Loneliness Doesn’t Necessarily Equal Being Alone: New Ways Of Thinking About Loneliness In Relationships
A Columbia University-trained psychotherapist with more than a decade of clinical experience, I’ve come to believe that what it means to help people in therapy is to help them create their lives and I relish in this challenging, playful activity.
Whether it’s realized before an initial session or not, loneliness is a common experience and a frequent reason why people seek therapy. New Yorkers claim a particular experience with loneliness that I suspect is valid. NYC can be a lonely place, perhaps more so because we always feel surrounded by people. At first glance, it can seem fairly straightforward: I’m lonely. I don’t have enough friends. I spend a good deal of time by myself. Except this mold is only one form the experience of loneliness takes.
Talking about loneliness can be challenging, even as a therapist. We can be alone, but have others very much with us, or we can be with other people and be quite alone. Closeness matters–there is closeness that sticks with us and closeness that doesn’t. So many people have a lot of people around them, but have built relationships that are distant, where they aren’t really known or where they are mistreated. To embrace, rather than avoid, the trickiness of discussing loneliness, I organized this post as a series of loosely related vignettes, delving into the complexities of loneliness in relationships.
What is the difference between loneliness and being alone?
Lots of people spend time by themselves. That’s different than spending lots and lots of time by oneself.Time by oneself and being lonely are two different things: one is a material condition, the other an emotional experience. Simply put, our emotional lives don’t exist in parallel to our physical location. We can be sad, for example, not in direct proximity to the object (catalyst) of our sadness. So too with loneliness.
We can see this in both the condition of being with others and yet still lonely, and in being by oneself and not being lonely. Being with others while still lonely can mean being with people who are unkind or uncurious. Perhaps an individual doesn’t know how to feel safe and therefore, can’t open up to more closeness. Perhaps the ongoing experience of loneliness is so stifling as to interfere with his or her ability to absorb other people.
Many, many people experience time alone–meditating, driving to work alone or sitting and writing, while simultaneously having the people in their lives be with them. It sounds metaphysical, but this is quite literal. In a sense, we must ask the question, “Where then did they (these people you were with yesterday and will see again tomorrow) go?” They may have left the room but their emotional presence (which is a factual presence) is with us.
Feeling Lonely In Relationships
Does leaving a relationship where you feel lonely make you less lonely?This is so, so difficult. First, there are abusive relationships and then, there are relationships in which there isn’t that much closeness. Sometimes people stay in an abusive relationship so that they don’t feel lonely. As strange as that may seem, the abuse may be the closest thing that person has to real intimacy. It’s not actually intimacy, of course, but loneliness is a beast. Some people will chose being hit or being put down over being alone.
With relationships where there isn’t closeness, it’s tricker. Sometimes a relationship is lonely because neither person knows how to get closer or build intimacy. Maybe there’s an opportunity to discover that together. Other times, we find ourselves with someone that we outgrow: We get more of a taste of intimacy and we become more aware of how limited the other person in the relationship is.
In either event, what follows is challenging. Sometimes we have to learn to choose safety over a perceived sense of closeness or even a real sense of closeness (people can be both abusive and intimate–these relationships are unsafe, but in such a case that intimacy can be legitimate–just not the same as closeness).
Being Lonely (Or Not) Depends On What You Do When You’re With Other People
Ultimately, all of us need to learn to be alone. Often loneliness is endowed with a certain meaning: “I am alone because I’m a loser” or “I’m alone because I did something wrong and I’m a bad person.” Loneliness in childhood can be a form of punishment–being sent away from the group or family. But, being by oneself is not in and of itself problematic.
Learning to be alone largely means learning to be with people both when we are with them and when we are not. In other words, it’s about relationships. There are animals that are pack animals (dogs, bees) and animals that are more solitary (wolves). People are unquestionably social. We organize our lives in and around social relationships–emotionally, relative to protection from the elements, and economically. Our emotionality developed in large part to support these social relationships.
Loneliness and Emotionality
In spite of this, nearly all of our conversations in the world about emotions–be they on Sesame Street or in cognitive science–offer up a way of understanding emotionality in individuals. Feelings, however, are relational. I think in some ways about the Zen koan: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” In a sense, living our emotional lives in isolation (which may be altogether different from living our physical lives in isolation i.e. physically avoiding people) is the equivalent of waving one hand in front of you. It has many of the features of emotionality, but in a sense it’s incomplete. For an emotional experience, then, to be complete, two (or more) pieces have to come together at the same time.
What’s significant about this is that the experience of loneliness is, in so many ways, the experience of feeling incomplete. We can’t be fully whole emotionally in isolation from emotionally contemplative relationships with others. So, learning to be alone is about learning to be with other people.
Taking Your Therapist With You
In our therapy practice, we sometimes talk to folks who have a tough week ahead about “taking us with you.” What’s tricky to understand about doing this successfully is that it’s almost entirely about what (or more importantly, how we do what) we do together when we are in the therapy room. If we do our emotionality together in a contemplative way, we take the other person with us. In fact, with enough repetition and quality collaboration, we couldn’t not take that person with us. Perhaps a different way of saying it is this: You can’t get better at being alone by yourself. It’s not possible.