A Solution for Our Loneliness
I recently read a thought-provoking article in the Boston Globe that said the biggest threat facing men as they age isn’t obesity, smoking, etc.; it’s loneliness. The article went on to say loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke and the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease1. Similarly, an article on a widely read website geared toward women reported that 30% of millennial women report feeling lonely always or often.2 With so many more ways to connect with people nearby or around the globe through texting, email, and a multitude of social media apps, why are widespread reports of deep loneliness on such a rapid rise? Even though we may be spending more time communicating with each other than ever before, perhaps the culprit is the pattern in the way we’re interacting with each other in our relationships that contributes to a sense of isolation and disconnectedness. One such pattern that contributes to our loneliness is something I call “Relational Disengagement.” I’ll define it by giving examples of two types: passive relational disengagement and uninhibited relational disengagement.
Passive Relational Disengagement - Connor
Let’s start with a common pattern represented by Connor. Connor’s wife Sarah observes he is often withdrawn from the activities when their family is together. He can be in the same room while the family is doing an activity but be completely oblivious to the others as he immerses himself in watching television, playing video games, or surfing the internet. Connor snaps out of it and pays attention when Sarah asks, but he’s usually not the initiator of interaction when the family is spending time together. Connor knows a lot of people and a lot of people know him by name. He is friendly and agreeable, and most would describe him as pleasant to be around. He is faithful to attend church services and events and often volunteers where there is need. He consistently smiles and greets neighbors and will lend a power tool or help move a sofa when asked. He can participate in pleasant conversation about work, sports, the weather. He is faithful to keep his grass cut and his house painted. But despite all these efforts Connor feels a nagging sense of loneliness, though he’s perplexed and feels it’s unwarranted since he’s so pleasant and friendly to everyone. And he is correct; those qualities are absolutely true of him. But the problem is that he responds well to others, but he doesn’t initiate with them. For example, he goes to lunch with whoever asks him, but he rarely initiates in return. Though pleasant and agreeable, Connor’s passivity in relationships ends up isolating from others. Connor has many acquaintances, but very few friends. Friendship is forged by something other than being pleasant and agreeable. Proverbs 18:24 says, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” In this instance the Bible is saying a true friend is someone who acts sacrificially toward others. Connor thinks his problem is that he isn’t charming, not a great conversationalist, doesn’t have a diverse set of hobbies, or a profound mechanical aptitude. In actuality, however, his real problem is that in spite of all his friendliness he doesn’t initiate a genuine interest in the welfare and well-being of others. Connor is nice, but his niceness functions more like a fence protecting him from moving into relational encounters that seem risky and trigger fear and other emotions he’s uncomfortable with. He’s ok to engage with others if the interaction is civil and safe. But if it requires true vulnerability, a confrontation of an issue, Connor is quick to invoke societal cliches that preserve friendliness but promote isolation, “That’s his personal business, not mine” or “let’s make sure we don’t upset anyone.” So Connor backs away from relational situations unless they make him feel completely safe. This serves to isolate him from making meaningful impact in the lives of others, aside from giving them a brief pleasant, but forgettable encounter with him. This results in in him feeling lonely.
Uninhibited Relational Disengagement - Melissa
There is a different form of relational disengagement which seems diametrically opposite from the passive form just described, but usually results in the same outcome of isolation and loneliness which I call Uninhibited Relational Disengagement. Melissa is an active mother of 3 who appears very happily married and well known in all of her spheres of relationships. She has a very active social life with her less outgoing husband Ryan, present and quite visible at many social gatherings and events. Melissa also is well connected in her church, not just as a participant, but usually in a leadership role in whatever she’s doing. She’s excellent at organization and people-gathering as was evidenced in the outstanding job she did heading up the fundraiser for the school where her children attend. Her family is always on the go. Melissa seems everywhere whether she’s faithfully cheering on her kids at sporting events or posting happy scenes from her family’s vacation on social media.
Melissa is very initiative and confident in her interactions with people. She eagerly and resourcefully always has an anecdote or perspective to share, be it on describing the most effective way to teach children to swim or informing others of the best vacation spot at the beach. Everyone knows Melissa. But despite her high profile and many relationships, Melissa similarly has a sense of aloneness that creeps to the surface in her rare times of quiet and stillness. Though her relational style is different from Connor, Melissa’s forward style of relating unwittingly serves as a barrier for her making meaningful impact on others.
At the core of Connor’s relational style is a strategy designed to avoid feeling insecure and uncomfortable. Melissa’s style is a strategy purposed to make her feel validated and esteemed by others. Where Connor’s style is more self-protecting, Melissa’s relational style is more self-promoting. Connor’s style is to move away from challenging encounters with people, where Melissa’s is to move directly into them. Ironically, both styles result in putting relational distance between themselves and those with whom they interact. Why? Simply put both are focused on self, but for different reasons. Each would likely disagree with that description because each one’s style is friendly and cordial. And yet people don’t feel truly known by either, and neither Connor nor Melissa feel known well by others.
In some ways it would be better to look at Connor and Melissa as a spectrum rather than a dichotomy. Admittedly, I can and do sometimes relate like both in my relationships with family, friends, neighbors, etc. Sometimes like Connor I pull back into my shell not wanting to be bothered and relating to others in a way that silently communicates I want more than anything to feel comfortable and safe. Other times like Melissa, I can be gregarious, witty, socially engaging, all the while demonstrating little heartfelt interest in the person I’m interacting with. Most of us can, at times, identify ourselves somewhere on this spectrum in our relationship with others.
The Solution for our Loneliness
The reason relating in a way that’s disengaged from others results in loneliness and isolation is because it’s inauthentic and focused on protecting and/or promoting self. It’s basically seeking to interact with others in a way that God hasn’t designed. It’s relating to others in a way that hides from others by selectively portraying only those parts that make us feel comfortable, secure, and esteemed. It’s hiding perceived weaknesses and promoting only those parts we perceive others approve. Connor thinks people will think well of him if he’s friendly and non-controversial where Sarah only feels comfortable if people admire her. But the problem is that literally no one is that put together. No one. We all have weaknesses, sins, and imperfections, and those make us feel at risk for not wanting to be around us if those qualities were obviously apparent. Paul talks about this in 2 Corinthians 12:7 -10 “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Paul is talking here about a physical weakness, but the point is that when his confidence in himself was taken away, he was forced to rely on Christ’s ways rather than his own. His weaknesses were more apparent to others, but because he was forced to live more openly regarding his inadequacies, he was stronger in the end. When we hide who we are we from others either passively or uninhibitedly, we are not truly interacting with others, but instead sending out a social avatar (an embellished, or diminished image of our true self) to engage in relationships in our stead. A true communion or fellowship can’t take place, and the natural result whenever we relate inauthentically is isolating our true selves from others resulting in loneliness.
Recently I felt the need to make some changes in the ways I was interacting with my friends and in social settings. I enjoy making people laugh, and it is a very common dynamic in my family of origin. However, I was more and more experiencing an emptiness when I would leave these gatherings and I couldn’t discern why. As I thought and prayed about this I sensed my interaction with people was feeling more and more like a performance where I was placing myself at the center of attention. But I realized I was not showing much interest or concern in what was happening in the lives of others, not intent on speaking words of encouragement. And even though people seemed to be enjoying my humor and were complimentary, I was feeling more disconnected and lonely. And I realized the energy I was expending in relating to others was more to promote myself and to be affirmed by others, and it was ironically isolating me from them. I was relationally disengaged. So, I shifted the way I related to ask more curious questions of others, and partially dial back the witty comments I was using to seek affirmation. Shifting the focus off myself and onto others helped me move more in the direction of what I really wanted – to make good connections with others in a way that made them feel built up and cared for. And it began to point me toward a better path and relieve some of the isolation and loneliness I was feeling.
So how do we move toward change? I would say in two ways: through risk and intentionality. For Connor the risk is to increase his presence by moving into situations that seem uncomfortable. He’ll have to accept that he feels incompetent in that he doesn’t always know what to say, and if the people he interacts with are forward and outgoing he feels out of his element. But for Connor the risk is to accept his “weakness,” and choose not to hide behind niceness. He can move away from selfishness resulting in loneliness by considering others more than his inner comfort. His good risk is to stay present with people, learn to ask a few curious questions, and seek to be an encouraging presence. If he pursues others in this way, he’s likely to find God’s affirming presence guiding him into surprisingly meaningful friendships, and he’ll be living with a purpose bigger than his safety and comfort.
For Melissa the risk is to put others above herself by decreasing her presence so that others might experience being known by her, instead of her primarily seeking to make herself the subject of her relationships. Melissa knows how to naturally draw attention to herself through her free flowing words about her experiences and accomplishments. Instead, she can shift focus off herself and, like Connor, learn to ask curious questions of others, learning how to meet their needs instead of her felt need to be affirmed and admired. The common solution offered to cure loneliness is to spend more time with people. But ultimately the solution is not increasing the quantity of time we spend with others, but how and why we do it.
1 The Boston Globe, “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness, “March 9, 2017
2 Women’s Health, “Why Young Women are Experiencing an Epidemic of Loneliness, “ November 18, 2019