and women can let go of their fears.
"Now we're going to some of the traditional ways -- like having friendship as the basis of relationships, taking people more seriously, and therefore being more responsible and committed," Chapman says. "All of those things will help develop trust, and people won't play as many games because they won't feel so vulnerable."