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Living Apart Together

What is so painful in romantic loneliness?

"If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry." —Anton Chekhov

Loneliness, which is a major epidemic in our society, is also an acute problem in romantic relationships. Although people enjoy an abundance of romantic options, most of them still feel lonely. How is such a paradox possible?

The Extent of Loneliness

"When I decided to be a singer, my mother warned me I'd be alone a lot. Basically we all are. Loneliness comes with life." —Whitney Houston

The extent of loneliness has increased tremendously in the last few decades. John Cacioppo, the leading psychologist on loneliness, claims that the rate of loneliness in the United States has doubled in the past two decades. He reports that 40 percent of Americans describe themselves as lonely, up from 20 percent in the 1980s, and he estimates that 20 percent of Americans—about 60 million people—suffer from loneliness that is chronic and severe enough to be a major source of unhappiness.

Cacioppo cites a study in which respondents were asked to list the number of confidants they had. In 1985, the most frequent answer was three. In 2004, when researchers repeated the survey, the most common answer had dropped to zero. So many people reported having no one with whom they could talk intimately. The situation in other countries is similar. In an extensive study of Canadian university students, almost two-thirds reported feeling "very lonely" in the past 12 months (Renzetti, 2014).

The Damage Caused by Loneliness

"There is no loneliness like that of a failed marriage." —Alexander Theroux

Loneliness is not just about feeling isolated and disconnected from human interaction; it has an enormous impact on our health as well. Accordingly, the quality and quantity of individuals' social relationships have been linked not only to mental health but also to both morbidity and mortality. Thus, loneliness has been linked to depression, anxiety, hostility, health problems, and suicide.

Dreamstime Free Stock Photo
Source: Dreamstime Free Stock Photo

An extensive study conducted by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton (2010) found that loneliness was as strong a predictor of early death as was alcoholism or smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it was a stronger predictor than obesity or a sedentary lifestyle. These prognoses are valid across all ages.

Studies by Cacioppo and colleagues indicate that loneliness predicts not only depression but also higher blood pressure and increased cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress. Although loneliness doesn't shorten sleep duration, it does make sleep less restful. Cacioppo indicates that lonely people tend to find greater fault with themselves and also those around them. This may be a reason why loneliness has such a stigma, which in turn makes people less likely to reveal their loneliness.

Cacioppo further argues that loneliness is contagious. Thus, some studies indicate that having one lonely friend raised one's chance of loneliness by 40 to 65 percent. A lonely friend-of-a-friend raised the chance by 14 to 36 percent (Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2014; Cacioppo et al., 2009).

The horrific nature of loneliness was highlighted by the tragic British case of a young woman, Joyce Carol Vincent, who died and wasn't discovered for three years. Neighbors ignored the strange smell coming from inside her apartment, and when her body was finally found, the TV was still on.

The Nature of Loneliness

"It is better to wake up alone and know that you are alone than to wake up with somebody and still feel lonely." —Liv Ullmann

We should distinguish between loneliness and being alone. Being alone means that an individual is not with another person, while loneliness is a subjective phenomenon and may be experienced whether or not the individual is in the presence of others. Lonely persons may not be alone, and those who are alone are not necessarily lonely, even though it is often assumed that the two are correlated.

Loneliness is a type of sadness: It is a sadness that stems from the absence of meaningful social relationships. Lonely people yearn for others to be a part of their lives, but even more desperately, they wish to be a part of the lives of others.

Lonely people feel like nonentities and special to no one. This may explain why quality relationships with family members do little to prevent or ameliorate the experience of loneliness. Family members are with us not out of choice but because they were born into this relationship; friends, on the other hand, choose our company, and by this, they indicate our special value.

The attitude of others toward us, rather than their actual company, is at the focus of our concern in loneliness. You want to know that somebody is willing to spend time with you. Although lonely people desire more intimate and meaningful relationships with others, they often send messages of disinterest and noninvolvement. Their fear of failure in forming relationships, which in most cases is supported by past experience, generates a negative attitude toward such relationships and toward other people as well.

Lonely people also expect others to hold negative views toward them. This negative attitude of lonely people is a kind of defense mechanism against possible failures in developing rewarding relationships with others. The discrepancy between what lonely people desire and what they expect adds another gloomy dimension to their difficult situation (Ben-Ze' ev, 2000).

Loneliness is usually evaluated in a negative manner since it expresses an involuntary separation from meaningful relationships, which are so central to human life. But being alone in a voluntary and constructive manner, namely, enjoying solitude, has many positive aspects, as it facilitates self-knowledge and a better perspective on our life. Like other negative affective states, loneliness can be valuable as long as it is temporary; when it is a chronic state, it is related to feelings of emptiness, and it is difficult to bear.

Romantic Loneliness

"Love is something far more than desire for sexual intercourse; it is the principal means of escape from the loneliness which afflicts most men and women throughout the greater part of their lives." —Bertrand Russell

I have suggested that loneliness stems from a lack of meaningful relationships. Since such relationships are essential for love, a most painful type of loneliness can occur in a romantic relationship in which the physically close interactions are psychologically meaningless. Breaking up a relationship because to be with the partner is no longer meaningful or challenging is a common and legitimate reason for romantic separation.

Meaningfulness is acquired through joint activities and personal as well as common investment and through overcoming obstacles. The more effort we invest in something, the more meaningful it becomes. As the saying goes: "The more you pay, the more it is worth."

Modern society encourages the instantaneous—that which we get without investing any time or effort; fast food and fast sex have become a way of life for many. Our television, our politicians, and advertisements rely on short sound bites, knowing that only brief and provocative messages will hold our attention. The fast and superficial is replacing the slow and profound. No wonder that the percentage of marriages (as well as long-term friendships), which require the ongoing investment of time and effort, has declined considerably in the last decades.

The contemporary romantic realm is characterized by a cornucopia of potential romantic candidates. Under such circumstances, individuals have less incentive to cope with the difficulties that are bound to emerge during an ongoing relationship. If the relationship is treated as a commodity, it is much easier, when a problem arises, to replace the merchandise rather than to fix it.

Investing effort and time in improving a relationship is much harder; however, such investment is precisely what underlies meaningfulness and what facilitates the development of profound love. As the saying notes, "Easy come, easy go." Hence, profound love has become less common, and the absence of such meaningfulness generates loneliness.

Meaningful relationships are not merely created or constituted by profound activities; superficial activities, such as sex, gossiping, and watching television together, are also part of a meaningful relationship. However, when superficial activities are center stage, a meaningful relationship is not likely to emerge.

Consider in this regard the real case of Elena, a married woman in her early 40s, who greatly wished to fulfill the ideal meaningful love that is depicted in Romantic Ideology. She thought that her failure to achieve this meaningful love stemmed from a personal fault, either in her or in her marital partner. Consequently, she engaged in numerous affairs while searching for the ideal beloved:

"What I have been doing is wandering around the world in search of a home for my heart, and every one of my efforts made clear only one thing, and that was that home was elsewhere. The most prominent feeling in my life was the feeling of loneliness, even when, or especially when, I was with another person" (cited in Ben-Ze' ev & Goussinsky, 2008).

Another actual case is that of Adele, a single woman in her late 40s who has had many romantic relationships but has never married because she is afraid to wake up one morning bound to a man she does not love. Deep down, she feels very lonely and wishes she could reach a harbor; she now regrets that she did not have the courage to compromise.

Both Elena and Adele are searching for meaningful love, but meaningful love doesn't sit in the street waiting for us to find it; as Ursula K. Le Guin nicely puts it, "Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new." Needless to say, creating meaningfulness depends not merely on investing time and effort but also on some measure of similarity and harmony between two people.

Hence, the feeling of loneliness associated with disillusion is a reason for people to disconnect from a romantic relationship. Loneliness involves the yearning for profound love.

Loneliness and Social Networks

"I am often the loneliest after I've spent a day talking to people on the computer. I don't think I'm alone in feeling that way." —A woman

The past decades' proliferation of loneliness has occurred despite the flourishing of social networks and other online communication that supposedly facilitate greater connections between people. However, such connections are superficial. They may be beneficial for disabled people or those who are house-bound for various reasons, or for people who enjoy the occasional casual encounter, but online communication cannot replace more profound and meaningful face-to-face relationships.

When such casual connections become the essence of one's life, frustration and loneliness are likely to result. Thus, the diverse social connections available online may actually increase the feeling of loneliness in everyday life, as online communication is a social activity done alone.

The Internet allows people to escape from their everyday problems into an environment that can sometimes be fictional and consequently also appears much better than reality. This environment may fulfill many of our dreams: It flatters us by enabling us to define ourselves in any way we wish; similarly, it helps us invent other desirable people. The Internet may provide a lot of support to many people, but when this support is found to be illusory, the pain is immense, and loneliness becomes even more acute (Ben-Ze' ev, 2004).

What to Do?

"One of the things reading does, it makes your loneliness manageable if you are an essentially lonely person." —Jamaica Kincaid

Generally, the best manner of keeping loneliness at bay is to invest effort and time in creating meaningful relationships. Warding off loneliness can begin with small activities, such as smiling and saying hello to people around you, expressing kindness to a stranger, or volunteering.

In Cacioppo's book Loneliness, he quotes a note he received from a Florida woman: "I made a resolution last year to make more eye contact with people and say hello to strangers every day. I am surprised by their reaction. It is very uplifting for me, and I hope for them." Cacioppo and colleagues suggest four types of remedies for loneliness: fostering "social contact" by bringing lonely people together or providing access to e-mail; offering "social support" from visitors or dogs or group activities; teaching social skills; and changing the way lonely people perceive themselves and other people.

In a previous post, I discussed the increasingly common phenomenon of distant relationships, in which the couple is psychologically together (in a loving, meaningful relationship), but living apart (most of the time not under the same roof). In the current post, I have addressed lonely relationships in which the couple is psychologically apart (each is feeling lonely), but is living together (under the same roof). There is no doubt that of the two, distant relationships are much healthier, as they can support meaningful and profound love, whereas living together in a lonely relationship creates an ever-greater sense of distance and alienation between the partners.


Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2000). The subtlety of emotions. Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press.

Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2004). Love online: Emotions on the Internet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ben-Ze'ev, A. & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic Ideology and its victims. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cacioppo, J. T. & Cacioppo, S. (2014). Social relationships and health: The toxic effects of perceived social isolation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 8, 58–72.

Cacioppo, J. T., Fowler, J. H. & Christakis, N. A. (2009). Alone in the crowd: The

structure and spread of loneliness in a large social network. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 977-991.

Cacioppo, J. T. & Patrick, B. (2008). Loneliness. . New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T.B. & Layton, J.B. (2010) Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLOS Medicine 7, e1000316.

Renzetti, E. (2014). Life of solitude. The Globe and Mail, 23.11.13

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