The Pathology of Loneliness

When I was single and in my early thirties,  people were constantly telling me that I needed to focus on myself, find myself, work on me, DO me.   The not-so-subtle implication of this advice was that in DOING me, I would attract HIM.  

These conversations brought up a lot of questions for me, like:

How do I not want the thing that I so clearly want? Is it enough if others believe it or do I also have to convince myself?

If you really have to engage in a certain amount of personal growth in order to be ready for partnership, and you (the advice giver) are married and I am single, does that mean you are more emotionally and spiritually whole than I am? And having purportedly earned this partnership through personal work, are you more worthy of it than me? (This thought was particularly perplexing, as often, there was abundant evidence to the contrary, i.e. that my partnered friends were not more emotionally/spiritually evolved).  

It all felt very fishy and shaming.  I’m all for personal growth and healing, but it felt as though I were being asked to play a game of hard to get with the universe.  Turn the other cheek long enough and the universe will provide you with the very thing you are pretending not to want.  I resented the idea that wanting a partner or being envious of those who had one meant I was weak, undifferentiated, or lacking in something.  It didn’t make sense and it definitely did not seem fair.  Not only did I have to be independent but I had to pretend, and truly believe, that I was better off this way.  

I had been actively DOING me for longer than many of my married and partnered friends.  I thought I had pretty good self-awareness, self-insight, and self-love.  I was far from perfect, this I knew, but so were all my friends in relationships.  

And I couldn’t square the way this fit with all the advice I received from the other side:  advice about manifesting the things I desired, making vision boards, praying, asking for what I wanted.  I was often pushed and prodded to online date-an industry whose entire business model is predicated on members admitting  that they are alone and don’t want to be.  

Perhaps many people are happy being single, but at that time I was not and this was my dirty secret.  At that time I desperately wanted a partner, someone who would support me and someone I could share a life with.  And when I got married, many things in my life did feel a whole lot easier.  I realize this is not true for many people, particularly those who are in abusive or bad partnerships, but for me, at least for the first three years, I felt satisfied having received what people didn’t seem to want me to admit I needed.  What I discovered was not, contrary to popular opinion, that we are ultimately alone and that our happiness depends on our acceptance of this fact, but rather that I did need close emotional bonds, and that having them made life a whole lot easier.  

Close emotional bonds are not unique to romantic partnerships, and this cannot be overstated.  Close emotional bonds can be found in all kinds of relationships, but in a Western cultural context, to our disadvantage I believe, partnership has increasingly come to fulfill this role.   As Dr. Sue Johnson points out in her book “Hold Me Tight”, our social worlds are shrinking, such that many of us are coming to invest all of our emotional needs into just one person.  Partnerships, as opposed to large extended families, bear the burden of providing for all of an individual’s emotional needs.  This is a heavy load for one person to carry.  I wonder often if it is really possible.  I suspect it is not.

But the fact remains, 

We do need each other.  

We do need safe and reliable emotional connections.  We need them deeply and desperately.  Our very survival depends on them in many ways.  Human beings are social creatures and our ability to meet our own needs for shelter, water, food, and physical safety often depend on the stability of our emotional bonds.  

But it goes far beyond survival.  Safe emotional bonds allow us to thrive, to adventure out into the world, to take risks, to explore the world and our own creativity and potential. We can do this because we know that there is always someone/somewhere to come home to.  And the rewards of adventuring into the world and deeper into ourselves are vast.  

Sometimes I wonder about our culture’s investment in preaching this narrative of independence and self-reliance.  Why do we insist, particularly when it comes to women, that needing a partner is weak?  Why do we pathologize loneliness?  We elevate aloneness as a necessary step that must be born, endured, and tolerated with stoicism, while we pathologize the often accompanying state of loneliness.  In our modern world you must be able to be alone without being lonely.  

Surely, and particularly with regards to women, some of this emphasis on independence springs from a culture that has historically DENIED women of their independence.  Whereas before women were told they NEEDED a man, women are now told they DON’T NEED a man/partner.  Neither injunction can be seen as empowering as both deny an individual agency.  

But this explanation does not feel sufficient in explaining a cultural context that so emphatically denies our need for one another.  Perhaps in an increasingly secular culture where many of us can no longer find solace in trusting in God’s plan, we make ourselves into gods.  Instead of surrendering our fears about being alone to God, we deny our attachment needs.  In the face of an increasingly isolated world, we deny our most fundamental desire for connection, and we ask that others do the same.  

In this light, single people may act as reminders to those in couples, of the fragility of their own relationships and the difficulty of going it alone.  This is all speculation.  None of it may be at all accurate.  But what is true is that going it alone is difficult.  We need to remove some of the shame associated with the word need.  We must acknowledge that an emotionally healthy and self-realized person will likely feel isolated and fearful when not in deep connection with others and it bears saying that each of these dynamics can play out within a relationship in just the same way when the relationship fails to provide emotional security.

If you are in a committed relationship or surrounded by a community of people with whom you have secure attachment bonds, perhaps consider carefully the way you talk about the topic of emotional need, particularly when talking to those who are/feel alone.

If you feel alone and hate it, know that there is no shame in admitting this to yourself.  That wanting connection is the most natural thing in the world.  That being alone isn’t the first rung of a ladder that leads towards partnership, but rather that being alone is an often (not always) unfortunate state through which many of us intermittently pass.  And it is hard.  And it can be very painful.  And sometimes maybe it feels okay and even necessary.  Feeling afraid and sad in the midst of disconnection and isolation makes sense because we need each other. 



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