The condition of being lonely creates brain changes which result in self-defeating beliefs and negative attitudes, which in turn generate a self-fulfilling loop of relationship failure and further isolation.
So, the very people who need and crave love most, wind up being the folks least likely to be able to accept it.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n out of Hell,
a Hell of Heav’n
John Cacioppo and William Patrick offer this quote from Milton in their book, Loneliness.
I’ve been blogging about relationships and trust, and referring heavily to John Gottman’s new book The Science of Trust. Gottman mentions several times how chronic loneliness impairs peoples’ ability to trust others, thereby making the formation of close relationships difficult or impossible.
People vary widely in their need for social contact and intimate connection. It’s the quality of connection that is vital, not the quantity. It’s very possible to feel desperately lonely even when surrounded by people, or when in a committed relationship.
And everyone feels lonely sometimes. We’re social creatures, and that craving for connection is natural and not necessarily harmful, unless it goes on too long:
Loneliness becomes an issue of serious concern only when it settles in long enough to create a persistent, self-reinforcing loop of negative thoughts, sensations, and behaviors. (Loneliness, p 7).
My head clicked back to a 1.5 decade chunk of my life, when my family relocated from New England to Birmingham, Alabama. For that move I gave up our beloved little house…my business…my ties to friends and family…even my cats!
It seemed the right thing to do at the time, and I agreed to all this willingly, as a married adult, making what seemed like a sensible plan.
But I can see now that there were serious ramifications for me. I left virtually every bit of what Gottman calls “the bones” of my identity behind.
And, I never adjusted to the different culture, I failed to replace my network of friends, I became divorced…I did begin a new business and a new relationship, and those things were wonderfully energizing, until that relationship ended.
What then followed were five more years of isolation, as I determined to not become seriously involved with any new man (because I’d then be “trapped” in ‘Bama for the rest of my life!)
Instead, I dated “casually” and counted the minutes until my youngest graduated high school and we could locate back to the Northeast “where I belonged.”
I’m sharing all this detail, because when I did finally move back to the New York area (five years ago by now), I was in a pretty warpy emotional condition. And I didn’t realize it!
But those negative thoughts, sensations and behaviors?…whew, I was dripping with them! I approached every new date brimming over with defensiveness, callousness, and twisted perspectives on men, sex, relationships…you name it!
(Tellingly, my first gift to a new man I liked was Raymond Carver’s story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, that classic tale of emotional/romantic confusion. )
People are naturally designed to be a little bit suspicious and paranoid, as a basic survival adaptation.
And then, extended isolation provides an emotional Petri dish in which natural paranoia breeds into distorted, negative, painful attitudes and habits of mind:
The person who starts out with a painful, even frightening sensation of being alone may begin to see dangers everywhere on the social landscape. …When loneliness is protracted, impaired regulation, combined with distorted social cognition, makes us less likely to acknowledge someone else’s perspective. … At the same time, fear of attack fosters a greater tendency to preemptively blame others. Sometimes this fear makes us lash out. Sometimes it makes us desperate to please, and sometimes it causes us to play the victim.
The sad irony is that these poorly regulated behaviors, prompted by fearful sensations, often elicit the very rejection that we all dread the most. (Loneliness, p 16-17)
I see myself in this description. And I also recognize many of the single people I know, middle-aged veterans of love who appear to be living out a loop of failed relationships that surely can’t be accidental.
I’m thinking that one way to begin breaking out of this loop, is to apply Gottman’s strategy of The Love Map, which involves gradually investing in knowing and being known, on a deep level.
Collecting real facts about another person (instead of amassing paranoid fantasies about them)…revealing ourselves to them (and thereby slowly building intimacy and trust)…stepping out of our insular perspective and immersing in their experiences and dreams…these would surely be healthy first steps out of the Hell of loneliness we might have built in our heads!
[photo of stairway down to a well in The Catacombs, Paris]
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Last reviewed: 15 May 2011