Loneliness: coping with the gap where friends used to be | Loneliness

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Almost every day for the past few months, I’ve told my husband I am lonely. Obviously I’m glad that he’s around. What I miss are my friends. In the first lockdown, we stayed in touch with Zoom dates, which were awkward, often drunk and occasionally very joyful. Those days are long gone. I’ve returned to texting, and though I’m often deep in four or five conversations at once, it isn’t the same as being together.

In the past year, there was a difficult bereavement in my family, and work has been harder than normal. None of these things are unique or insurmountable but the isolation has left me feeling almost capsized by anxiety and paranoia.

I’m definitely not alone in this. The other night, my stoical husband stunned me by crying out in what sounded like real devastation: “No one texts me! No one WhatsApps me!” He’s a generation older than me, and rarely discusses his feelings or expresses emotional needs. But the lack of ordinary time with friends has worn away at his defences too.

We’re lucky. There are people we can and will see. But a lack of friends is a growing problem, in Britain and America alike. A recent study, conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, suggests that the proportion of people who can name six close friends has dropped from 55% to 27% since the 1990s, while people who have no close friends at all had risen from 3% to 12%. One in five single men say they do not have any close friends, while only 59% of Americans have what they would describe as a best friend.

Some of this is undoubtedly the effects of the pandemic, which caused a global increase in loneliness because people were confined to their homes, no longer able to gather in offices, pubs, sportsgrounds or nightclubs. But long before lockdown, it seems that people were struggling with friendship, especially the young. A YouGov study carried out in 2019 suggested that 9 in 10 people between the age of 18-24 suffered from loneliness to some degree, and nearly half had difficulty making friends.

The old solutions – join a group, volunteer – have not been viable in the past year, which makes it unsurprising that so many people have turned to dating apps to track down new pals. That’s all very well, but simply meeting new people doesn’t quite solve the problem of loneliness.

Loneliness is not the same as being alone. It can be defined as a feeling of lack in response to an insufficiency of emotional closeness and connection. Everyone has different levels of contact they feel comfortable with, which is why some are truly content in solitude, while others feel deep loneliness despite being in a relationship or having a seemingly vast circle of friends. Loneliness is not about numbers. It’s about the depth of the connection, the feeling that you are being seen and loved.

The cure for loneliness, in short, is intimacy, and the problem with intimacy is that it’s frightening. There’s a risk of being rejected or having to deal with conflict, and both these things can feel insurmountable, especially when a person has been lonely for a long time.

One of the most useful things I found out while I was researching The Lonely City is that loneliness alters your perception, magnifying any sense of social threat. What this means is that you tend to notice and remember difficult or awkward social encounters far more than those that run smoothly. Instances of perceived rudeness or rejection loom large, making the lonely person more withdrawn and less willing to reach out.

What’s important to understand is that this is a warping of perception, which does not accurately represent reality. It’s the equivalent of the anorexic’s damaged sense of their own body: a dangerous illusion that needs to be challenged on a daily basis. It was the single most helpful thing I learned during my own lonely years, though I know that during the pandemic I let myself forget it, tumbling back into the paranoid self-doubt that is the hallmark of loneliness.

The other difficulty is that we have unrealistic expectations of friendship, just as we have unrealistic expectations of romantic love, including fantasies around its permanence and stability. In fact, friendship can involve conflict, it can end brutally and it can be as deeply, intensely heartbreaking as any sexual relationship.

The work of friendship is not discussed nearly enough, which means people assume they are failing, and failing alone – once again driving a retreat into self-protective isolation. It’s crucial we understand that friendship can involve disappointment on both sides, and to build a container that means it’s safe to discuss these things, to weather strife together.

Last night, I ate dinner with my friend Jenny. In real life, on a warm London evening, forking up aubergine from the same plate. We laughed, shared family news, told each other the things we’d been worrying over. At home, alone in my study, they’d felt insurmountable, a sign that something was irredeemably wrong with me. Under the gentle scrutiny of my friend, they diminished to a normal size: just the grit of everyday traffic with other humans. I walked home feeling buoyant, nearly invincible. I need my friends. I bet you need yours.

Olivia Laing’s latest book is Everybody: A Book About Freedom

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