Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles

Singletude is a positive, supportive singles blog about life choices for the new single majority. It's about dating and relationships, yes, but it's also about the other 90% of your life--family, friends, career, hobbies--and flying solo and sane in this crazy, coupled world. Singletude isn't about denying loneliness. It's about realizing that whether you're single by choice or by circumstance, this single life is your life to live.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Single and Lonely in Times of Transition?

Today's post is in answer to a special request from a special single blogger--Special K, PhD, who writes The Special K Treatment, a blog about living healthy in mind, body, and soul. Special K recently took on a task that demands a heaping dose of singletude. She moved across an ocean to another country all by herself. Though she had a job lined up, she didn't have a place to live when she arrived, and, to my knowledge, she doesn't speak the language. (Even though a lot of people speak English in this country, it must be disorienting when you can't read the street signs or understand the morning news.) Although K will surely adjust to her new environment and thrive in it, she found herself feeling lonely in the interim and asked for a post about why we feel alone during major life transitions.

In K's case, loneliness is a natural reaction to leaving family and friends 6,000 miles behind. But even when surrounded by loved ones, the transition to a new residence, a new job, or, in my case, a new lifestyle based around a long-term health problem, can trigger loneliness because we're out of sync with those around us. They cannot share in our experience. We're jolted by the reminder that no matter how closely others may follow us, they really can't walk a mile in our shoes. No two bodies can occupy the same space at the same time, and that applies to a life trajectory as well. When this trajectory diverges far from those around us, it becomes painfully obvious that, at the end of the day, we're on this journey alone.

As singles, however, we may be better equipped than couples for the loneliness of these transitions. One of the mythical promises of marriage is that those who pair up for the long haul will never be lonely again. So when upheavals in our lives force us to go to places, physical or mental, where no one can accompany us, it may be especially difficult for people in relationships to face that their marital vows or other commitments can't save them from those desolate moments. We singles, on the other hand, aren't deluded by the fantasy that we'll never have to confront challenges or adapt to changes alone. We're accustomed to self-reliance, which is undoubtedly an advantage when you are your only constant in a shifting world.

Another reason that transitions may rattle us is that many of us are creatures of habit. We grow attached to our routines, our familiar settings, and depend on them for security. To an extent, we define ourselves in relation to them. That's why we personalize our offices, our cars, our dorm rooms with things that remind us who we are--photos, awards or degrees, toys and gadgets, art, souvenirs. Transitional periods are likely to disrupt our rituals and remove us from our customary habitats. The loneliness we feel in these circumstances is a longing for the familiar and, by extension, for the sense of self that depends on the familiar. The chaos of change touches a chord at the very center of one's being, that center in which we wonder who we are apart from the identity reflected back to us by the environment we've carefully constructed.

Once again, I believe singles may be better prepared than marrieds to wrestle with this sense of isolation. For one thing, many of us are young, and change is a way of life. We get a lot of practice with transition as we graduate high school and then college, move away from our hometowns, and start our careers. In the early years of adulthood, we may start over multiple times. More importantly, though, a single person may be more apt to develop a strong sense of self that resides within because the single adult doesn't lose him or herself in a romantic partner or depend on a partner to reflect the self. Therefore, when significant transitions threaten to isolate us from everything that identity is grounded in, the single's robust sense of self can more easily weather the storm.

Above all, we should remember that loneliness is based on perception. There's no magic neighborhood we can live in, no magic club we can join, no magic number of friends we can make, not even a magic relationship we can find that will banish loneliness from our lives forever and ever. If loneliness really was rooted in whether or not we had these things, single people would be a lot lonelier than married couples. Yet we know that they are not. (See The Handbook of Marriage and the Family and Singled Out for evidence.)

Similarly, the loneliness we experience during transitional states is just that--transitional--springing from subjective feelings of disconnection rather than actual isolation most of the time. As uncomfortable as it can be, it is a chance to evaluate who we are at the core, without the crutch of the familiar to prop us up, an opportunity to reinvent ourselves unfettered by the expectations imposed on us by our daily milieu. Eventually, we cultivate new patterns, new norms, new cynosures by which we recognize ourselves, and we are not lonely in our own company once again.

Have you ever been through a major life transition that left you feeling lonely? Why do you think you felt lonely during this time? If you were single then, do you think your singleness made you feel more lonely or less lonely? How did you respond to the loneliness? What advice would you give to other singles who feel lonely during transitional periods?

Fun Link of the Day

Do you have a question for Clever Elsie about some aspect of the single life? Have an unpublished rant or rave about singlehood? Write in, and you just might see your question in a "Singletude Q&A" or your rant or rave in a "Singletude Sound-off"! Singletude makes every effort to republish submissions in their original form but reserves the right to edit your submission for length and clarity.


Jenn said...

What a great post! And as I think about this, I'm kind of struck by the fact that when I think about the times I've been lonely, they actually have NOT been during times of transition. I vividly remember my first weekend in my first apartment after college - I went to a movie by myself at a cool, retro theater that was down the street, picked up sushi and a bottle of wine at a gourmet grocery store on the next block and reveled in my independence. Every major move since then (starting grad school, starting new jobs, moving into my house), I've celebrated in much the same way. I think that for me, transitions are times to be excited about the next phase of my life and I'm too preoccupied to feel lonely. In contrast, I tend to feel loneliest when I feel like life has fallen into a routine, when I'm sort of bored and am wanting someone else around to bounce thoughts off of, or simply entertain me. But as I write this, I wonder about the chicken-egg-ness of my attitude: am I comfortable with my singleness because my disposition is such that I am more excited by change than anxious about it; or am I less anxious about change because I'm pretty comfortable being single?

April said...

I have to go back to the lesson that's gotten me through everything in the past year or so: loneliness is an emotion like any other that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Because we often take some action to cut to the end, we think that something or someone else is responsible for the end of that emotion. But sometimes, it just passes.
I was definitely incredibly lonely after my divorce, and thought that my new colleagues just didn't get me at all. Now, I can't believe I ever thought that. They are among my closest friends.
Trust in yourself. It sounds trite, and probably not helpful in this moment, but in the end, it's the only thing that any of us have - singletude or not!

iol. said...

Thanks for bringing up this topic. I know it will be of interest to a lot of people.

But I have an extension.

I believe that those that have long-term health problem(s) can be subdivided into those that are and aren't severely limited in their ability to be part of society. If you're quite housebound it can be very difficult in the long term to see & keep up with friends, to get out and be part of hobby groups or clubs. Loneliness is a significant problem for those who are housebound - singles especially but also married people.

A potential topic for another blog post Elsie - being happy when you have very limited contact with friends - personal contact, phone and email. Yes, my married friends (who have kids) don't even email.

Clever Elsie said...

Jenn: Your comment underscores the wonderful diversity in how people react to challenges like change. Some people thrive on them, while others have to struggle through. I love to hear positive stories about people who genuinely enjoy experiencing life on their own! I comfortable with my singleness because my disposition is such that I am more excited by change than anxious about it; or am I less anxious about change because I'm pretty comfortable being single?

Maybe it's a little of both contributing to each other?

April: You're so right. The loneliness we sometimes feel as singles, just like the happiness some people feel as newlyweds, is a transitional state itself. Sometimes, instead of learning how to "solve" it like a problem, we need to learn how to be patient till it fades.

Your post-divorce experience with your colleagues, who would later become such good friends, just goes to show how much loneliness is a product of our own perception rather than of an objective state of being alone.

Iolanda: I appreciate your perspective as someone who is a veteran at dealing with this issue! Severe mobility limitations can definitely affect someone's ability to socialize as well as separate fair-weather companions from tried-and-true friends. Though I'm not sure how long my own mobility will be limited, I've already felt the impact on my social life. This is an excellent suggestion for a future post!