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Loneliness: More Than Just a Bad Mood

Many of us are becoming more and more isolated from family and friends, argue psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz.

Q. Can you be lonely in a happy marriage?

JO. I think you can. One of the things this General Social Survey came up with was that people used to have on the average three confidants. Now, they have two. Usually, if they’re married, one of those is their spouse, which is a great thing for the marriage. But if you’re too dependent on your spouse to be your everything, then it puts a little too much pressure on the romantic relationship. We think families cocoon too much. It’s a shame couples don’t invite other couples and families over to their homes to socialize more frequently.

Q. Do you feel as a couple that you’ve found the right balance?

RS. We have to say the answer is yes.

JO. Yeah, we have to answer that way.

Q. OK, but let’s be honest.

JO. Well, I would say that back in the days when our kids were tiny and we were killing ourselves trying to work hard and do a good job as parents, that there were many times where we did feel a little bit lonely and we couldn’t imagine how you could have people over to supper, too. It seemed impossible. It took us a while, but we figured out a few things that really helped, and knit the neighborhood together. Like baby-sitting cooperatives, and getting together with other families for pizza. We even had something we called neighborhood camp—during school vacations, we had a couple of 14-year-olds from the neighborhood take care of the younger kids, and it was fantastic.

Q. Are there some tricks that you can use to reconnect yourself?

JO. Engineer mutual projects into your life. This could mean anything from taking care of somebody’s plants or pets when they go away, to making sure that the neighborhood is crime free, to making sure that the schools in your neighborhood are better quality, to working for a political party. It doesn’t really matter what the project is, but you need a kind of mutual mission where you regularly see the people who care about your project or cause and you see them regularly.

Too many people think of those kinds of relationships as burdens, rather than as something that will, over time, make you feel closer to those people. So it’s a kind of breeding ground for great friendships. For every community association you join, according to one study, you add at least a year onto your life because it gets you seeing people regularly again.

Q. I’ve always felt like joining community associations takes a year off my life.

RS. Joining the first one adds a year to your life. It’s not clear that joining the second one doesn’t take it back off.

JO. It’s amazing that if you can do anything regularly with people you like and not have to plan it from scratch every month—whether it’s a book group, or a quilting club, or a community beautification committee—that the regularity of seeing people will end up making those relationships deeper over time.

RS. That regularity point is something that sounds dull but is really important. One of the things that we think people get wrong, whether it’s about marriages or friendships, is the idea that you can hold a relationship together over a very long period of time simply by being fascinating to each other—rather than having a regular engagement with each other, and a mutual project or mission.

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