Two Barriers to Defeating Loneliness
What holds you back from making close relationships and defeating loneliness
Posted February 23, 2016
At this point, scientists have determined with near certainty that about half the reason why people are lonely involves some form of relational anxiety—such as fear of being rejected or fear of intimacy in a close relationship—because it interferes with the formation of such relationships. For example, consider communication with someone you’ve just met for the first time: it is full of unknowns and uncertainties, and involving facial expressions and body postures as much as spoken words. Now imagine trying to engage in small talk with this person while remaining constantly on the lookout for and worried about any signs—verbal or non-verbal—that might indicate that this person dislikes you. This is the difficulty with socializing faced by individuals who have a form of relational anxiety called rejection sensitivity. Another form of relational anxiety that disrupts the social life—fear of intimacy—is a sort of guarded wariness towards others and a reluctance to open up that comes about as a result of being hurt or let down by someone you trusted and depended on in the past. Clearly, socializing is bound to be more difficult for people who fear intimacy or rejection, and these individuals are more likely to have a hard time with forming close relationships, such as dating relationships or friendships.
But it’s also true that half the reason why people are lonely is not that they have these difficulties in new social situations. People can have one or more close relationships and still feel lonely. This seems counter-intuitive since having relationships is supposed to be the remedy for loneliness. Understanding why requires a good understanding of what loneliness is and what close relationships have the potential to provide (or not provide) for us. When we feel lonely, it’s a feeling of missing companionship. Companionship affirms our value as a person because the important other person sees us as valuable and s/he knows things about us that others don’t. Companionship also acts as a source of support for tackling life’s challenges. As a whole, it provides us with a sense that “we belong here in this situation, with this person.” Unfortunately, relationships with romantic partners, family members, or friends don’t always make us feel valued or supported in this way. Sometimes they are more neutral, and sometimes they are even the polar opposite, and they lead us to feel not cared about, unsupported, and disliked. What happens then, in these relationships, is that we end up longing for companionship—and the support and care that it has the potential to provide—in much the same way that we would if we had no close relationships at all.
Getting back to why socializing and finding good companionship is harder for some than it is for others, studies have indicated that it has a lot to do with family of origin experiences. These past emotionally significant experiences, particularly with our primary caregivers (parents, guardians, etc.) in childhood, affect the way we experience, interpret, and memorize our social interactions in adulthood, and the sorts of experiences and kinds of people that we seek out. Moreover, the expectations that we bring into new social situations have a strong effect on how they’re experienced, to the point where we can perceive that someone dislikes us even when what they’re communicating to us suggests the opposite. These same issues can interfere both with the formation of close relationships and with their quality and our feelings of being valued and supported in them. The same individual who is constantly on the lookout for and worried about signs of being disliked in interactions with strangers may also dread disapproval in close relationships, to the extent that s/he cannot open up for fear of the consequences that might ensue if s/he were to reveal his or her “true self.”
Certainly, other factors can be at play as well, and family of origin experiences are not considered to be all that matters: moving to a new state is isolating, people who love each other can grow apart as they pursue different paths in life, etc. Nor is it a guarantee that certain family of origin experiences will lead to certain things later in life, or a direct and simple link from the one to the other. But overall, the effects of family of origin experiences are powerful, and wide reaching enough to affect interactions with strangers and familiars alike. Understanding that having a close relationship—in and of itself—isn’t enough to stave off feelings of loneliness has a number of implications. For example, establishing a romantic relationship merely as a way of escaping loneliness is likely to backfire. It’s also helpful to understand how and why such loving relationships might go sour regardless of how they started out. A good source of information and assistance about the content of this article is the book Loneliness, Love, and all That’s Between, which is written in plain language by clinical psychologist Ami Rokach. Additionally, links to resources are contained below, including the Web of Loneliness Institute—a non-profit organization dedicated to providing information and support to lonely people through research and intervention—and the Center for the Study of Interpersonal Acceptance and Rejection at the University of Connecticut—where the scientific theory on which this article is based can be read about in more detail.
Guest post by Alex Molaver
University of Connecticut
Web of Loneliness Institute: webofloneliness.com
Center for the Study of Interpersonal Acceptance and Rejection: csiar.uconn.edu
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Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Vol. 2. Separation: Anxiety and anger. New York: Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss: Vol. 3. Loss: Sadness and depression. New York: Basic Books.
Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2014). An attachment perspective on loneliness. In R. J. Coplan, J. C. Bowker (Eds.), The Handbook of Solitude: Psychological Perspectives on Social Isolation, Social Withdrawal, and Being Alone (pp. 34-50). Wiley-Blackwell.
Rohner, R. P. (2015b). Introduction to interpersonal acceptance-rejection theory (IPARTheory), methods, evidence, and implications. Retrieved October 19, 2015 from csiar.uconn.edu .