What the difference is between loneliness and aloneness, and how dependency can destroy a relationship.
I recently visited a relative of mine who is 91 years old. She doesn’t get out of the house much these days, she suffers from dementia and is locked in her loneliness. Although people go in to see her every day and others come and take her out on trips she doesn’t remember much, if anything, about this. So when she sits on her own in front of the TV in the evening she feels lonely and is lonely, because she remembers nothing of the events of the day, all she can remember is the distant past of family life and activity, so she feels lonely.
Her dementia locks her in her prison, but do those of us with our full faculties need to be locked in our prison. What is the prison I am talking about? Is it loneliness or dependency? Both, I think, can be prisons that distort our view of the world.
After I left and divorced my wife of thirty years, I lived in a one bedroom flat on my own. It was the first time I had ever lived on my own. On the one hand I felt liberated and excited, on the other I felt lonely. When I met a girl I wanted to have a relationship with I pursued her and determined to create an amazing relationship with her. She resisted this because I wanted it too much.
I stepped back and looked at what was happening and realised that I was trying to fill a void, I was trying to get rid of my loneliness. I discovered that I was not going to create a great relationship until I could let go of the need to have one. I found that difficult for a while and set about understanding my situation.
Osho, an Indian mystic, guru and spiritual teacher, helped me to understand what was happening with his distinction between loneliness and aloneness.
Loneliness is what I was describing at the beginning. Osho explained it as follows:
Man ordinarily lives in loneliness. To avoid loneliness, he creates all kinds of relationships, friendships, organizations, political parties, religions and what not. But the basic thing is that he is very much afraid of being lonely. Loneliness is a black hole, a darkness, a frightening negative state almost like death, as if you are being swallowed by death itself. To avoid it, you run out and fall into anybody, just to hold somebody’s hand, to feel that you are not lonely. Nothing hurts more than loneliness.
I see many relationships created out of this fear. My first marriage, I realise now, came out of this. Frequently these relationships don’t work and end in disaster. People find that the other person does not fill the void, the gap that exists. More often they exacerbate it and create even greater fear.
Osho goes on to say,
The day you decide that all these efforts are failures, that your loneliness has remained untouched by all your efforts, that is a great moment of understanding. Then only one thing remains: to see whether loneliness is such a thing that you should be afraid of, or if it is just your nature. Then rather than running out and away, you close your eyes and go in. Suddenly the night is over, and a new dawn. The loneliness transforms into aloneness.
Aloneness is your nature. You were born alone, you will die alone. And you are living alone without understanding it, without being fully aware of it. You misunderstand aloneness as loneliness; it is simply a misunderstanding. You are sufficient unto yourself.
I discovered aloneness as a powerful, positive state to be in. I came to understand myself and enjoy my own company, I ceased to need others to fill my void, I was able to do it myself. I let go of the need to be in a relationship, but not the desire. The desire was about the woman not about myself. What I hadn’t expected was that as soon as I fully embodied this state the woman I was interested in became interested in me. I no longer needed her and so became attractive to her.
We married and love our life together. We spend most of our time together but don’t depend on each other. We are capable of aloneness, of being on our own, but love being together.
Jed Diamond in a recent post on the Good Men Project, ‘5 Little-Known Secrets Couples Need To Know About The Science of Love’, talked about his confusion over dependency between couples,
Like most of the people in Western society, I believed that “dependency” was something I needed to avoid like the plague. I believed that a “real man” was strong, independent, and self-sufficient. He didn’t complain and he never showed his weaknesses. To a lesser degree women are also raised to value independence and see dependence as a weakness to be overcome.
“Again, this is backwards,” says Johnson. Far from being a sign of frailty, strong emotional connection is a sign of mental health. It is emotional isolation that is the killer. We know that men live sicker and die sooner than women and the suicide rate is 2 to 18 times higher for men than for women. The main reason, I believe, is that men have fewer social supports than women do. We associate manliness with independence and dependence with ‘wispiness’.
The confusion is that he equates dependency with the strong emotional connection we need in our lives. For me dependency is the attempt to fill the void of loneliness, it’s using the other person to complete ourselves, to make ourselves feel whole.
This is an unhealthy emotional connection, the one that destroys relationships. Aloneness, on the other hand, is where we find our own strength and let go of the need to have others fill our void. Through aloneness we can build genuine, strong emotional connections that support both people in the relationship.
The emotional isolation that Jed refers to is more to do with a refusal to be ourselves and be happy with ourselves. Like my 91 year old relative we ignore all that happens in our lives and just focus on the lack, the loneliness. Yes, men need social support but not to enable dependency but to support self-sufficiency. This is not manliness but a sign of emotional strength.
The danger in the idea that Jed talked about is the idea that men cannot be emotionally strong on their own, the idea that they need a woman to support them. Both partners should only approach a relationship from their own emotional strength, then they can find the spark that creates the electricity in the relationship, the excitement that makes them want to be together.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs puts love or belonging above the physiological and safety needs of people. We need to have our basic needs met before we even think of connecting with other people. We focus the our security needs and our need to stay alive, be fed and watered. Then follows our need to belong to groups, to society, to other people. This may seem to be a need for dependency, I see it as a need for connection, for understanding.
Remember that at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy is the need for self-actualisation. This is where the sense of aloneness comes from. This level of need refers to what a person’s full potential is and the realization of that potential. That potential comes from within themselves and is not dependent on others.
How does this work out in real life, what are the consequences of all this?
It simply means that emotional strength comes from believing in yourself before you use someone else’s belief in you. What you think means more than what others think, no matter how seductive that can be.
My aged relative spent most of her life living in her own strength. She did not rely on others and believed implicitly in her own abilities in this world. The sadness of the dementia is that this this has gone leaving her without her own self-confidence, and so very alone. Although she remembers family life long ago, she doesn’t remember how much of it came from her, she has lost the emotional strength that was once at the core of her life.