My husband moved out of our apartment the day before the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. Our street was full of cheerful Olympics volunteers, the atmosphere celebratory; and yet, here I was, alone again after a two-year marriage.
The contrast could not have been more pronounced. Collective joy was in the air – but I was in a solitary bubble. I credit that opening ceremony and the amazing medal achievements of British Olympians for saving my sanity.
But when the excitement subsided and everything went quiet again, the silence was deafening. One of my lowest moments came when the clocks went back, and I had to walk home from the railway station in the dark.
I used to look forward to seeing the light in our upstairs window, knowing my husband was there cooking dinner for me. But now it was dark and the apartment empty, with no welcoming aroma of pasta with pesto sauce.
I was engulfed by feelings of loneliness – as if a chasm had opened up inside me. I had lived on my own for many years before I met my husband, but this was different. This was not my choice.
I was fortunate in that I had a strong support network of family and friends to help me get through this challenging time – but there are many who do not, and they are the ones who are most vulnerable to the toxic effects of loneliness.
The main causes of loneliness
According to a 2018 report published by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 72 per cent of those who reported loneliness or social isolation in the US and 64 per cent in the UK said they had few people they could rely on for help or support. Lonely people have fewer confidantes – people with whom they can discuss personal or intimate matters.
Divorce or separation from a significant other is at the bottom of the league table of reported causes of loneliness (at 4 per cent), and is on a par with moving away from home and family. In the UK, 5 per cent of respondents cited mental health issues, while more people cited general physical or health problems (8 per cent in the UK and 12 per cent in the US). By far the biggest percentage of people said their loneliness was caused by the death of a loved one (16 per cent in the UK, 18 per cent in the US).
It makes sense that the loss of an intimate relationship (spouse, partner, friend, parent) would be the leading cause of loneliness. Why? Because significant human connections are the antidote to loneliness – and having any one of those connections severed is going to hurt.
It’s all about meaningful relationships
The departure of my husband felt like a bereavement. There was so much that I shared with him that I couldn’t share with anyone else. In my experience, the sudden absence of that intimate sharing leads to a particularly excruciating kind of emotional pain.
It was only when I started to build deeper connections with friends and family that I was able to pull myself out of that well of loneliness and come back to a place of emotional equilibrium where I could enjoy solitude, knowing that help was at hand if I needed it.
I’ve rarely felt as lonely as I did that dark day in 2012. But because of that experience, I fully understand the importance of strong social support and meaningful relationships. Loneliness hurts - but there is an effective antidote.
There are many ways to build stronger connections. One of the easiest, safest ways is to join an anonymous conversation on the Zgmund app, where you can chat to like-minded people and share your feelings …