Tag Archives: Loneliness

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

busy street in New York City - Shutterstock

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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No Place Like Home

social connection

When you live somewhere far away from your hometown or a place with many friends and family, and then get divorced, you spend a lot of time alone.

There are differences between being alone and being lonely. More than two years removed from marriage, I am alone more often than I was right away, but feel less lonely.

But as someone who thrives on social connectivity and human interaction, there can be no doubt that I find myself in the loneliest period of my life.

I’m going to be fine because this won’t be permanent, and because I actively pursue social activity today more so than I did during the hardest, darkest days following the divorce.

But like so many of these experiences new to me in this unexpected life phase, it dawns on me that I can’t be the only one experiencing this.

The Recipe for Social Isolation After Divorce

I’m sure it can happen multiple ways, but here’s how it happened for me.

I was born in Iowa and lived there until I was 4. Then, my parents divorced and my mother moved us to Ohio where we lived near her hometown.

I grew up in a small-town, big-family environment and had a large group of friends throughout elementary school and high school, so even though I was an only child, I never experienced loneliness.

My college years proved to be the most-connected, and I believe not coincidentally, the most-fun years of my life.

Because I was young and took for granted the connection between friends and family, and my internal happiness and well being, I moved to Florida more than a thousand miles away after graduating college.

My girlfriend, who would later be my wife/ex-wife, was with me, mitigating some of the loneliness and social isolation we both felt after a few months living so far from home for the first time.

After a few years, we moved back to Ohio, only this time, we moved near my wife’s hometown—a place where I had no roots, hundreds of miles from all the people I knew and grew up with. Still, it felt much more like home than Florida. My wife’s immediate and large extended family welcomed me, and holidays were warm, vibrant affairs, and that helped offset any loneliness or social isolation I felt being in yet another new place far from home.

We made friends. Almost all were married couples because when you’re married, you tend to befriend and hang out with other couples.

It wasn’t perfect. My dad’s side of the family was 500 miles away. My mom’s side was a four-hour drive away. But we had made a home and forged a comfortable life with our new friends and my wife’s kind family.

Even though it was a slow death at home, so sneaky I didn’t even recognize it happening until she finally said one night: “I don’t know if I love you anymore,” it must have seemed quite sudden to friends and family because my wife and I were so good at wearing masks and pretending.

She’d had enough. And she left.

And at first, I was so out of breath, and so emotionally and mentally and spiritually damaged, focused on the loss of my presumed lifelong partner, half of my little son’s childhood, and all of my hopes and dreams for the future, that loneliness and social isolation weren’t on my radar.

In fact, there were many days and nights where I didn’t want to talk to anyone.

But time heals even the deepest wounds. And something like normalcy returns.

You lose friends from the fallout.

You lose an entire family because when you divorce your spouse, you often divorce their family too, no matter how kind and loving they remain in your sporadic post-divorce meetings.

So you take stock of your life.

I have no family.

I lost friends.

My son needs both of his parents, so unless we all agree to move somewhere, this is where we are for many more years.

You accept your fate. It’s not ideal. You’d move if you could. But your son matters so much more than anything else, that there’s no internal debate.

When you are a divorced parent to children fortunate enough to have a viable parent nearby to help love and care for them, you tend to be geographically stuck. And if you’re someone like me who happened to move with your partner to a place far from home, you find yourself here. Just like me.

Longing for more.

Yearning for the joy and comfort of lifelong friendships.

But resigned to your fate.

This is where I live. And I have to make the best of it.

The Journey Home

I’m visiting family and friends this week in western Illinois.

No matter how many years of vibrant social living you’ve experienced, when you live alone as I do now and rarely see people from your past, it’s easy to forget how soul-enriching it is to be with loved ones.

It has been a wonderful visit. Incalculable fun and laughter with people who have mattered for as long as I can remember.

But this is the last day. The one that always arrives too quickly.

Tomorrow, we—my young son and I—return home.

Not home, per se. But, home.

It reminds me that home isn’t just a destination, but a state of mind, a state of being.

That it’s about people and how we feel when we are with those people. Those beautiful few we let all the way in. The people who cross from friend to family, despite the absence of shared bloodlines.

I came across this today in Medical Daily:

“While solitude can stimulate creativity and even improve our attention span, it can also have deadly consequences. A 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science found social isolation increased people’s likelihood of death by 26 percent, even when people didn’t consider themselves lonely. Social isolation and living alone were found to be even more devastating to a person’s health than feeling lonely.

The human species is inevitably a social species that has depended on other members since birth. We’re social creatures that need other people in order to be well and thrive. Naturally, surrounding ourselves with others and fostering close relationships are the antidote to living happy, healthy, and well.”

I can’t go back in time and change the course of my life or marriage.

I can’t run away to places in this world where I have family and friends networks that mean so much to me.

And I can’t rely on others to do anything for me.

It has to be me. It has to be us—everyone who finds themselves in these relatively unique life circumstances.

We have a responsibility to create the best-possible life for our children. We have a responsibility to be the happiest, healthiest versions of ourselves so that we can be the parents our kids need.

To totally sell out and rock a pretty annoying cliché, we all have a responsibility to make lemonade. You know, because of the lemons.

Our families can’t do it for us.

Our faraway friends can’t do it for us.

It has to start with the choice to be friendly and generous to others. To courageously try new things and participate in new activities. To put ourselves out there for acceptance or rejection and being willing to roll with the punches knowing we’re going to earn a few new “family” members along the way.

Because when you can’t be home, you have to make home.

To inject more life into life.

And it boils down to one simple choice: What am I going to do today?

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