Before the lockdown, I was someone who hardly ever felt lonely. I met up with friends several times a week, and went to LGBTQ+ groups quite frequently. Coworkers were good company, too. And even when I was alone, I was either catching up on work, chatting with friends online, reading a book, writing a story, playing a video game, singing, or some other activity. So I didn’t have much chance to feel lonely in the first place.
But after several months of the lockdown, where I barely got to see anyone face to face, I started to feel the effects of isolation. I had never been a touchy-feely person, and even used to be a little touch-averse. Yet now, to my amazement, I’m craving physical affection, in the form of hugs, cuddles, and whatnot. Moreover, though I’m on the aromantic spectrum, I suddenly understand why most folks would want a romantic partner, as opposed to just relying on friends and family. I even understand sexual frustration now, perhaps as a by-product of my desire for physical affection. So I feel a longing for intimacy, both emotional and physical.
(N.B. I’m not suggesting that everyone on the aromantic spectrum will have this reaction to the lockdown. I’m just talking about my own experiences here.)
On the subject of longing for emotional and physical intimacy, I felt touched and inspired by this book I read lately: Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson. Hold Me Tight is a book on couples’ therapy, and though I don’t want to marry or “date” anyone per se, what Sue suggested still made a lot of sense to me. She noted that in evolutionary psychology, the common view is that romantic love comes from the need to procreate and propagate our genes. However, she rightly points out that we can make love and pass on our genes without falling in love or getting into a relationship with anyone. Furthermore, she posits that romantic love is about emotional bonding, about our innate need to have someone we can rely on and feel safe with. Having a loved one enhances our ability to survive, because life is full of trials and tribulations; our emotional connection to a significant other, gives us the strength and confidence to brave the storms, and to face challenging situations head on.
But here you may ask: What’s so special about a romantic partner? Can’t our friends, family, and even some acquaintances and strangers, provide us with this same emotional support? After all, surely it’s safer and more reliable to have a wider social support network, than to rely on just one person!
Many people want to have someone who will always be there for them… But are romantic partners, even the most devoted ones, always there for you? What happens when you really need help, when you need a shoulder to cry on, but your partner is currently busy with work or some other obligations? What if your normally sweet and patient partner had a bad day, loses their temper, and is anything but supportive to you?
Perhaps you think I’m a cynic, but I’m not. I do believe in the power of love, but I’m just thinking about the practical realities of the matter. Nobody can be free 24/7, and even the saintliest partner can be stressed, tired, and not want to be supportive. This is not because they’re bad or negligent people, but because everyone has their physical and emotional limits, which is normal and okay. It’s just the nature of things.
Yet, I wouldn’t go to the other extreme, either. My father once told me that people are unreliable; they’re not always around, and they’re not always interested in spending time with you. So it’s better to spend time with books, since books will never reject you. I personally thought he was too pessimistic about people. Yes, I agree that others aren’t always free and they don’t always feel like talking to you. But sometimes they are available; sometimes they are willing to engage, and you can have a fun time together. So I would strike a balance, where I don’t rely too much on people, but I’m not so disbelieving or jaded about humanity, either.
Besides, I think I can understand why a romantic partner could be special compared to other close relationships. In a gay romance I recently read and adored, I could see an inkling of why romantic love could be so remarkable. This romance is Nora Sakavic’s All for the Game (Foxhole Court) series, starring Neil Josten and Andrew Minyard. Neil and Andrew are my OTP right now, the most romantic couple I have ever seen! The boys were both from unusually rough backgrounds. Neil has been on the run for years, hiding from his father who is a famous serial killer. As a consequence, Neil believes that it’s too dangerous to trust, to get attached, or to fall in love with anyone. Andrew Minyard, on the other hand, was abandoned by his mother as a baby, though she kept his twin brother, Aaron. After being abandoned, Andrew was put through multiple foster homes, where most of them were abusive. He eventually got into juvie as well, and was involved in a lot of violence.
One reason why I find Neil and Andrew romantic, is because of the unique way they see each other. Neil believes that no one would want him around, if they learned about his background and his father. Yet, Andrew listened to Neil’s story with silent acceptance, and asked Neil to stay. As for Andrew, almost everyone thinks he’s a dangerous, violent psychopath that you need to beware of. But Neil is one of the few people who see that Andrew is self-destructive. Moreover, Neil sees that Andrew, like Neil himself, doesn’t have a future to look forward to.
They’re so similar in a way. Both come from extraordinarily rough backgrounds, have a hard time trusting people, and feel hopeless about their future, among other things. Their similarities help them understand and accept each other on a deep level.
This is what ideal love, romantic or otherwise, should be like, with deep acceptance and a touching degree of understanding. I got into the fanfiction for All for the Game as well. In one fanfic, Andrew Minyard wondered how it would be like to have someone around at home, someone he could trust, depend on, and have honest conversations with.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have someone to rely on like that? Someone you look forward to seeing when you come home from work?
Indeed it would. Yet, does this someone have to be a romantic partner? In fact, for the fanfics I read, Neil and Andrew spent a long time calling each other “friend,” even though they were already sexually and emotionally involved. In the canon books, Andrew and Neil never called each other “lover,” “boyfriend,” “significant other,” “partner,” or anything like that, either. They didn’t even call it a “relationship”!
In the fanfics I read, they eventually come to call each other “boyfriend,” “lover,” or even “husband.” But I couldn’t help but miss the times where they called each other “friend,” even though they were clearly more than just friends with benefits.
Don’t get me wrong. I love romances, especially gay ones. Yet, I really liked the uncertain area that Neil and Andrew had occupied, where they didn’t use any labels other than the generic “friend,” and they were free to explore and figure out what they were to each other, how they felt, what things they wanted or didn’t want to do, what each person’s preferences and limits were, and other important considerations. Their relationship for sure isn’t platonic, but it doesn’t need romantic labels to be deemed valid and worthy. They’re important to each other, and they love each other deeply, on both an emotional and physical level.
Imagine having such a profound emotional connection with someone you love and trust. Wouldn’t it be so satisfying and joyful to have someone like that? Whether it be romantic, platonic, or something in between? Even with some friends I don’t have a crush on, we had times where we shared something great and meaningful with each other. We could be sharing some of our favorite songs, books, or artwork; or we could be telling each other what we truly thought about the world. In these big moments, I suddenly felt so understood, so connected to someone else. I felt like I had a kindred spirit, that I wasn’t alone!
Thus far, we’ve been talking a lot about connectedness and companionship. But let’s switch gears now and look at the other side of the coin—loneliness and social exclusion.
Vivid Scenes of Loneliness and What I Learned from Them
We can learn much about loneliness by examining concrete examples, as this would be more vivid and emotional than talking about loneliness in the abstract. Recently, I watched “Oliver and Company,” a movie based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, where Oliver is a cat rather than a human being. In the first scene of the movie, a bunch of orphaned kittens, including Oliver, are in a box; a number of human children stop by to adopt a cat. Oliver tries very hard to put himself out there, eagerly clambering over the other kittens to get himself noticed. Yet, Oliver ended up being the only kitten who wasn’t chosen! He was left all alone, and at night, a pouring rain flooded the little box, forcing him to get out. He wandered through the dark, rainy streets, and even got chased by a pack of rabid dogs. Oliver escaped and hid in a truck’s wheel to sleep for the night.
The next day, Oliver walks aimlessly through the streets. Soon, a little boy notices Oliver and clearly wants him as a pet, but the boy’s mother pulls her son away. Later, Oliver is accepted by a group of dogs who come to see him as family, despite how dogs and cats usually don’t get along. Finally, Oliver meets Jenny, a sweet little girl who adopts him; she obviously loves and treasures him.
Oliver’s experiences remind me of my own. When I was a kid, I had trouble making friends. When teachers at school asked us to get into pairs or small groups for class activities, I was almost always left out. But many years later, from university onwards, I began to have more friends, and had higher quality friendships as well. Now, at age 30, I’ve become someone who is involved in multiple social groups, and I make friends fairly easily. I’m pretty good at maintaining friendships too.
What changed to make my circumstances so different from before? Well, aside from a great improvement in my social skills, there was also an important personal change—I became more proactive. When I was a kid, I thought I was just a social outcast, that I could only hope for someone to take pity on me and invite me to their friend group. So I was always waiting for someone to approach me; I never took the initiative to approach someone else.
Until a few years ago, I believed that the reason why I was almost always left out of groups, was because I switched schools so often that I hardly had time to establish any friend groups. Yet, I realized later that not all kids who switched schools a lot had trouble finding friends and fitting in with their peers. The main reason why I had trouble, was because I never asked anyone to be my partner for these group activities; I just sat there waiting for someone else to ask me to join them. I was also passive when it came to making friends.
Moreover, since I was usually the new kid due to switching schools so much, my classmates didn’t have much chance to get to know me, which made it even harder for me to make friends. It didn’t help that, on the rare occasion where a classmate did reach out to talk with me or invite me to something, I usually turned them down. Some classmates might have given up because I kept rejecting their invitations. Or, they were hoping to connect with me, but I was too wary, or I didn’t know how to respond properly, or both, that I ended up leaving people cold. No matter how friendly you are, you would want to give up too if the other person just can’t seem to appreciate your attentions.
In one notable incident, we had a cooking class during our food technology course. Everyone had to get into pairs to cook, and as usual, I was left out. But shortly after, this guy, let’s call him Drew, arrived to class late, so he got paired up with me. Now, unlike me, Drew was one of the popular guys. After we finished cooking the dishes, Drew told his friends that I was okay.
At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but as a 30-year-old looking back, I now understand the significance of his words. Like many of my other classmates, Drew didn’t know me very well. I was the new kid, the unknown, the quiet one. (Some classmates even believed that I didn’t like to talk. They couldn’t be more wrong!) But after Drew got to know me a little better, thanks to being my food tech partner, he decided that I was okay and decent as a person!
When I was a teenager, I saw the popular kids in a negative light. But the truth is that regardless of their popularity in class, they’re still a person; they’re still a kid with feelings and opinions. It was flattering to hear a popular kid express his approval of me to his friends. But this should have been my cue to open up, to let other people get to know me more. Sadly, I was too young and dumb back then to realize this.
The bottom line is, when I was left out from groups as a kid, it wasn’t because there was something inherently “wrong” with me. There were some perfectly logical reasons for why I was excluded, and they are all external, not personal, reasons. All I had to do was to change my behavior, and my school life would have been much happier.
In a similar vein, Oliver was the only kitten who wasn’t chosen that day, but it wasn’t because there was anything wrong or defective about him. In fact, the only thing I saw that distinguished Oliver from the rest of the kittens, aside from his extraordinary cuteness, is that Oliver was the most rowdy and rambunctious; he was so eager to stand out that he was climbing over the other cats. I can’t read the children’s minds, but my guess is that these kids (or their parents) were hesitant to take a cat who seemed so hyperactive and competitive; maybe this cat will have trouble getting along with the rest of the household. There’s nothing inherently unlovable or bad about Oliver. Jenny certainly loves him very much.
Have you ever had the experience where a beloved, very likable friend tells you that they used to be a loner at school, and you are amazed by their revelation? Well, there are all sorts of reasons why someone may be rejected by their peers, and it’s not always because they are unlikable or undesirable as people. They could in fact be very likable and appealing, but something just got in the way between them and other people. So they had to learn how to remove this block so they could be free to interact with the rest of the world.
Life is full of stress and turmoil. Wouldn’t it be great to have someone, whether a lover, a close friend, or another close person, to comfort you? To reassure you that you’re okay, that you’re loved and treasured? I don’t recommend relying on someone else to elevate your sense of self-worth, but sometimes, it’s gratifying to have someone beside you who would validate you and give you some peace and solace.
How about you? What thoughts do you have on loneliness and how to combat it? Do you think romantic partners are more special than other relationships? And if so, why? Do you have any other insights to share on the topic of loneliness and companionship?