Are women lonelier than men?

"Being lonely is about feeling an absence of love, not just an absence of people."

"Being lonely is about feeling an absence of love, not just an absence of people." Photo: Getty

Loneliness kills. This is the hard conclusion drawn by recent research into what happens when we find ourselves chronically isolated: ill health is exacerbated, life expectancies are shortened.

In a recent review of the research in The New Republic, science editor Judith Shulevitz notes the significant finding that the adverse effects of loneliness are more severe in women than in men.

Profound loneliness is more than the disappointment of having to spend a Saturday night at home reading a book because your friends all seem to be out of town, or the pang I felt when my local grocery store decided to market cartons of six eggs as "great for singles!" (I bought a standard dozen out of spite and made a unnecessary pavlova in protest). The clinical definition of loneliness is a sustained sense of a lack of closeness, of emotional intimacy with others. It's hard to admit to: it feels bleak and worthless. Loneliness makes us feel unlovable. It isolates us, and makes us feel undeserving of exactly what it is that will alleviate it: other people's care.

And anyone who knows how deep loneliness feels – which is likely everyone, once in a while – knows that its hollow pain can strike just as easily in a crowd of people as when you're simply on your own (which may, indeed, feel like quite the opposite of loneliness).

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Being lonely is about feeling an absence of love, not just an absence of people. There are no guarantees against loneliness. Romantic relationships, in theory, should cure loneliness, but it's easy to feel very alone (and trapped) in a relationship that isn't right.

Perhaps that's part of why loneliness hits women harder: the extent to which we feel we are valued in terms of who we have relationships with by others may in fact lead to these senses of crushing isolation. It's there in the way we are driven to seek intense friendships with each other, the belief that the possession of a "best friend" is essential, the disappointment when that kind of friendship drifts (more painful than a breakup). The feeling, to paraphrase Mindy Kaling, that everyone's having fun without us.

It's also there in the enduring belief (although evidence refutes it, it's so baked in to our culture, our celebrations, our conversations about women's lives) that we should all still be in quest of a "life partner" who should, and could, fulfil all of our emotional needs.

In fact, we thrive most with different kinds of love: no one form of it is an exclusive route to happiness. But as long as people continue to congratulate women on achieving certain kinds of relationships, and regard us with something ranging from pity to disdain if we don't have them, it will be hard to resist the shadow of loneliness.

Just allowing ourselves – and each other – to admit to feelings of loneliness is an important first step to conquering it. It can feel tantamount to admitting that we feel disgusting, inhuman – think of all the times women are dismissed as "desperate" or "needy" because they express a desire to find a partner.

We must talk more about loneliness as a universal, rather than exceptional, feeling. Embracing the value of all kinds of different relationships is also important: what is paramount is having people who care about us, not the particular position that they take in our lives.

Hillary Clinton wrote many years ago that it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to make adults feel like we're leading happy lives. Loneliness can be unattractive – something that we often witness and look away from, as if in fear that it will rub off on us. But the truth, of course, is that it can only be alleviated in a collective effort. It's up to all of us to be kind, to be giving with our time, to not wince and look elsewhere when we come across someone who's lonely.

Let's be generous – offer a bit more emotional capital, stop for five minutes to have a chat with a stranger, reach out to a friend who we haven't seen in a long time due to busy-ness or apathy. We'll all suffer loneliness at some point in our lives. Together, we can experience it less.

34 comments

  • reminds me of a song:
    There's no aphrodisiac like loneliness
    Youth, truth, beauty, fame, boredom and a bottle of pills

    Probably one of the most unpleasant emotions we are capable of.
    But really, is there any way to know if it affects men or women more?
    Are you trying to make this a feminist thing?

    Love your last paragraph. Reach out. It's nice to be needed.

    Commenter
    cranky
    Location
    pants
    Date and time
    June 19, 2013, 9:20AM
    • It's also nice to not be needed, if you're inclined to selfishness and laziness like I am.

      Commenter
      beria
      Date and time
      June 19, 2013, 1:22PM
  • Loneliness is vastly different to being alone, and some people are tied into the concept of believing they are the same thing. I separated a couple of years ago and really enjoy my freedom and own company these days, however I have a friend in a similar position who thinks it is terrible to be alone, without a man or spending any time on her own she is the loneliest person in the world. Reaching out to people as the article says is a great way to help, however I also believe people need to come to realise you can be on your own and not lonely, simply alone, and that self-acceptance and being happy to be the individual you are is essential. Relationships and friends come and go throughout life, and focussing on these external markers of avoiding loneliness is going to let you down at some stage in your life.

    Commenter
    I2
    Date and time
    June 19, 2013, 9:34AM
    • Great comment and I agree. I crave being alone and I can't remember the last time I was lonely. I think extroverts have more of a problem with this. They're the ones who find energy from being with other people so I could understand how that could easily conflate being alone with being lonely and then drive themselves into a vicious cycle downwards.

      However introverts like me like being alone and don't think of it as being sad or unusual or anything like that. It's how we recharge the batteries. I often get comments simply assuming that I must be lonely because I live alone and I've had people not believe me when I say I'm not lonely. I find it amusing and have a tendency to just pat them on the shoulder and send them on their way. They're usually extroverts so I don't expect them to understand.

      Commenter
      Kit
      Date and time
      June 19, 2013, 11:24AM
    • I agree. I spent a large portion of my childhood and teenage years alone. Of course much of it was due to teenage/tween existential angst because I had nowhere to direct my over-privileged childhood anger, angst and frustration (in comparison to children/teenagers from families who DO have real-world problems and have to work hard and cope with said problems - I later learnt). In a sense, the aloneness was one of my most productive creatively speaking. I literally wrote tomes of novels in various genres, fantasy, sci-fi, etc and went through diaries like they were chewies. I also created an entire fantasy world of art, characters, storylines, plots, worlds - I was quite the nerd. Aloneness gave me the syrupy pleasure of perhaps being able to empower myself knowing I needed no one for validation, or a meaning in life. It gave me a chance to understand my thought processes and know myself inside out.
      This isn't sarcasm (felt the need to point it out in case any cynical person thinks it is!) but I was intent of staying single, looked forward to being the cat lady, but an educated and enlightened cat lady with a few good friends and lots of books.
      The beauty of being an introvert is that you truly understand the depths of the human mind in the alternate world, where extroverts miss out on.
      Having matured much more now I see a definite need to expose oneself to both sides of the coin to gain from the richness of both sides.

      Commenter
      Green Tea
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      June 19, 2013, 12:34PM
    • @kit - sometimes all that is required for a contented solitary life is to have a sense of self-esteem that is independent of the validation of others.

      Commenter
      beria
      Date and time
      June 19, 2013, 1:32PM
  • Great article Jean. It really touched on a concept that a lot of women I know feel but find hard to articulate because, as you said, they often are surrounded be people in different social settings.

    Commenter
    sydneysider
    Date and time
    June 19, 2013, 9:45AM
    • "Perhaps that's part of why loneliness hits women harder: the extent to which we feel we are valued in terms of who we have relationships with by others may in fact lead to these senses of crushing isolation."

      Is this the female equivalent of a mans ''trophy wife'?

      Commenter
      HighlyDubious
      Date and time
      June 19, 2013, 9:55AM
      • I don't think the experience is that different for men. In my experience anyway.

        Commenter
        Mark
        Date and time
        June 19, 2013, 10:08AM
        • Interesting study. Perhaps as well, that loneliness is more profound in women thanks to a combination of social conditioning and biological construct. Women tend to be more verbal than men are, and use communication as a tool for social bonding compared to men, who might use acitivites as a form of social bonding (perhaps that is why you rarely see a group of men chatting in a cafe, but usually over some activity - pool, sports - unless alcohol is involved).
          In many cultures, including in Australia, women are raised to think that they are somehow not complete without a man. Women are taught that their identity as a woman is validated by a man, hence motherhood is revered so, because she has been 'completed' by a man and given birth to a child - her identity as a mother is socially bonded with the existence of a man, whereas a man can realistically be a bachelor till his 50s so long as he has shown to be resourceful and desirable (usually this means rich and/or status. Society cringes at low status/poor men who have not married.).
          I cannot count the number of times I have heard Australian women whinge about men, their partners and most of all, their marriage/future marriage. Most common is the story of how they have planned their marriage since they were at some ridiculous age like 7. This is very similar to women from 3rd world countries who also see marriage as a socially enforced means to no only gain status, but to be accepted as having a 'complete' identity. Again - a social construct.

          Commenter
          Green Tea
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          June 19, 2013, 10:15AM

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