Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

On Loneliness …

The research is in. Loneliness isn’t just a case of the sniffles that can be cured by a singing Hallmark card. It’s associated with increased risk of heart disease, higher rates of inflammatory disease, and diminished immune function. According to a team of psychological researchers out of the University of Michigan, loneliness has a stronger morbidity factor than smoking! Researcher Dr. Robert Wallace has found that loneliness among the elderly was a better predictor of mortality than blood pressure—one of the best ways to predict admission to nursing homes.


Like depression, loneliness can become unbearable in that so much shame is attached to it. University of Massachusetts sociologist Robert S. Weiss, one of the first researchers to study the theory of loneliness and a prominent expert on the topic today writes in his book, “Loneliness: The Experience of Emotional and Social Isolation”: “So great is the shame of the lonely . . . that they are wary of each other’s company — a bit like Groucho Marx, who believed that any club that admitted him could not be worth joining.”

What, exactly, is loneliness?

Loneliness researcher Dr. William A. Sadler, Jr., professor of sociology at Bloomsfield College, New Jersey categorized loneliness into five groups. Carole Ritter offers succinct definition of each in Good News magazine:


* Interpersonal loneliness is the most familiar type — where one misses an intimate relationship with another very special person such as a spouse or close friend.

* Social loneliness is a feeling of being cut off from a group one considers important, such as a church or fraternity.

* Cultural loneliness occurs when one feels separated or alienated from a way of life or system of traditions. This is the type of loneliness suffered by minorities who feel they aren’t part of the mainstream of the dominant society. It is also felt by those who see their cultural heritage rapidly changing or disintegrating around them.

* Psychological loneliness refers to a person’s being out of touch with themselves and their true feelings.


* And cosmic loneliness is a yearning for an ultimate source of life and meaning, or God.

Those of us diagnosed with mood disorders may continually battle psychological loneliness, especially if we are recovering from traumatic and dysfunctional childhoods. And I’m reminded of Saint Augustine’s words when contemplating cosmic loneliness: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

It’s these two kinds of loneliness—psychological and cosmic—that I fight on a daily basis. I am married to an incredibly supportive and loving man; I have caring, fun friends; and I am very involved in my community—however, there is a pervasive loneliness that never totally subsides.

Awhile back Martha Lear wrote an interesting article about loneliness in the New York Times magazine. She explored a few different theories and types of loneliness, and then divided loneliness into two primary camps—situational (or seasonal) loneliness and chronic, pervasive loneliness. Those that experience the latter may, in fact, possess a “lonely personality.” Lear writes:


Beyond the loneliness of circumstance, which is bad enough (so bad, in fact, that people often describe it as being ”painful beyond description” and cannot, when it’s over, in any way recall how it felt), and beyond the loneliness of season, which for many people is an annual malaise that hangs on like a germ from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, is the persistent, pervasive loneliness that is dictated from within. There is the lonely personality.

The social psychologist Warren H. Jones, of the University of Tulsa, has studied subjects who go through long stretches of life feeling lonely. He placed them in social situations, such as cocktail parties, where they behaved ostensibly quite the same as everyone else. But they asked fewer questions. They talked more about themselves. Most tellingly, later they were far more critical of the social performance of others (”unfriendly, cold”) and of their own social performance than the others were of them.


It is not mere shyness, Jones says. Loneliness-prone personalities consistently show a lack of empathy and an avoidance of intimacy: ”They say that they are lonely because they lack social opportunities. But the question that keeps gnawing at me is, is this lack real? Or does it reflect their own negativism?

”Therapy – almost any kind – will help such people somewhat. But at the end of it, they’ll still be lonelier than other people. I’m sure it begins in the prototype relationship we all have. If that one doesn’t go well, if it nurtures suspicion and distrust, subsequent relationships won’t go well either.” Current research generally confirms Robert Weiss’s theory of loneliness. It comes, he suggests, in two bitter flavors: the loneliness of emotional isolation, which means the lack of an intimate emotional attachment, most typically a spouse; and the loneliness of social isolation, which means the lack of friends, community, social networks. The lack of either can cause feelings of the most desperate, desolate loneliness.


This model helps to explain why people who lack one-on-one relationships can feel wretchedly lonely amid good friends; and why happily married people can feel miserably alone when they move to strange communities. But the mechanism that makes such feelings palpable – the muscular tension, the pulmonary agitation, the visceral wrench – is still a mystery.

In a strange way, this helps me to feel better about my pervasive loneliness … because I’m less apt to fret about my relationships or my therapy or my recovery program … or about something that I must be doing wrong to experience this sadness so regularly. Perhaps it isn’t something bad at all. Maybe it provides a perspective of the world that few people can enjoy—with a few more shades and textures–even if it hurts at times.


Or maybe it’s even a gift. That’s what spiritual author Henri Nouwen says:

The pain of your loneliness may be rooted in your deepest vocation. You might find that your loneliness is linked to your call to live completely for God. Thus your loneliness may be revealed to you as the other side of your unique gift. Once you can experience in your innermost being the truth of this, you may find your loneliness not only tolerable but even fruitful. What seemed primary painful may then become a feeling that, though painful, opens for you the way to an even deeper knowledge of God’s love.

Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.

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  • Elizabeth

    It comforts me to know someone as faithful as you experiences Cosmic lonliness. I too struggle with Cosmic lonliness even though I pray every day and read uplifting and edifying books every morning. It can be such a challenge to feel close to God sometimes.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment JiLLB

    Wow, if this didn’t hit home today. I am overwhelmed by being alone. I guess I do see being alone and lonliness two separate entities. One can be one without being the other, as your post says.

    I have to wonder if it’s just me or if other people have lost everyone in their lives. I’m talking ALONE. I am married, but we are so terribly disconnect, I might as well not be. I have lost all of my friends (except for one who can’t come to me due to allergies and it’s complicated that I can’t go to her, or meet up). Those closest to me are online.

    I suspect part of being alone is believing that you are the only one in the world in this situation. So frustrating!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Carol

    Intimacy is based on trust and trust is based on respect. Respect for the mystery of the person requires respect for boundaries, tolerance for the “otherness” of others, which has become sadly lacking in our narcissistic society.

    An Adequate Faith

    “If I, as a Christian, believe that my first duty is to love and respect my fellow in his personal frailty and perplexity, in his own unique hazard and need for trust, then I think that the refusal to let him alone, to entrust him to God and his conscience, and the insistence on rejecting them as persons until they agree with me, is simply a sign that my own faith is inadequate.

    My own peculiar task in my Church and in my world has been that of the solitary explorer who, instead of jumping on all the latest bandwagons at once, is bound to search the existential depths of faith in its silences, its ambiguities, and in those certainties which lie deeper than the bottom of anxiety. In these depths there are no easy answers, no pat solutions to anything. It is a kind of submarine life in which faith sometimes mysteriously takes on the aspect of doubt, when, in fact, one has to doubt and reject conventional and superstitious surrogates that have taken the place of faith. On this level, the division between believer and unbeliever ceases to be so crystal clear. It is not that some are all right and others are all wrong: all are bound to seek in honest perplexity. Everybody is an unbeliever more or less.”
    ~ From “Apologies to an Unbeliever” by Thomas Merton

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Eileen

    I am always amazed by the depth of your sharing. Thank you so much for opening up windows for people.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Margaret

    It’s comforting to know that other people are lonely – even when married and have family.

    I haven’t had a close friend in years, my husband is soooo different than I am, my extended family has rejected me in many ways.

    Your post came on the right day.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Chris

    There are times I am at peace with my loniness, but there are times where I can’t deal with it and beat myself up for being this person am I destined to be lonely Chris or am I not trying hard enough

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Cheryl

    You certainly got me going.
    One of the worst things about loneliness in our society, is that while it is really common, maybe in part partly due to our lack of structure and defined roles, and mobility, it is almost taboo to speak about it. It is felt as shameful. Which, then leads to avoiding contact, which leads to more loneliness and triggers depression and on and on
    I am alone a lot, and lonely sometimes. Desperately lonely less of the time, but I have to deal with it, like dealing with depression, with all of my wits. And by imposing some structure. (I hate structure –but it works sometimes!)

    I need to remind myself that I can act differently. That is about all I can do. I need to be grateful for the friends I have – and make myself REACH OUT to THEM not only because i need their friendship, but I must give to others, and may be oblivious to their needs.
    The irony is that you have to keep going, refrain from judging (anybody)— like the Stones song, you might not get want you want(what you think you MUST have…), but you’ll probably get what you need .. if you are giving others what they need, as well.

    I confess to having sinned by envy when i read about your supportive husband. There’s an inner mad child in me, plaintive and pitiful, whining “but I never had that,” forgetting that you NEVER can know another’s struggles, and probably wouldn’t want to trade.

    I’d rather NEVER feel desperately lonely — but having felt this, am more human and more compassionate (most of the time – beware of aspiring to sainthood).

    And that illustration is perfectly in tune with your post!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Marc

    Great column, Therese. You do justice to the complexity of loneliness–to the fact that it can take many forms. I guess I have been fortunate to have come to feel that my own experience of loneliness at various points in my life produced more than enough grace to balance out the pain, though I know it doesn’t always work out that way. I thought the point about how really lonely people go to a party and talk about themselves was interesting. The only way I am ever successful in situations like that–which I find extremely difficult–is to just ask questions about others. Try it..(though it’s not fool proof if you start talking to someone who loves to hear themselves talk and just drones on an on. That’s usually about the time I suddenly need to know where the bathroom is…)

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