I’ve been craving alone time during the pandemic. Turns out, I’m not the only one.
Since the pandemic lockdowns were first announced, I haven’t been alone once.
My husband and I started working from home on the exact same day. Our son’s daycare closed down within a couple of days.
Like much of America, my husband, my son, and I — and our dog — were home together. All. The. Time.
We didn’t see anyone else, and we didn’t go anywhere. Neither of us has family that lives anywhere near us. We couldn’t even work in separate rooms, because we had to try and tag-team working and watching our 9-month-old son.
Despite all this “together time,” there were times when I felt lonely. I missed the commute times when I’d get to read by myself. I missed my family and my coworkers. I felt disconnected from my old life — and from myself.
I was simultaneously feeling lonely and “alonely.” I felt alone, but also unable to get any true solitude because there was nowhere in the house to escape my family, even for 5 minutes.
The conflicting feelings left me feeling disconnected and, at times, resentful and quick to anger.
“People are often surprised to realize that they still experience loneliness while living with their romantic partner,” says Jessica Small, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Denver, Colorado. “Loneliness is just a normal part of the human experience. We can feel it any time, in any situation.”
Small points out that, in the end, loneliness is just another emotion.
“[It’s] the same as happiness, sadness, or anger, and just like any other feeling, it comes and goes and does not stay forever,” she says.
According to Small, some reasons loneliness may arise include:
- feeling disconnected from a partner
- missing the chaos of living in a family home
- not feeling seen or feeling like you don’t matter
- growing apart from or forgetting to check in with your partner
In other words, feeling lonely is about perception, not merely having someone around.
“At the core of loneliness are feelings of disconnection,” says Nicholas Hardy, a psychotherapist in Houston, Texas.
Psychotherapist Traci Ruble of San Francisco, California, agrees.
“We need more than a human body near us to not feel lonely,” she says. “We are embedded into a greater web of belonging that gives us meaning and contributes to our overall social health.”
The simple, everyday routines we relied on before the pandemic gave us multiple opportunities for connection that we’re now missing out on.
“Think of all the people you no longer see on your way to work: Jo who makes your coffee, Valerie who runs the flower cart out front of your office, Samil, who works in the office next door who pops in to say good morning, the familiar faces on the bus or train,” says Ruble. “All of these faces add up to ‘my community.’”
“Humans are naturally social animals,” she says. “The pandemic has made it excruciatingly difficult to get this need met. Zoom is not a sufficient stand-in for human connection. With video calls, we are still missing the energy of another person.”
There is also a difference between spending time with friends or family that are in our home and those that aren’t.
“At a certain point, the people that we live with become such a basic part of our existence that they may not provide the same type of socialization or escape that we get from meeting up with people outside our home,” Small says.
All of these social interactions helped us feel connected to ourselves and gave us energy. Without them, our world has become very small. We’re grieving the way our lives used to be.
Aloneliness is a relatively new term. It was coined by psychologist Robert Coplan and his colleagues in 2019. Essentially, it’s the mirror image of loneliness.
It’s that feeling you get when you’re never able to just be truly alone because someone is always in the same room as you. It’s a lack of quality “you time.”
Without that alone time, you have less time to process difficult emotions, like your grief over the new normal. There’s less time to just relax by yourself.
It can also impact anxiety levels. For example, one recent study found that when people had time to sit alone in a room for 15 minutes with no external stimulation, it helped them calm down from high states of anxiety or excitability.
The pandemic has forced many of us into a “bubble” with our immediate family, with little time to ourselves. This is especially true if you’re a parent trying to balance working from home with 24/7 parenting.
One or two people can’t be everything for you. When we’re keeping away from everyone else so we don’t get sick, we may put a lot of expectations on the people in our bubble. That can lead to resentment, bickering, and feelings of disconnection.
“The reality is, we need to create novelty, play, vitality, and a certain amount of distance so we can ‘crave’ each other,” says Coplan.
The pandemic has also forced us into some pretty mundane routines.
“In a long-term relationship, routines are expected, but when we are not careful, they can suffocate our ability to move beyond the surface or explore new aspects of who our partner has become,” says Hardy.
“Without intentional conversations that offer depth or a curious mindset, we could miss how our partner has grown or [not] understand their innermost thoughts and feelings.”
According to Hardy, this loss of intimacy can lead to feelings of loneliness even in your partner’s presence.
The steps below are suggestions for coping with all kinds of loneliness.
Give yourself some compassion
“Discomfort and feeling emotional during this pandemic is a very healthy response to this very not normal time,” says Ruble.
Give yourself and your loved ones a little bit of a break. Things are tough right now, and it’s OK to not feel OK.
Normalize your feelings
Everyone gets these feelings once in a while, and the pandemic has supercharged them. There’s no need to feel bad for having them.
“When the feeling of loneliness presents, observe it without judgment and consider, ‘Where is this coming from, and what is it telling me?’ in order to better understand its origins,” says Small.
At the same time, we can remind ourselves that it will pass.
“When we’re able to understand that loneliness, like any emotion, only lasts 60–90 seconds without our thoughts perpetuating it, it becomes less scary,” Small says.
Instead of pushing away the uncomfortable feeling, we can build a tolerance.
According to Small, this creates a space to better understand our lonely feelings and what they’re trying to tell us. If we push them away with distraction, we miss that chance.
Let your feelings inspire you to make some changes
“The lonely feelings are there to guide you to get more connection with nature, with others, or to be in different ways than you currently are,” says Ruble.
Try listening to what the loneliness is trying to tell you. Do you need a walk through the neighborhood or on the local hiking trail? Do you need to grab a coffee at a local cafe so you can be around other people, even physically distanced?
“If someone is feeling isolated, we could start to identify moments when they do feel connected to others — and if they don’t, what’s blocking that connection,” says Small.
“We could explore their self-care strategies and increase their ability to reach out and ask for help and support from the people they love.”
Talk with your partner or family
“Simply talking is a major step in the right direction, provided they feel safe [to do so],” says Hardy. “This allows others an opportunity to help and provide support.”
When we hold our feelings inside, it only amplifies them, Hardy explains. If you talk to each other, you might find out you’re not alone in feeling this way. Maybe you can both work towards finding a solution together.
For example, you can both give each other some quality alone time to ease any feelings of aloneliness or find pandemic-safe activities outside the house so that you feel less disconnected from others.
“[I] cannot tell you how much a simple after-dinner family walk has been earth-shattering to my family,” says Ruble.
Ask for alone time
It can be tough to cope with conflicting feelings, such as loneliness and aloneliness. They’re both normal, and just because you want human connection sometimes doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a break, too.
Find time for yourself, even if it’s just 15 minutes, and prioritize your own self-care. It might help you appreciate the together time more, too.
Ask for help from a professional
If you’re finding it difficult to cope with feelings of disconnection, there’s no shame in seeking help from a mental health expert.
Signs that feelings of loneliness or aloneliness could be affecting you, your relationship, or your mental health could include:
- increased conflict at home
- persistent negativity
- changes in your sleeping or eating habits
- feelings of sadness and depression
A therapist can help you examine what’s going on and develop personalized coping techniques. A couple’s therapist can also help you work on relationship issues with your partner.
The pandemic has been hard for everyone, and it’s natural to be impacted by it. Whether you’re feeling frustrated, disconnected, lonely, alonely, or all of the above, know that it’s OK to not be OK.
These are normal feelings. As things start to go back to normal with reopenings and increased vaccinations, some of what you’re feeling might start to ease up.
Still, loneliness and aloneliness can exist anytime, pandemic or not. That’s why coping mechanisms can go a long way to helping you manage.