Miércoles 3 de Octubre de 2007, Ip nº 210

Relationships: Alone or lonely?
Por Gail Rosenblum

Where are you right now as you read this? In a coffee shop contentedly across from your significant other? In a rocking chair with a sleeping baby nearby? At your laptop reading the newspaper online?

And how do you feel about that? Happy to be in the company of another? Happy to be alone? Or melancholy because neither is true?

This is a story about aloneness, that inescapable human condition that thrills many of us and terrifies others. It's probably a good time to consider our individual comfort with being alone, because a growing number of experts in everything from technology to psychotherapy contend that the bigger our world gets, the "aloner" we feel. And live.

The number of people living alone, in fact, has grown from 17 percent in 1970 to 26 percent in 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The growth is tied, in part, to the fact that 48 percent of American women now delay marriage. In addition, single women traveling alone are one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel industry, reports the American Automobile Association. Overall, 11 percent of leisure travelers journey solo today, the majority ages 18 to 49.

Some people also enjoy going to movies and museums alone, dining at tables for one, or eating alone at home. (Sales of single-serve meals increased 5 percent in just 12 weeks, according to a recent food institute report.) And some find all of this positively depressing.

Alone, lonely, isolated

As with all human experiences, we each fall somewhere along a spectrum of comfort in being with ourselves and others. We all know people (in fact, many of us are married to them) who are happiest puttering alone in the garage or garden for hours and for whom a dinner party or book club is only slightly preferable to fingernail torture.

We also all know people (in fact, many of us are married to them) for whom another opportunity to connect with friends, family or potential friends is nothing short of a religious experience. (Church crowds make them happy too.)

It's likely just confirmation that Carl Jung was right in splitting the world into "introverts," those who prefer and gain energy from their internal world of thoughts, feelings, fantasies and dreams, and "extroverts," who get jazzed by the external world of things, people and activities. A healthy respect for differences, plus a good friend or therapist to complain to on occasion, is probably all that is needed to keep these relationships in working order.

It's when people move to extremes -- too much need to be alone or to be with others -- that therapists and others get nervous.

"More and more in this age of electronic communication, people aren't just alone, they're lonely," said Beth Erickson, a Minnetonka life coach who has studied relationships for 30 years. "Many people become socially isolated, which can be life-threatening."

James J. Lynch, director of the Life Care Health Center in Baltimore, and author of "The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness," and its sequel, "A Cry Unheard" (Bancroft Press), would agree.

Lynch, a psychologist who spoke in May about the connection between social isolation and heart disease as guest speaker at the Annual Ruth Stricker Mind-Body Lecture series at the University of Minnesota, calls loneliness "a lethal poison" leading to premature death in all post-industrialized societies.

Like Erickson, he sees technology as one culprit, but adds a longer list of his own: single-parenthood, divorce and widowhood, hurtful language by parents, and his biggie, school failure, which he said in a telephone interview plagues certain young people throughout their lives, with "an inherent sense of inferiority and physiological distress. We are literally," Lynch said, "breaking our children's hearts."

No less worrisome are people who feel compelled to be around people. "They don't have a choice," Erickson said. "They become relationship addicts." This group, she said, is cheated out of fully coming into their personal power. "The greatest life satisfaction comes from knowing who you are," she said. "If you're always seeing yourself in relationship to others, it can feel too risky to say, 'I am I.' It takes internal strength and self-knowledge to be genuinely intimate."

Knowing the difference

So, are we OK? How do we know? Stephanie Dowrick, a social commentator and author of "Intimacy & Solitude," (W.W. Norton), acknowledges that human beings vary a lot in their need to be alone. And our needs change over time.

"But what makes 'aloneness' most positive," Dowrick said, "is when the space feels full, rather than empty, when you regard it not as time without someone or something, but as time with yourself, to do something that engages and replenishes you."

Solitude slides into loneliness, she said, when people feel powerless and empty of inner resources. "When we choose to be alone, it will feel very different from when aloneness is forced upon us by circumstances, like loss."

The key is balance. People who live alone might need to pay more attention to how consciously they are taking care of their social needs, Dowrick said. "It's the capacity to not fall into a pattern of being too much alone, simply because it is habitual or easy."

Others need to find peace with solitude. "People often fear doing things alone because they believe it reflects badly on them," Dowrick said. "Perhaps they appear friendless in others' eyes. Yet, sometimes, doing things alone is the ideal way to meet up with other like-minded people. What matters is the willingness to risk a little discomfort and experimentation so as not to be a prisoner of circumstances."

Hanna Carlson, 27, of Minneapolis, has traveled solo for years, to Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, London, Greece, Italy, France and New Zealand. "It's easier to meet people when you're on your own," said Carlson, who also loves to go alone to movies, museums and restaurants. "You develop a completely different respect for the world and learn to appreciate everything so much more."

But you don't have to go so far from home to reap benefits. Zana Johnston, 54, of Minnetonka, surprised herself by doing something recently that she never thought she'd enjoy. Johnston, whose husband, Jay, "hates crowds," went alone to the State Fair. She took the bus, saw what she wanted to see, took her time. "My mother-in-law always goes to the fair alone, and I felt sorry for her. Now I get it." The experience made her think even bigger.

"Now, maybe a museum," Johnston said. "I could take my time and enjoy it without worrying about everyone else."

Where Do You See Yourself?

Our hunger for solitude or the company of others varies widely from person to person and frequently shifts as we age. But therapists generally agree on what constitutes healthy aloneness and what may signal potentially dangerous isolation.

SOLITUDE

... is a choice. You enjoy connecting with others, just not now.

... leaves you invigorated and restored.

... can be health-and-life-enhancing.

If spouses or others take issue with your need for healthy alone time, quote author Stephanie Dowrick: "When people in an intimate relationship give each other space and explicit permission to be alone sometimes, without fear of criticism or punishment, it helps the relationship immeasurably, building trust between people, as well as within each individual, about their own emotional capacities."

LONELINESS

... is not a choice. You feel that you have no one to turn to.

... leaves you feeling empty, longing and defensive.

... can be health-or-life-threatening.

If you recognize yourself here, talk to someone. Your health care provider, a therapist or spiritual leader can help you think about what you need to move more into the world of others. Says Dowrick: "We humans are social animals. How we learn to live successfully with, as well as alongside one another, is one of the great challenges of genuine emotional maturity."


  14/09/2007. StarTribune.com.


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