Lonely in a Crowd: The Dangers of Modern Social Isolation on Health & Relationships

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It’s not always about what it looks like. It’s not about what YOU perceive to be the ‘correct’ response to a particular life scenario. Modern adulthood, by its very nature, isolates humans from one another, depriving them of support and resources that people crave, need, and which help them live longer, healthier, more satisfying lives. We should collectively try to do something about it. But in the meantime, we must simply look out for ourselves and one another. (Image/Shutterstock)

One of my newest friends and favorite people just moved about a four-hour drive away.

He might as well have moved to another planet, in the context of how much we’re likely to hang out in the future.

He was my partner in crime—both professionally and socially at the office. He sat just a few feet behind me.

Now, it’s just shut-down computer monitors and an empty office chair. Today’s the first day of work where he wasn’t here and I knew he wasn’t returning.

Hearing the news a few weeks ago that he was leaving bothered me. More than you’d think. Like if you’d asked me to predict how I’d feel about a bunch of random life scenarios, I’d have rated my friend at work leaving the job and moving away as being a less-impactful thing than I think it is.

It occurred to me while driving alone several hours on a weekend road trip that I’ve become more sensitive to goodbyes since my divorce. At least the kind you know are forever, or damn close to it.

I think I’m more sensitive to ‘loss,’ and that I’m tired of ‘losing’ people and things that matter.

My wife.

Half of my son’s entire childhood.

My in-laws.

Many of the friends we’d made together as a married couple.

Family. Every single moment from that day to this one that somehow seemed Less Than because everything was just a little bit off.

The future I’d imagined in my head.

Dignity.

Confidence.

Hope.

Yourself. The person you believed yourself to be when you looked in the mirror or sat silently and alone in your thoughts in those moments before sleep.

But also, this is just THAT time in life. For many, many people.

I’m 39-years-old. Many people in my general age range have families and growing children, and growing responsibilities and time demands. They have pets. Demanding jobs.

People living just a few doors down or on the other side of town might go months without seeing each other. They don’t even mean to. It happens by accident. Just because they both got busy.

Habit. Routine.

And friends turn into acquaintances. And then strangers.

People have threats bombarding them from every possible angle—particularly as parents.

Many people my age grew up in a time and place where you could leave the doors unlocked at night.

And now?

Most of us won’t let our grade-schoolers ride bikes outside of our neighborhood.

It feels like kids are learning too much, too soon. They’re the first generation to grow up with access to mobile devices AND prevalent Wi-Fi.

With the wrong keystrokes, and no parental controls, my 10-year-old could learn anything he could think to ask. How dead bodies look. How to do certain kinds of drugs. What happens at an orgy. How to do dangerous stunts that have killed other children. How to use profanity like a comedian to make hundreds of people laugh and applaud. He could read about child rape. He could watch a video of some racist cock trying to convince others that the value of a human being should be measured by their skin tone. Or some homicidal maniac encouraging children to arm themselves and hurt others.

21st century parenting is a total shit-show, but I’m reasonably sure that’s been true for every generation of parents who had to face new challenges without anything resembling an instruction manual on how to navigate it effectively.

BUT.

We are dealing with something on a scale never before seen in human history that exacerbates all of this and brings greater intensity to negative life situations, like a friend moving away.

Everyone is dealing with this—not just parents.

Sometimes, It Takes a Village

Someone with a better grasp on sociology than me may want to correct me, but I’m of the very strong belief that for virtually all of human history until, like, five minutes ago (50 years, at most?), most people in human society, regardless of where they lived—city or farm—experienced life the way people in tribes and villages did.

We didn’t have digital or even amazing telecom infrastructure weaving in and out of every small- and mid-sized town 40 years ago.

People HAD to speak in person, or mail a physical letter to even communicate with other people.

Neighbors knew each other. They frequently knocked on one another’s doors to borrow an egg or a cup of sugar.

If one of my neighbors I don’t know knocks on my door and asks to borrow an egg or a cup of sugar, I’m going to tell them I don’t have any (even if I do) through my locked screen door, and assume they’re plotting my murder.

And I seriously live in a ‘nice,’ ‘safe’ neighborhood where, honestly, I’m probably the scariest person because I’m a single adult male who lives alone and probably in their imaginations collects flea market-purchased taxidermy and eats a lot of Hot Pockets. (*shakes head no*)

Seriously.

Human beings have adult challenges.

They can range from small-appliance repair and the inability to reach something on the top shelf, to emergency childcare or transportation to a hospital.

And I think it’s EASILY demonstrable that back in 1980 when there were 100 million fewer people in the United States, MORE people knew one another and were interconnected on a personal level.

Basically, when life was HARD, on a minor level (small repair) or a macro one (death in family or major illness) the majority of people were surrounded by people who would help shoulder some of that load.

You can still find pockets of this.

School communities.

Big families.

Churches.

Soldiers.

Social groups.

Team athletics.

But many of us? By virtue of our age and life circumstances? What existed for us in our youth going to school, and probably even young adulthood, can disappear gradually and without warning.

Until life gets hard on a minor level or a macro one—and not only are you lacking people willing to help, but perhaps you’re having trouble finding anyone you’d even want to talk to about it.

I’ve shared this before in Could the Loss of Tribe be Jeopardizing Your Marriage, but it’s worth sharing again. I can’t explain any of this better than it’s written in this excerpt from Why Growing Up Is Hard to Do (But Why the World Still Needs Adults):

Isolation and the Loss of Tribe

“For most adults, the period of life they are most nostalgic for is high school and/or college. The longing for this period is usually chalked up to a desire to return to a time when they weren’t so freighted with life’s responsibilities. Surely that is part of it, but I think the real reason we miss our youth is often overlooked: it was the last time in our lives when we experienced a sense of “tribe.”

In high school and college, most of us had a group of great friends we saw on a daily basis. Many of us ran with a “gang” of guys, that sometimes joined with a posse of gals, forming a coed tribe that was enormously fun to hang out with.

Then, folks grew up, paired off, got hitched, and had kids. Few adults see their friends on a daily basis; the lucky see each other weekly, and for most, scheduling times to get together isn’t easy. It is then no wonder we get nostalgic for our younger days; it represents the last time our lives resembled the primordial pattern.

In hunter-gatherer tribes, male gangs hunted and battled together. Female posses raised their kids together. Everyone lived and worked together each day with dozens of others. Burden and joys were shared. One’s whole identity was tied up in being part of this tribe.

Today, we have never been more isolated. Many folks don’t even live near their extended kin, and the nuclear family is increasingly marooned on the desert island of the suburbs. Men (and women) go off to work in a cubicle with a bunch of fellow employees they may feel no real kinship with. Many women spend all day enclosed in the four walls of their home, cut off from all other humans, save their inarticulate toddler. Many people, male and female alike, are lonely and unhappy because they are without a tribe.

The heavy and undesirable weight of adulthood is often mistakenly chalked up to the burden of adult responsibilities alone. But the problem is not adulthood itself, but how it is currently being carried. The weight of earning a livelihood, and rearing one’s children, which was meant to be borne by numerous shoulders, is now supported by just a pair. Husband and wife rely on one another for all their emotional fulfillment and practical needs. The strain is more than an individual, or the nuclear family, was meant to bear.

So, (another) reason it’s hard to grow up is that the weight of adulthood feels hard to shoulder when you’re carrying it alone, instead of with a tribe.”

There’s Probably Not Anything Wrong With You

Sometimes people write me, and their focus isn’t on their marriage or romantic relationships at all.

Sometimes, they’re simply looking around and trying to figure out how everything got heavier and darker and lonelier without them noticing until one day they realized they were the last one standing in the room.

They grew up surrounded by friends in school. Perhaps by extended family at regular weekend get-togethers.

They bonded heavily with their closest friends in high school and college.

They stayed connected with many of them after school, because they were still the people with whom they wanted to swap tales and share life happenings.

But then.

Dating.

Marriage.

Daily life.

Homeownership.

Parenthood.

Financial responsibilities.

Adulthood.

Relationship struggles.

Isolation.

And maybe no one understands, right?

Because it doesn’t look and feel the same for them.

They have two friends, and they love their two friends, and you’re being ungrateful or simply not looking on the bright side because you’re not demonstrating the proper mindset or gratitude for the friends you do have.

It’s not even about what you have or don’t have. Maybe gratitude can help. It usually does.

But there are REAL consequences to a person’s subjective perception of how connected or isolated they are.

Ever meet a stay-at-home mother of four kids who soaks in adult conversation like someone dying of thirst in a desert?

Ever meet someone who lives in New York City, but doesn’t know anyone with whom they have a meaningful interpersonal relationship?

Ever meet an elderly man who lives alone, but spends every day out with friends, or traveling, or participating in some retiree life adventure?

There are no rules.

There are not life circumstances that automatically mean someone should, or should not, feel disconnected from the life they long for.

This affects people. Powerfully. It matters.

Maybe thoughts like this have been gnawing at you. Maybe this idea has been painfully pecking at your marriage or dating relationship. Maybe you just feel kind-of shitty and don’t really know why.

And just maybe, it’s because you’re a perfectly healthy and normal human being whose life circumstances has deprived you of things known to positively affect human life and health.

You’re not alone.

There’s nothing wrong with you. Your spouse isn’t rejecting you because they crave social connection or spending time with other people.

You’re good enough. You matter.

There’s just a little something missing. And if you recognize it, and take steps to do something about it, who knows what tomorrow might bring.

Probably something rad.

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19 thoughts on “Lonely in a Crowd: The Dangers of Modern Social Isolation on Health & Relationships

  1. I’ve got about 20 years on you and from this vantage point, people start dying. So this is a very timely topic. I’m thinking of starting a new business venture that would involve building community through teaching again. I have a new office job, but that doesn’t look like much in the way of community building. So I have to invent it, I guess. Good topic!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Matt says:

      Good stuff, Mike. Awesome to hear from you, sir.

      Sounds like a fun idea. If you start putting stuff together, please share. I’ll be interested in whatever work you’re doing on this subject.

      Like

  2. Jay Pyatt says:

    Building community is the one of many steps in overcoming addiction, recovering from trauma, and figuring out life in general.

    It also takes some vulnerability. The three scariest words for most men are “I need help”. But, when we connect we find there is more we agree on than disagree on, and I am not the freak that I thought I was. (I mean have you met Matt Fray, that guy …)

    I really like the part where you mentioned we are worth the social connection. So many times, I go to some rejection of me instead of realizing other people are just as scared of reaching out as I am.

    Good article once again, Matt.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Really good point, Matt. I think envy and comparison is a real problem and shame too, when we lose that sense of community. I talk to younger people and what strikes me as so sad, is that often they think they are the only one who has ever felt this way or looked this way or faced these problems. That’s what disconnection and lonelyness does to us. We don’t realize we have the same issues others do and so we start to assume there’s something wrong with us.

    Like

  4. uraniumgirl says:

    Why was my earlier post deleted?

    Like

    • Matt says:

      It wasn’t? This is my first ever comment from you to approve. Thank you for reading and leaving your thoughts, though. I hope you’ll find or resubmit your old comment.

      Like

  5. This hits home for me.
    So many thoughts… but I’ll try to summarize..
    The more we are modeled this independent way to live- with the isolated nuclear family, along with the ideals of independence and self sufficieny, and freedom (that usually means the freedom to seek our hedonic pleasures…or money) the more comfortable we are with it.
    It’s *awkward* to talk with your neighbor. (Ewwuah!)
    And it’s also easier to not go to your friends get together on a Friday evening, or to not invite that couple over for dinner.
    We get comfortable in our own space and it takes work to create a level of comfort with other individuals.
    Most people aren’t willing to do that work (…many are not willing to do that work in their own marriage, much less relationships outside of their home!)
    It’s really all about priorities.
    Understandably families, jobs, and self care should rank high up there. But we’ve forgotten the whole thing that with a stronger village (with those you trust) the easier things like family, jobs and self care can be.
    When people are involved in your life, they know your needs. They can share the load sometimes by actually being there to let the repair man in, or when you’re going to be late and little Timmy is waiting at school; but they also share the load by just friggen being there- you know, over a beer or to share a smart ass remark with.
    Being single, and a virtual orphan, I have gotten accustomed to making the effort at creating relationships. And it’s fairly easy to tell when they are worth continuing the effort or not. (They will usually make some effort back.)

    I’m lucky to have 2 or 3 that continue to manage to meet that effort, and those are the 2 or 3 I get the most joy in.

    Ultimately, if we know we need a village we have to be the ones to make it.

    Like

  6. More thoughts…
    So , often even churches or other groups that already are an established tribe tend to work in a way that demonstrates that one has to already identify with that particular group to fit in, and to belong.
    One has to believe in the same tenants of faith, or cheer for the same team.
    I think this is so backwards and just plain wrong. Especially in regards to the church.
    When it comes to people and their real human needs -groups can’t look at the individual and say “he/she doesn’t act like us- h/she doesn’t belong.”
    It should be (the Church, is really where I am aiming here) that they say “he/she doesn’t act like us- what do they need in order to know they belong?”
    If we can understand that drive for connection, it’s alot easier to understand people’s sometimes mal-adaptive behaviors.
    It’s alot easier to have compassion towards them.
    If we can offer belonging, and can receive belonging from others, I’m thinking so much of what ails the human race would be wiped away.

    Like

    • Jay Pyatt says:

      PIP,
      I will go back to my word, vulnerability. The big “C” Church doesn’t do vulnerability. The little “C” church does when someone takes the risk of being known.

      The modern USA big “C” Church does not want to be known, it wants to be listened to and followed. Coloring outside the lines will get your crayons revoked. Most people in these Churches don’t want to be known either, they want you to see a rock of unshaken “faith” even when the bottom falls out of their lives. Vulnerability means weakness and weakness means you get eaten by the predators.

      Find the little “C” types, they are OK with being weird and outcast. Just like Jesus.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I just spent 40 min writing a comment that got lost :(. It wasn’t all that long, I’m just that slow. I’m debating whether I should try to restate what I originally wrote. Well, since I’m here…
    I was just thinking that this really goes back to “The blueprint.”…
    We are given this model of couplehood as *The* way we are supposed to live. We also live in a very achievement oriented society, so it stands to reason that we would view even our relationship status as a goal or achievement.
    We are so focused on “getting ours” with the belief that this person and this relationship is going to meet all our needs and we’ll be set, that we don’t know how to just be in relationship in the present.
    What ends up happening is you have a bunch of lonley individuals in a couple, and lonely individuals that aren’t in a couple.
    It’s all the same thing- we don’t know how to have relationships.
    We don’t know how to tolerate things that are not like us, or go deep with those we live with.
    There’s a lot more that can be said about this, and something that is near and dear to my heart.

    Like

  8. P.s.- I’m pretty sure extremism and isolation go hand in hand.
    The human need to identify with a group can make one over identify with one particular sect that shares some values, as a way to validate the person as an individual.
    Sounds weird doesn’t it? I need to have my individual thoughts/feelings validated so badly, I will identify with a group who extols extremist views in an attempt to do that.
    Think gangs, red-pillers, ect.
    In the end the person loses individuality to the cause of the group.

    Like

  9. JunkChuck says:

    We should be warned how difficult it is to make friendships as the years pass, and how, due to work and family and other obligations, much shallower those friendships we do manage to find are, compared to those of our youth. I’ve met and feel great affection for many people, but if I see them once a year it is a coup. We have a holiday party every year and invite those people to join us, at each year we make promises to see more of each other during the rest of the year, and then the months go by. Ironically, social media helps–my kids laugh at Facebook being “for old people” and I just tell them, “you have no idea what a valuable tool it is,” but they live in houses full of their friends at school, the spend summer evenings lolling around a fire ring, or a swimming pool, or a living room. They travel in packs. They get bored with their friends, and I try to warn them, “it’s all going to change–savor every moment, strengthen every bond, because life pulls you apart.” I’m fortunate to live in a small town–I run into my friends doing errands, or at community events, which leads to reminders and invitations. Come kayak on the lake with me some morning. Let’s get out on the sailboat. Let’s grill. Of course, fatigue then gets in the way. This post of yours is a good reminder to me: let’s not get caught in the trap of how easy it is to say “maybe next time.”

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Good post. I just wanted to say Hi and Hello as I am new at this blogging! Mmm, my thoughts, I feel how we live in the west in our own little boxes can increase our sense of isolation and loneliness. Some of us can live beside people who do not share the same values in life like us. This can cause havoc and create deep isolation. Take for example, the neighbour who has social issues, maybe a drug addiction. All night parties and the comings and goings to their house can affect those who live closest to them. There is no connection to their neighbours out of fear and the lack of respect they show themselves to the lack of respect they show their neighbour causes discord in the community. What is the answer to these social problems and to the loneliness and isolation people feel? Could Co Housing be an idea? I’ve read about so many of these that began in the Netherlands, moved on to Germany, Sweden, Denmark and now the UK. I think this is a great idea, it houses people who have the same values, who want to share their living space with others where there is a sense of community and of caring. It can offer old people the connection with younger people, younger people who maybe don’t have any grandparents who are alive get to meet and live with the older generation, who can pass on their experience and knowledge.
    I think it is important to remember that no man is an island and what one person does or doesn’t do affects others which can be a positive or negative. How can we ensure the decisions that we make will be a positive or negative? I think by having more self awareness and to take responsibility for our decisions can help.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Miiesche says:

    Oh my god I literally just wrote a similar post about this here.
    Also I like the part that you sing open the door to your neighbors because they could kill you!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Laura Cramer says:

    That was a great article! You are right on target! We have a family business, husband gone all day. Im home (in the country) with two teenagers, taking care of home and business responsibilities. My family says I talk too much. (Of course that is out in public) Personally, I don’t think I talk too much, I have simply mastered the art of striking up a conversation with a stranger allowing them to feel comfortable enough for me to extract any pertinent information that I may need. People DO want to talk and if you are a good listener – watch out – they will share bizarre information with a person they have just met. (My family also says my 1 super power is unintentionally attracting REALLY wierd people.) Honestly, the majority of the day I dont talk at all. (unless I happen to see UPS dropping a package off-they leave 20min. later with numb ears.) My husband considers the dominos delivery lady a good friend of mine…..because we order at least 3-4 times a week. She delivers to our place often – and we would talk……..crazy, I know. (She is a single mom with 3 teenage boys) – and I’m going to say it, I talk way too long with Verizon customer service. I laughed out loud when I read the “stay at home mom needs conversation like someone in the desert needs water example.” I actually worked full time as a nurse in the ER, I loved it, was never home though. I understand what it’s like to be part of a team. I feel fortunate to be in a position to be at home with my family – this world is getting nuttier by the second! I’m ok being alone, but I do feel lonely sometimes. Keep doing what you’re doing. I love reading articles that are fresh, real, honest, and have that biting humor!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You sound wonderful Laura! Nothing wrong with making someone feel heard and listened to. It’s a gift!!! You have found your gift! I do this for a living, listening. It is amazing what happens when people feel acknowledged and respected as listening is a form of respect.

      Like

  13. Beautiful, honest and full of homework questions! Wonderful and enriching post Matt, thank you :)

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Getting divorced is kind of like losing your tribe, no?

    Like

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