I wasn’t planning on opening up about my loneliness the first time I did. I had only recently reached the conclusion that it was, at least in part, responsible for the “off” feeling that was gnawing at me for the past year, and I was still ashamed that I had even reached such a place. But mid-conversation with a friend I had known for nearly two decades, I decided to go for it. She was a good confidante, someone who hadn’t judged me, even for the shit that felt shameful. The setting seemed right, too: a restaurant that wasn’t so quiet that neighboring diners would overhear my confession, but wasn’t so loud that I’d have to shout.
So when she asked me how things were going, I decided to tell her the truth, instead of the customary, “Everything is sooooo good!” I told her that a lot of good friends had trickled out of New York City and I wasn’t sure how to fill the void they left behind. I told her that my career as a freelancer meant that I often hours spent working alone and some days, the only people I had a conversation with, in the flesh, were the sources I interviewed via Skype. I told her that I felt alienated from family that lived abroad and desperately wished that the thousands of miles between us would miraculously shrink. I told her that in essence, I felt like a planet that had veered off its orbit, rotating away from its familiar and familial solar system of fellow planets and stars and moons. I told her that I was now bumbling through the universe, surrounded by other things, but still somewhat alone.
After listening carefully and making lots of affirming nods, she acknowledged how loneliness could be hard. However, she ultimately settled on something else. “But you have your boyfriend,” she said, matter-of-factly but not maliciously. “That’s something, right?”
Yes, it was something, and it was something that was going really well. But I didn’t feel like this was about him. This was about those other empty holes in my life, left by friends I had lost touch with or family who didn’t call. I didn’t think he could fill them — and I wouldn’t expect him to. I felt sheepish for bringing it up, and fidgeted nervously with my food, mopping up the broth from my mussels with a porous slice of sourdough, while her comment lingered in the air between us. I knew she wasn’t intentionally trying to diminish my feelings — it seemed like an innocent observation — but I felt invalidated and guilty that I wanted more.
I thought her reaction would be the exception, but it turned out to be a lot more common. Some iteration of “but you have your boyfriend” repeated itself as I opened up to others about my loneliness. The response was sympathetic, but always implying that, well, I had a partner so surely I mustn’t really be lonely? Or even if I did feel a pang of loneliness, surely he could take it away. And this wasn’t coming from people who had some 1950s worldview that all women are strictly bound to the homemaker role while the man comes home with the money. These were people, women, who I considered to be pretty progressive and not the type to live solely for romantic partnerships.
I don’t think their intentions were bad. I just think that culturally, we still have really narrow views about loneliness, starting with what the experience actually is. In pop culture, lonely characters are usually always depicted in situations where they are by themselves, locked up in a bedroom or looking out a rainy window. But in reality, emptiness is a little more nuanced. “A person can feel lonely anywhere, with or without people,” says Amy Banks, a neurobiologist and author of Wired to Connect. “Maybe you aren’t feeling seen, or others are busy and you want to connect, or maybe there is conflict and you feel that a particular relationship is a little tenuous. Loneliness can happen when you have a family, friends, colleagues, or a significant other, but you feel out of sync with those around you.”
Also, who is allowed to feel lonely? We seem to limit the experience to a few contexts, like those who are grieving, serial killers, parents who have recently become empty nesters, and the favorite, single women. The last one is problematic because it assumes that when partnership happens some sort of “void” has been filled. “We’ve made some progress in terms of gender roles and equality in relationships, but there’s still this idea, especially for women, that your romantic relationship will be your sole source of happiness and meet all your needs,” says Rachel Sussman, a licensed psychotherapist in New York City. “People think that if you’re in a relationship, once you’ve found your person, that it’s impossible to feel loneliness, both inside and outside the relationship.” We want to believe that a relationship will soak up the emptiness that’s spilling over from other realms in our lives, from friendships that have fizzled out or work that can feel isolating.
The truth is, loneliness is so much more than the absence of a relationship and even with sound connections it’s possible to feel lonely, says Banks. “And it’s also an important signal that it’s time to course correct, to get back in sync with your tribe,” she says. I knew what I had to do to start feeling less withdrawn. I stopped canceling plans; I signed up for a co-working space; I took some time off to visit family abroad. That, and I thanked my boyfriend for giving me the space to feel empty, so I could eventually reconnect with what mattered to me outside of our relationship.