Loneliness is always subjective. For most people, it’s quite unlikely they will find themselves on a deserted island or on a space station in orbit, but the same painful feeling of disconnection from other human beings can haunt a person in the midst of a modern metropolis. No matter if single or coupled, people crave for understanding, appreciation and warmth, as these are the basic components of day-to-day happiness. As social psychologist John T. Cacioppo puts it in The Guardian: “Loneliness is defined not by the quantity, but by the quality of social contacts. It’s not about living alone, but about feeling alone. Any divorced person would tell you that there is no lonelier life than living with a partner who you don’t love.”
Is lonely the new black?
At the same time, for some, loneliness is considered to be the new social reality. Coupling for survival is no longer necessary, so more and more men and women, especially in big cities, stay single either by conscious choice or by circumstance. Sheri Jacobson, clinical director at Harley Therapy shares her observations in Huffington Post: “We also have the capacity to lead bigger, more exciting lives then past generations – working for a global country that has us travelling often, running our own business on line and working from home, having non-traditional relationships. These new ways of living may keep us busy, but they also entail new sorts of loneliness.” People may be concentrating on their career, waiting for their one and only Prince/Princess Charming or simply not wanting to give up the comfortable freedom of single life. Such tendencies have already changed the landscape of our cities, creating infrastructure and services to meet single people’s needs. They eat out, go to bars and concerts, cinemas and exhibitions, volunteer for various causes, watch Netflix and try out the newest sex toys.
Loneliness is actually painful
Why are lonely people so hyperactive compared to coupled ones? Well, maybe it’s because they are trying to forget about their loneliness. According to Psychology Today, MRI research has shown, that the feeling of loneliness activates the same regions in our brain as does physical pain. Some scientists claim that as physical pain works as a signal of problems with our body, emotional pain associated with loneliness serves to prevent isolation and tells us to reconnect with our kin. “Denying you feel lonely makes no more sense than denying you feel hunger,” according to the article.
On the level of perception, loneliness often feels like a void that needs to be filled, and people fill it with things they have at hand: food, alcohol, extra workload, weird hobbies and, of course, sex.
Does loneliness threaten our health?
For humans, as for other social animals, isolation and lack of social contacts can be detrimental to our health. Although it is not very common to think about loneliness itself as an illness, in the long run it triggers some serious disorders. It is associated with depression, anxiety, sleeping disorders, increased risk of unhealthy addictions and higher chance of suicidal thoughts. What is more, loneliness was proven to increase the risk of dementia and heart diseases.
These effects are explained by the fact that people who chronically feel lonely tend to have increased levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone, in their blood. Along with other negative effects, it can raise blood pressure and decrease blood flow to vital organs.
Loneliness on the physical level is also connected with immune system issues: this feeling activates danger signals in our brain that affect the production of white blood cells; as a result, out immune system doesn’t fight infections effectively enough and, at the same time chronic inflammation (auto-immune processes) can take place.
The good news here is that if loneliness is a transiting, temporary feeling in your life, its negative effects won’t be seen that much. Plus, scientists assure us that even loneliness in the form of a disease is curable.
Who is lonelier: men or women?
According to a survey from Psychology Today, every fifth person admits suffering from chronic loneliness. Interestingly, a separate research of older adults shows that 62.5% of respondents who claimed being lonely were married and living together with their partner.
There are differences in how men and women perceive and handle loneliness. Women in general are more likely to speak out about their emotions, and thus they report being lonely more often than men do. As Shelly Borys puts it in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, “…women are more apt to acknowledge their loneliness than men because the negative consequences of admitting loneliness are less for women.”
However, here is a surprising finding: while lonely women prevail over lonely men in coupled group, among singles, men seem to be more prone to loneliness. This can be explained by the fact that women are more socially minded and can maintain more close friendships outside a romantic relationship. The flipside to it is that women focus on relationships more than men do, and when relationships become unsatisfying, they feel loneliness much sharper.
Men also tend to experience feelings of isolation and loneliness more during huge life events, such as break-ups, job loss, bereavement or becoming a father – apparently, because they are less likely to share their emotions and work through them with friends.
It’s hard to tell who handles loneliness better, but each gender definitely has a different approach to coping with it: men usually try to become a part of some group, while women prefer one-on-one contact.
Loneliness in marriage
People might think that marriage is a sort of lifeline that can save them from drowning in the sea of loneliness, but this is not always the case. In fact, the chance of feeling lonely in a relationship is as high as while not having a special someone. Loneliness in marriage can even be harder to handle. When you are single you can dream about meeting someone and stop being lonely, but in a marriage the situation might seem hopeless.
Having a spouse who travels a lot as a part of their job resulting in a long-distance relationship is challenging and such couples are more prone to feel disconnected. But what about those who live under the same roof?
During the first couple of years of marriage partners tend to be expressive about their feelings and demonstrate affection and desire much more often, but the more people live together, the more they take each other for granted. Loneliness in marriage develops gradually and grows over years. People start paying more attention to providing for the family, building their careers or bringing up kids and communication between spouses becomes simply transactional, discussion topics get limited to shopping lists and bills, and they start feeling more like teammates or colleagues rather than love doves.
Another reason for loneliness in marriage is that men and women communicate their emotions in different ways. Girlfriends and wives expect to talk feelings through, as they have a natural need for emotional content and gladly share their aspirations and fears. Most boyfriends and husbands, on the other hand, think that sharing activities is enough for creating a meaningful connection. Therefore, women who live with reserved men often feel lonely and rejected.
Starting a relationship after a period of loneliness
A British woman, Grace Gelder, went viral when she married… herself after six years of being single. She had a real ceremony, white dress, rings vows and guests without even having a boyfriend. While that certainly was a bold demonstration of self-love, it takes even more courage to enter a new relationship with someone else after a long period of being lonely.
Loneliness can distort the way we see other people and relationships, and the person who wants to start dating again is vulnerable in many respects. On the one hand, the fear of loneliness or mere boredom might lower one’s standards, and the person would choose a new partner less carefully, put up with something that the normally wouldn’t, or pretend to be someone else in order to maintain the relationship.
On the other hand, we can be so disappointed with the previous romantic experience that we start taking too many precautions. After a long time spent alone, we involuntarily perceive other people as less caring or committed, and find our new relationships less satisfying. Such defensive behavior pushes other people away.
“When we experience chronic loneliness, we don’t feel certain of who we are anymore, and it makes it harder for others to connect with us. Other, older issues can also be triggered, such as feelings of shame, abandonment and failure,” according to PyschAlive.org.
Sex as a cure for self-doubt
Feeling lonely usually implies feeling down and asking yourself various self-destructive questions like “Am I still attractive? What if nobody wants me anymore? Will I spend the rest of my nights in a cold bed?” Loneliness triggers a critical inner voice in our heads that tell us we are unloved or unlikeable. We can literally become hostile and unfriendly to ourselves. In this situation sex provides an instant validation of person’s status on the love market, brings satisfaction and stimulates production of happiness hormones.
The trap here is that casual sex doesn’t equal emotional intimacy, so in order to avoid disappointment and frustration, both partners engaging in an adventure should make sure they have the same expectations.
How can lonely people satisfy their sexual needs?
Fortunately, we live in a time and in a society where both men and women can stay single without denying themselves sexual pleasures. Not only is female promiscuity less frowned upon, but there are many easy ways to find exactly what you want and satisfy your needs with someone who shares your interest for one night. Businesswomen with 70-hour working week, single mothers and lonely wives in unhappy marriages use dating apps and online chats to forget about their loneliness.
Whose first move should it be?
So, you are feeling lonely and decided to distract yourself by having sex with some lovely person from a chat app? Well, this the most obvious choice.
Men and women agree that it is much easier to swipe right and write a short message saying hello than to actually ask for an attractive stranger’s number in a coffee shop. If someone puts a profile “out there”, it’s already a signal that the person is interested. Plus, how do you imagine asking a person who you just met to have casual sex, if both of you aren’t wasted?
Although online chats have helped people to come clear about their intentions, it’s still more common for men to make the first move. In his recent book “Modern Romance,” famous stand-up comedian Aziz Ansari describes his experiments with dating sites: he registered a number of fake profiles of both men and women to see who would get more attention and what sort of attention it would be. The results have proven a rather intuitive fact: even the least successful female profile received ten times more responses than the most successful male one.
Does it mean that there are more lonely men looking for partners? Definitely, not. It just shows the deeply ingrained behavioral pattern: dames wait to be chosen and don’t like to write first.
We all feel lonely at times and that’s OK
As Hemingway once mentioned: “Dealing with the other sex brings out part of you that maybe you never see otherwise. But women (and we can add men as well) aren’t a cure-all, nobody is or could be. You’ve got to deal with your loneliness on its own terms. Loneliness is a part of life like hunger or thirst or anything else. If you were to try to live your life never being hungry or thirsty, how practical would that be? How fulfilled would you be?”
That’s a good metaphor, isn’t it? Thirst and hunger make us seek food and drinks, loneliness makes us seek other people. Whichever kind of relationships – sexual, romantic, friendly – we choose to satisfy it, the final goal is to resolve the conflict with yourself and feel happy for a change.
List of useful resources
Check out these online resources and you might find your answer to loneliness:
This online platform promises to change your destiny and help find virtual or real love.
A “secret” dating site where married women seek men.
It’s a stereotype that nerds are lonely, but some of them would like to change it and are worth checking out.
This website boasts listing lonely millionaires (“…money can’t buy me love”).
Spending too much time in virtual reality and feeling isolated? Find someone with similar geek interests.