In her book Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude, Emily White categorizes loneliness in four ways. On one axis are emotional and social loneliness. Social loneliness relates to the absence of a network of close friends or confidants and emotional loneliness involves internalized emotions and the inability to share your thoughts and feelings with others. Researchers initially identified these two types of loneliness while studying two groups of women in the Boston area. Housewives were identified as suffering from social loneliness—they had a husband with whom they could confide but lacked a circle of friends they could call on for support. Women in the group Parents Without Partners were dealing with emotional loneliness because, while they engaged in a large supportive network they lacked someone with which whom they could share their most intimate thoughts.
On the other axis are trait loneliness and situational loneliness. Situational loneliness is dependent on a set of circumstances—a divorce, illness or recent move—while trait loneliness is a pervasive feeling that exists despite the external reality. People experiencing situational loneliness are lacking a network of friends due to some identifiable factor outside of themselves, they can point to a cause for the loneliness. Trait loneliness (often referred to in the book as chronic loneliness) is harder to pin down because it is woven into the perception of the person experiencing it.
In her book, White often calls on the experiences and insights of others. One man explained his loneliness this way: “Even with close friends, even with people I’ve known for decades, who I still know, it’s just sometimes…something’s not there.” Another women said, “When I think about loneliness, I think about just feeling like I don’t have intimate connections that touch on all the different aspects of myself. And it’s not that I don’t have intimate relationships. It’s that I don’t have ones that cover all of who I am.” White describes this kind of pervasive loneliness this way:
It’s feelings of distance and disconnection, of not being fully engaged and present, that lonely people highlight when they talk about their loneliness—and these feelings emerge despite the fact that lonely people often have support networks and significant others in place.
Learning that loneliness is characterized in different ways, and that loneliness isn’t only situational, was incredibly eye opening for me. While I have become situational-ly lonely in parenthood, and especially in the last few months, I recognized the feelings above from much farther back in my past. The lack of connection described in the book is something I’ve always grappled with. While I’ve created strong bonds with some of my closest friends, I frequently feel like I can’t share the things that are most important to me, or that they aren’t sharing those important things with me. As an adult I’ve been starting to wonder if maybe I am defective in some way, that I can’t participate in relationships the way others can.
While White can certainly point to specific events and circumstances that triggered her loneliness, she believes there is a genetic component to it as well. White thinks that loneliness would have found her regardless of the ten year gap between her and her sisters or her parents’ divorcing before she entered grade school; she is certain that she is predisposed to experience loneliness.
I’m starting to wonder if I am too.
I’ve returned many times during the reading of this book to my marriage. I have spent a significant portion of my time with my husband fearing that he doesn’t love me. I have no specific reasons to worry–he has never been unfaithful or said anything to suggest he doesn’t love me–and yet I can’t shake the anxiety. My head seems pretty convinced that he cares for me, and greatly, but my heart is not so sure.
I’ve chalked this discrepancy up to our disparate love languages. I rely on touch to know I’m loved while my husband cherishes quality time. The problem is that he’s not much of a “toucher” and I’m incredibly distractable so we both struggle to give the other person what they need. I’ve focused on this with my therapist (who has also worked with my husband and I in couples counseling so I respect her opinion on our relationship) and I’m feeling more confident in our marriage than I have in a long time, but it took a lot of cognitive behavioral therapy for me to get there. It definitely feels like this was a bigger issue for me than it would be for other people and I wonder if it’s my own predisposition for loneliness affecting the way I experience important relationships.
A friend and I recently had some frank discussion about who I am as friend–my expectations of myself and others–and what this person had to say was alarming. That insight, plus what I read in White’s book, has me looking closely at how I experience relationships with other people. I’m starting to believe that maybe I process connection differently than most of the people around me. Perhaps that is why I’ve felt I lingered on the periphery of social situations all my life. Maybe the feeling of disconnectedness that has always haunted me is actually a genetic lens, coloring my life without me realizing.