Kari just broke up with her live-in boyfriend and she’s feeling lonely. But it could just as easily be Henry or Tom who is getting divorced. The absence of your partner creates a hole in your life. If the relationship has been going down-hill for a while, or even felt emotionally abusive at times, there may be a sense of relief, but after a period of days or weeks, loneliness is likely to set in. You are suddenly alone, the house or apartment is empty, there is not another body filling the space, someone to bounce off of even if the other person said little or even nothing at all. The sense of you suddenly only with you can have a powerful impact.
Research tells us that loneliness can be a killer — it increases stress, can increase the risk of physical problems such as addiction or heart conditions, as well as psychological problems — depression, anxiety, even suicide. Demographically women tend to fare better — they are more social, relationship-focused, have friends — while guys — who tend to be work-focused and tend to lean on their primary relationships rather than a cadre of friends — suffer more. But that is the stereotype — introverted women can struggle just as much as men, just as outgoing men may handle this transition better.
But loneliness whether it come in spurts on a long weekend, or whether it is a chronic undertow dragging down your life, is a natural consequence of any ending. It comes with grief, and grief, that sense of loss, comes regardless of the quality of any relationship. It’s about psychological attachments that are suddenly cut off.
Here are some tips for overcoming loneliness:
Let others know what has happened
Others only know what is going on in your life if you tell them. Yes, you may need time to sort out what’s happened for yourself before you know what to say, or you may feel embarrassed or worry about other’s reactions adding to your initial stress. But at some point, you need let others in. Some will be sympathetic, others less so; so be it. But by letting others you can hopefully gauge who may be available for you to turn to as you move through this difficult time.
Check in with someone
If you have a close friend, a parent or sibling, a therapist, someone that you feel comfortable and supported by, set up a regular check-in — in person, by phone. Texts are okay for mini state-of-the-state reports but you want to be able to have conversations, voice-to-voice. This is was creates the comfort and sense of support.
By checking-in you are mentally forced to assess how you are doing, to notice what has changed over the days and weeks. This is invaluable to counter the emotional blur that you understandably may feel.
Kari’s coworker invites her to a low-key party on Saturday; she really doesn’t feel like going. Should she go? The rule-of-thumb here is go and then see how you feel. With grief you often may be reluctant to go, but once you get there you feel better. The key is keeping your expectations about yourself low — you don’t need to be the life of the party, but just show up. And if it helps, give yourself a timeframe before heading out – I’ll stay for half hour and see how I’m feeling and decide to stay longer or leave. That way you don’t feel worried about staying trapped for a long period of time.
And when you get home, give yourself a pat on the back for simply going. It’s not about the party or your performance but about going against your emotional grain.
Make a social schedule
If you know there are particular times that are an emotional challenge for you — that upcoming long weekend or a holiday or even hitting the front door on a Friday night — map out a plan in advance to help you get over the hump. Here you go visit your parents on the long weekend, even if you spend your time sitting on the porch, or visit your sister, even if you wind up playing 10 boring games of Candyland with your niece. Here you go out for drinks with a work colleague on Friday night for a couple of hours before you go home and crash and watch Netflix, or you plan a long phone catch-up with your college roommate in Houston over on a holiday weekend.
The key here is being proactive, mapping in advance rather than waiting till those hard times descend on you. Once the loneliness takes over, it gets harder to push yourself and recoup.
Hang with like-minded people
What is good about your break-up, even if you aren’t quite feeling it, is that you now have freedom to do what you want. Rather than emotionally scrambling, focusing on finding someone to fill that emotional hole, look to fill in your time with activities your enjoy, that may have been pushed to side when you were in the relationship.
Here you do a meet-up of a hiking or bicycle group, folks who do swing dancing, or volunteer for a political organization, volunteer at a soup kitchen. Again, don’t worry about meeting Mr. or Ms. Right, but go to be around like-minded people like you. They may become your new posse, and through them you may find other possible relationships.
Get professional help
With any break-up you’re taking an emotional hit that can cause your serotonin to drop, cortisol to increase. Even low-dose medication may help take the edge off your anxiety and depression, therapy may help you not only have support but, during this period of transition, give you a prime opportunity to learn lessons from the past, as well as new coping skills.
Loneliness is a natural byproduct of any relationship loss. Expect it, but don’t allow it run your life.