LAST week I saw three clients who were suffering in similar ways. The first was a young man called Dan. He and his girlfriend Shelley had lived together for five years at Dan’s grandparents’ house, where they had a whole floor to themselves at the top.
Since getting together at the age of 24, both had gradually seen less and less of the friends they had before, wanting just to spend time with each other. They got on extremely well but had no common interests, so spent most time together at home. Dan, being naturally more gregarious while Shelley was happier with pursuits such as cooking and sewing, had finally realised he felt stifled and wanted out – but he feared his girlfriend would not be able to cope if they separated, as she had had some mental health frailty in the past.
It certainly seemed that Shelley would suffer. Not only would she lose the person she loved but she would be the one who would have to uproot and rent somewhere else – not easy when the joint income would vanish. Unlike Dan, who had close colleagues at the office where he worked, she had none, as she worked as a bookkeeper from home. And she had let her friends go.
A few days later Kirsty sat in my therapy room, distraught because her boyfriend of four years had suddenly and inexplicably dumped her. As we talked, it emerged that she, too, had stopped being in touch with her long-term women friends when that relationship started, prioritising spending time with her new partner. Now she felt unable to reach out to the friends she and her partner shared because they were still in his life, so she found connection with them too painful.
Then in came Bettina, still deep in grief a year after her husband of 50 years had died from a protracted illness. They had been extremely close, running a business together for 30 years. ‘We were all each other wanted,’ she sobbed. They lived in the UK but she was from South Africa. Now she had no meaningful connections in either country.
All these desperately sad situations reinforced for me the importance of the need for connection and how it is neither mentally nor physically healthy to expect to meet that human need in just one place. John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, wrote in his book Loneliness1 , ‘The need for meaningful social connection and the pain we feel without it are defining characteristics of our species.’ Ongoing loneliness creates ‘a persistent self-reinforcing loop of negative thoughts, sensations and behaviours’ and is a major health hazard – indeed, as bad for our health as high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity or smoking.
Horizons can shrink without our noticing it. Matthew Lieberman, a leading expert on social neuroscience, has commented on this in his book Social2 : “Everything we have learned about the social brain tells us that we are wired to make and keep social connections. … Yet, as a society, we have been gravitating away from all things social.”
Even he, as he reflects, having grown up in New Jersey, where he went to college and made a great group of friends, began moving away as he furthered his academic career, ending up in a distant university, working hard, socialising less and living far from the campus with his wife, just so that they could afford a house where their little son had a backyard to play in.
While it is true that subjective feeling of connection is more relevant than actual number of friends, there are benefits to having a variety of people in our lives. Indeed, the effect of staying in loved-up coupledom versus having a wider social network was directly compared in a study3 which found that mice living in larger groups had better memory and healthier brains than mice living in pairs.
We need both emotional and community connection in order to be mentally healthy – in human givens understandings, this is a given of human nature. So, for people like Dan and Shelley and Kirsty and Bettina, what is vital is for them to get connected back into the community again, whether through volunteering or studying at a class or joining a club or social group. It is never wise to give up all our social connections for love because the emptiness that may ensue can be catastrophic.
Cacioppo, J T (2009). Loneliness: human nature and the need for social connection. W W Norton, London.
Lieberman, M D (2013). Social: why our brains are wired to connect. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Smith, B M, Yao, X, Chen, K S and Kirby, E D (2018). A larger social network enhances novel object location memory and reduces hippocampal microgliosis in aged mice. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2018.00142