Pathological Loneliness and Relationship Triangles
“Loneliness is an experience of the pain of our own conceived separateness, undernourished by spirit. It is an experience of deficiency. In it, we think and feel that we are not sufficiently cared for or about, not sufficiently supported, not sufficiently in connection. We feel not sufficient, period.”
--Kathleen Dowling Singh.
I just saw the movie Skyscraper. In it, Dwayne Johnson has a line: “I don’t know who I am without my family.” I think that’s been a lot of my problem with pathological loneliness, but in my case, I had better figure it out quick.
I have no family, no husband, no significant other, and maybe one friend. Feeling absolutely at sea, utterly unmoored and adrift, and pining back into the past for more connected, better, happier times has been me, pretty much one hundred percent, for most of the past five years. Since I’ve been widowed, how to get my life to feel anything close to right again has been a major question for me.
A brief flirtation with a married man didn’t help.
Well…no. I can’t quite say that. It sent me on a learning quest, during which I discovered the concept of pathological loneliness.
Who ever heard of such a thing? And what is it?
This certainly isn’t to say that everyone having a difficult time with social isolation has borderline personality disorder, but many people who do have BPD experience a depth of loneliness that we who are also pathologically lonely can relate to. Pathological loneliness can be horrible. As an example, the supermodel Gia Carangi, who seemed to fit a lot of criteria for BPD, gives us a poignant example of how anyone struggling with pathological loneliness might feel:
“Everyone knew about the problems Gia had,” said Monique Pillard, Gia’s agent at Elite Models. “I had heard all about her from the other girls. What she was looking for was the mother image that she lost with Wilhelmina.” (Wilhelmina Cooper, of Wilhelmina Models, Gia’s first agency in New York, whom Gia felt very close to. The model agent died of cancer two years into Gia’s modeling career.)
Gia was one of the most famous and tragic drug addiction casualties in the beauty industry, and photographer John Stember had some inkling why. “She had real difficulty with people,” he said. “She could find very, very few people that she could spend any kind of time with and she spent a lot of time by herself, a lot of time. All this stuff with her image tends to make her out to be something she wasn’t. She had major problems being alive, with herself and finding any kind of ground to be with herself, which was why she was taking drugs most of the time because it alleviated the pain.”
Robert Hilton, Gia’s first drug counselor: “Gia was the perfec t candidate to be a heroin addict. Because, left to her own devices, she really had an awful, awful lot of self-loathing. And heroin does not kick you into overdrive the way cocaine does. Heroin has the effect of making the whole universe a real friendly place and it was almost as though she had found a perfect prescription for her pain. Because she was one kid that was in a lot of pain, and there was just something about the way her pain resonated. I felt it a lot.” Another counselor, anonymous: “Usually when you’re in therapy with somebody and they start crying, the therapist can hold it together. Gia’s crying…was almost like it could kick off other people’s crying. It was a deep, sobbing-type cry. She would cry in group and the other women would cry. It was just this immense pain that would just sort of come out, and it would leave a lot of her peers feeling real helpless, like there was nothing you could do to take away all of this. It was like she had tons of bricks on her.”
Pathological loneliness is also a feature of codependency. The wonderful codependency expert Jerry Wise defines the feeling of loneliness as a sense of, “I’m not worth being with.” As in, “I’m not worth being by myself with.”
Or maybe, “I’m not enough by myself to make up for what I had with that other person who’s now gone.” Pathological loneliness is one reason those with codependency don’t leave when it is clear they are being abused or maltreated by a person who isn’t interested in changing. This doesn’t only hold true when you’re with an alcoholic, a drug addict, or someone who’s beating you or lying on the couch while you pay all the bills.
If your married lover isn’t leaving, for example, but is only using you to make her marriage bearable, and you can’t bear the thought of being without her, this might include you, too. Pathological loneliness often holds people in a bad relationship long past the point when a healthier person would have left. People feel so helpless, so depressed, or so scared of being alone they reason that the miserable—or even dangerous—relationship they are in is better than no relationship at all.
“A person whose parents deprived them of unconditional love during their childhood, especially the first five to six years, will likely be drawn to a narcissistic romantic partner by a magnet-like force from which it will seem impossible to break free. This magnetic force, or the Human Magnet Syndrome, has the raw power to bring codependents and narcissists together in a perfect storm of love and dysfunction. The magnetic power of this dysfunctional love will keep these seemingly opposite lovers together despite their shared misery and eager hopes of changing each other.” –Ross Rosenberg, The Human Magnet Syndrome.
Being alone is a state of having no other people around, but loneliness is a subjective feeling about it that’s painful and hard to bear. “You can be alone and happy, you can be alone and lonely,” Rosenberg explains. “The idea of being alone is what you make of it.” In other words, pathological loneliness is not so much that you are alone and isolated, but that you feel bad about it. Or, it feels bad to you.
So, how do you relate all this to yourself? What is pathological loneliness but an addiction to another person or group? If you’re pathologically lonely, especially if it’s driving you to break up another relationship, it’s on you to conduct a searching moral inventory, just the same as if you were an addict. So, that’s what I’m going to do.
Personally, why am I making the condition of being alone so negative and painful? One reason, for me, is that I experience distress over the fact that, once again, life is being as cruel to me as it’s been many, many times in the past. Once again, I see that the best is just not to be. Another reason is, I am pretty sure I’m going to be alone for a long, long time—quite possibly for the rest of my life.
Having experienced a happy relationship, I know how much happier that is than what I have alone, and thinking those times are over forever is very sad for me.
For me, I see that this is a matter of perspective. I notice that people I know whose relationships were never very happy, especially if their last relationship ended in divorce, are thrilled to be alone.
They have bitter memories. The curse of a happy marriage ended by death is that I have happy ones. It was lucky in a way that the final illness happened while I was still relatively young, strong, and healthy—ages 43-45—otherwise I never could have handled the stress and the workload.
But the bad part of that is that I have so, so many years I know I will experience alone. The truth is that my profession, due to the nature of my work and the fact that it requires travel—and the fact that the profession is mostly occupied by women—means I’m not meeting anyone. The fact that I’m fifty, getting thick around the middle, and not smooth, lean, hard, tight, and young anymore disqualifies me in the eyes of many men my age.
An awful, awful lot of women past early middle age are alone in our society. It’s highly likely that the happiness I knew those eleven years I was with my husband is over forever. And I didn’t feel ready to be a little old lady yet. Togetherness and romance are over already?? I didn’t even lose my virginity until I was thirty-two!
I’d be a lot happier if I could just erase the memories. Then I could stop reflexively comparing now with then. But, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind this is not.
Hm. Let’s see how I stack up against the factors involved in pathological loneliness (according to Rosenberg). Can you relate to any of these?
- Extroversion. If you’re extroverted, you feel a lot worse when alone than introverted people do.
- Loneliness arising from a deeper situation or a past memory. Some deeper situation is making it more than just being without human companionship. (This is me.)
- Cognitive distortions. You’re telling yourself something about the condition of being without fellow humans that simply isn’t true. (“I’ll never meet anybody again.” That could be one.)
- Boredom. People haven’t found something they love doing when alone, that may actually be best done alone, such as painting or writing.
- You actually could develop closer friendships and social support, but you haven’t. (Not me. Anyone I’ve met over the past five years has either been a toxic or otherwise inappropriate person.)
- Failure to entertain the self. You actually can go do things alone that maybe you always thought you couldn’t because you “needed someone to go with.” And you might discover a sense of independence you didn’t know you could find, in doing this.
- An inability, arising from neglectful parenting in very early childhood, or perhaps from certain mental illnesses, to help yourself calm down and feel better when upset. That’s part of the problem Gia and other sufferers of BPD have. Some people still need another person to do that for them, much like Mom or Dad picking up the crying baby from the crib and changing a diaper, or rocking, holding, and cuddling the child.
- Related but perhaps not the same thing: Anxiety about what will happen to the self if something bad happens, help is needed, but no one is there to help.
Number eight is the part that gave me panic attacks after my husband passed away. After the trauma of watching someone I loved wither away and die, and all the bad things that had happened prior to that—just when I had expected a happy married life and things to finally get better for me—I thought life must really have it in for me.
I thought the bad things that were happening were just going to get worse and worse and never stop. After my husband died, I was fully prepared to lose all my jobs and go homeless, or get a cancer diagnosis myself, or maybe even both at the same time.
Things had been so bad for so long I just interpreted myself as the cosmic recipient of a singularly bad life, and I was convinced another shoe would drop that would be just too much for me to handle. And I was terrified. I had acid reflux that caused horrible chest pains, and I dreaded having a heart attack because I couldn’t afford health insurance and knew I’d be financially wiped out if I ever got seriously ill. And now here I was all alone. If one more bad thing happened to me after all this, what would I do? I was in no position to handle any more, and I knew it.
(I believe the psychological term for this is “catastrophizing”—yet another “cognitive distortion.” But after you’ve been raised by a parent with BPD, had a tough life anyway, then gone through the trauma of giving up many cherished dreams to caregiving, then helplessly watched someone else’s horrible death, there may be another word for this: “normal.”)
Hence the panic attacks.
Other complicating factors I’ve uncovered:
- Stigma. Movies and TV show us this stereotype of lonely people as intentionally shying away from other people and feeling sorry for themselves. Even worse is when we, the lonely people, think this of our own selves and then berate ourselves for it.
- Conditions like grief or depression make it worse, especially for the elderly, who may have lost most of the people they knew in years gone by. My great aunt made it almost to 95. All of her brothers, sisters, and a lot of her friends were already gone, and all her other relatives were scattered across the country.
- A sense of having no intrinsic value to the world around you. I’ve often felt like this. I mean, who cares if I post this article or not? If I just lay in bed and didn’t make the effort, who would notice? Or care? If you’re lonely and needy and you need someone to come rescue you from your plight, you may see that as a drain on another person, when what you really want is to contribute. To have something to offer, to be valuable and wanted, rather than have someone conceding to spend time with you because you are needy. People need and want to feel useful. And I am sure there are a lot of elderly in nursing homes, homebound, or in assisted living who would feel the truth in this.
- The idea that you are so sad you don’t have anything to offer anyone anyway. If you’re grieving or depressed, you cannot offer to others the cheer that makes people want to be around others. If you know that, you may decide you don’t want to inflict yourself on anyone else.
- Loneliness has also been defined as the inability to find meaning in one’s life. The therapist and astrologer Liz Greene has a lot to say about that. In her article, Wounding and the Will to Live, she writes that, “…the Sun within us makes us feel connected with the macrocosm, and we experience ourselves as part of something eternal. This inner experience conveys, not ‘happiness’ in the ordinary colloquial sense, but the profound serenity and hopefulness which arise from a feeling of living a useful and meaningful life. We could call this an experience of ‘individual destiny’, because the Sun reflects that in us which knows we are here to live a specific purpose….If the expression of the Sun is blocked, stifled, or undeveloped for any reason—through childhood wounds, for example…the individual may find it more difficult to connect with this sense of having the right to be alive as oneself. Life's difficulties may then be amplified because there is no inner sense of specialness and hope on which to draw.”
- The idea that if you aren’t actively pining away, you didn’t really love a person you lost, or you must have fallen out of love with them and don’t love them anymore. Maybe you might feel guilt or confusion over this. “If I don’t have these big, dramatic feelings anymore, do I still love the person?”
Why Does Loneliness Exist?
Being alone is almost universally reviled as bad. How many studies are there that show that being chronically alone has a negative effect on morbidity and mortality in so many conditions, from cancer to heart problems to old age?
But I have to wonder: If aloneness is so very bad for us, why are so many in these contemporary times finding themselves alone and feeling so bad about it, when psychology and astrology both confirm that we draw to us the very conditions we are supposed to, and need to, master?
If that’s the case, then an awful lot of people on this planet in 2018 need to do some sort of mastery work on this pathological relationship to being without other humans to share life with, myself included.
What would this be, and why do we need to do it? Author Kathleen Dowling Singh, in her book, The Grace in Aging: Awaken As You Grow Older, has some worthwhile thoughts on that. She points out that, over the course of a human life, we’re going to lose just about everything we have. We’re going to lose everything we thought we needed, and we won’t be able to do anything to stop this process.
We’re going to lose our importance in the world, our high-powered jobs, and all the status that went with them, as we get older and eventually have to retire.
We’re going to lose our health and mobility one day. Singh writes about a friend, still a martial artist at age seventy, who threw her back out and had a very hard time with it. She realized how attached she was to her identity as a martial artist. But really, how many eighty-five-year-olds are still able to kung-fu? The friend realized she would have to give it up eventually, and it forced her to confront how attached she was to thinking of herself as a martial artist, and the need to change her self-concept in order to be able to find serenity once she did have to end her days as a practitioner of that discipline.
We’re going to die. Singh describes dying as a powerfully lonely experience, and as someone who’s watched two people die now, I can agree with that. As my husband and my great aunt died, they were so moribund I don’t even think they knew I was there. If they were at all alert, then they were profoundly alone inside themselves. And there was nothing anyone could do about that. If we can’t be alone successfully, Singh argues, we’re going to have a very tough time when we ourselves are about to leave this world.
Maybe it’s the same with “having people around.” “We cannot secure pleasure permanently,” writes Singh. “We cannot avoid the predictable sufferings.” She also writes that “Loneliness is the experience of being alone through a lens of deficiency and aversion, through the lens of ignorance.”
Ignorance, perhaps, that we cannot avoid the predictable sufferings? Or ignorance that we aren’t really deficient? Ignorance that learning to handle being alone strengthens us to handle difficulties in our lives we have yet to meet?
If it’s true, as psychology and astrology imply that it is, that we’re here on earth to grow all the parts of our personalities into mature adulthood, reaching our full potential; and that mature adulthood means that we can feel okay in the condition of having no one emotionally close to share our experience, then the fact that millions upon millions are suffering in loneliness means we all have some growing to do.
It’s been discovered that there’s a region of our brains that feels aloneness as a physical injury and sends out pain signals, as if we’re having a gall bladder attack when we’ve only just broken up with some dude who was bad for us anyway. This region of the brain is a product of mammalian evolution, necessary so that an abandoned young child or mammal will call out for its parent, and its parent will come running to take care of it, thus ensuring the survival of the species. Not only that, but Alicia Lieberman's excellent book The Emotional Life of the Toddler details what the parents are supposed to do for the child emotionally: Encourage, support, love. When parents do this successfully, their loving voices become part of the child's self image. The person can feel good about themselves and hold themselves up emotionally when alone. The person whose parents were too sick or too self-absorbed can't. Emotionally, that person is still looking for that parent to say, "Atta boy!" or "Atta girl!" "You are so precious to me; you are worth caring about."
But we’re not children anymore. Say that I met someone and got married again. At age fifty, “til death do us part” isn’t nearly as long as it used to be (especially for women, since we outlive men.) So what do I do when I get widowed a second time? I’d be right back here again, no wiser and no better off.
At some point in life, all of us will be alone, and apparently we’re supposed to mature ourselves enough so we can do it without collapsing into meaningless and hopelessness. I think the inability to effect this feat is what pathological loneliness really is, and that’s why it’s a feature of so many mental illnesses and difficult life stages.
So, what do we do about it when we find ourselves caught in this all-too-common, all-too-human state?
Some reflection about why we think we are here, and what our purpose on the planet is would seem to be in order. If we’re happy with what we’re putting out there, and we think it has worth, we’re going to feel happier even if we’re alone. And feeling happier, as all of us lonely people know deep in our bones, attracts people a lot more than feeling unhappier. And then we might not be alone anymore.
But I’ve found that running around in a desperate search for people, for replacement friends, for replacement family, simply doesn’t work. I either find no one even so much as remotely compatible, or I find people, as evidenced by the title of this website, who just weren’t healthy and just weren’t going to work out. I can only interpret this as life saying, “Being needy for other people isn’t the right way, here. You’re supposed to do something other than react to those old biologically programmed pain signals and realize that you’re no longer a helpless child, and that you’re okay anyway.”
With respect to my married man situation, his wife has a section in her transits for 2019 that reads like this:
Right now you are being challenged to learn how to parent yourself. In one sense, dependency on things outside yourself reflects a basic human longing to be looked after and to belong. Most of the time this is fine, and others are likely to respond. But at the moment it is possible that they will not. Try to give yourself the time, care, attention, and empathy which a good parent gives a child. This may provoke strong feelings about your own childhood, as well as issues with children if you have any. The underlying meaning of the time is concerned with self-nourishing, and with letting go of people and things so that you can relate to others without turning them into surrogate parents. This can be a hard lesson to learn, but it is worth making the effort to understand on the deeper level. The changes likely to occur in your life right now will most probably come through the agency of others. These changes may arouse many complex feelings in you, not least the sense that people and life have abandoned you. Learn to protect the anxious child within yourself, and you could experience a great emotional healing and liberation during this unpredictable time.”
--Interpretation of Uranus opposition Moon by Liz Greene. (An astrological aspect the husband has natally and the wife has by transit next year.)
It showed up worded like this in her horoscope, but really all three of us have this theme. And no wonder. We’re all unhealed codependents.
Right now I’m sitting in a café and Linda Ronstadt is playing. The song is “Someone to Watch Over Me.” None of us had anyone to watch over us emotionally when we were children, so we never internalized how to do it ourselves. When that happens, someone to watch over me becomes the theme of our dating and romance life, and all of our intimate relationships. We, the pathologically lonely, don’t believe there’s any way we can ever feel right without someone to watch over us.
All three of us in my relationship triangle are emotionally immature. So, life is dumping us on our asses to make us see this and fix this in ourselves.
If Liz Greene is to be believed, life is saying, “Go back and work on your life purpose instead. Grow yourself up emotionally so you can be with other people and still let them be themselves. It just isn’t the time to have people right now. Feel better inside yourself without people. Figure out what you need to do to accomplish that. That’s the real goal.”
Which would put a crimp in it for all those people out there arguing for this and that communal living arrangement so humans aren’t alone. We’re supposed to be alone as a crucial means of developing our personalities.
And as long as we’re fretting over the sense of sadness we feel and pining away for happier times, we might be abusing others into taking care of us as if we were still little. We aren’t feeling or working on a life purpose or a sense of self-value. We aren’t working on a sense of wholeness on our own, so we can handle any instance of isolation that will come up in the future.
So how do we work on a life purpose or a sense of self-value? How can we be alone and yet comfortable?
As long as we’ve still got all our marbles, we have the stuff to turn this over in our minds and work this issue out.
Perhaps what pathological loneliness really is, is our immature self still crying in the crib, insisting that we’re still too little to get this one, and demanding that other people come around and remove this responsibility from us. It feels too difficult, and we want others to help us to ignore it for a little while longer.
But loneliness actually serves a crucial function for us: Encouraging us to become more resilient; and giving us the impetus, the time, and the space to find out who we really are, who we need to be, and to become our very best selves.
Here, another take on pathological loneliness. And another one.