This seems to have been the week for discussions about loneliness. We have been talking about the experience of loneliness with a number of people in different situations:
- A married woman whose husband is away on business,
- A widowed professional man,
- A woman who recently ended a two year relationship.
What has been interesting in these conversations is that they start with the assumption that loneliness is due to the absence of someone, and that therefore the solution is to find that someone, or that there is no solution because that someone is dead. On further reflection the conversation comes around to the recognition that the loneliness process (the set of thoughts and feelings associated with loneliness) is different from just being alone.
There are, for instance, situations in which one can be with another person but feel so estranged from that person that one feels lonely. And there are certainly times of solitude that are very, very different from being lonely and that are, for many people, highly valued.
The experience of loneliness frequently includes the fear that one will never find a true partner. Or will not be able to maintain a relationships with such a true partner – someone who really understands and cares for the person who is alone.
In many ways, it is this fear that is the cause of loneliness, rather than the actual experience of being alone.
For the married woman whose husband is away, the fear is that the spouse really is more committed to work than to her. Perhaps a foreshadowing or anticipation of the possibility that the partner might leave.
These fears fall into the category of “dangerous thoughts”: thoughts that make the feared outcome more likely. In other words, the woman who is afraid that her spouse is more interested in work might become insistent or demanding, or angry, or withdraw from the spouse. All actions that could make the spouse feel (gradually and over time) that work is more satisfying than being with her.
The solution to loneliness, then, may not be to find another person, but rather to try to understand the fear of being alone, to look at the evidence carefully (are there lessons to be learned from past relationships that could lay the foundation for future happy future relationships?) and then to try to identify whether the fear is a realistic worry or fear, based on current circumstances, or whether it may, instead, tap into old fears from past relationships and perhaps from childhood.
Obviously, those old fears can be powerful, but their power is usually in inverse proportion to how hidden they are. If I can see clearly that what is driving the loneliness process is a fear that comes from my experience that my mother was very depressed and never seemed to show me any love when I was growing up, that the fear is not based on who I am right now, and my current life circumstance, then the fear can take a more appropriate position in one’s thoughts. It can be seen to be a remnant or memory from the past, that is not a useful predictor of the future.
In other words, loneliness should lead to investigation, rather than just be accepted as the logical consequence of being alone. Loneliness is usually an active process that derives from automatic thoughts and fears that are not clearly seen and are therefore very powerful. And that one way or another tap into the universal fear of being abandoned by one’s parents…. the fear that drives so much of early childhood behavior. But those fears can be given proper perspective, and being alone need not be so painful.
There are so many great books relevant to this post that it is hard to know where to begin. Solitude by Anthony Storr is a classic discussion of the positive aspects of being alone and may be a useful antidote to the idea that “I am lonely because I am lonely.” Where Solitude is pretty wordy, A Gift from the Sea is a poetic, and very short, discussion of how one moment of being alone was very healing for Anne Lindbergh. An interesting but weightier book on the subject of grieving and moving past grief is by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (On Grief and Grieving). A more accessible book on grief is Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations For Working Through Grief by Martha Whitmore Hickman. One of the most popular, and for many people, helpful books on loss is How to Survive the Loss of a Love by Peter McWilliams.