Looking for closer friendships, stronger family ties, or a better relationship? Join the crowd.
Most of us know the empty, tinny, sometimes unbearable feeling of being alone or left out. Maybe our spouse has grown distant. Or no one seems to invite us to lunch or parties. Perhaps we are socially inept, shy, lonely, spiritually adrift, purposeless. One way or another, we're disconnected, unplugged from the sources that nourish us.
It goes without saying that connection is essential to happiness, and science has confirmed its importance to our physical health. But what can we do when the lines of communication fray? How does one go about feeling closer to others or reclaiming a sense of belonging? To find out, O approached experts in psychology, medicine, religion, linguistics, ethics—even a political scientist who's studied the power of picnics—and asked them to lead us through some of the more common trouble spots. Here is their guide.
You're single and you've met someone intriguing, but you don't feel an immediate "click." Should you get romantically involved anyway? The click is tricky. More than sexual attraction, it involves a lightning-strike sense of familiarity and an uncanny feeling of being understood. Unfortunately, it can be illusory. And while many a successful marriage has started with "we just clicked," this is not a reliable way to forecast lasting romance.
Often the sudden, flooding sense of completion results because we may be unconsciously "trying to make up for a deficiency we feel within ourselves," says Lisa Firestone, PhD, a clinical psychologist, lecturer, and coauthor of Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy and Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice. "A quiet man may be powerfully drawn to a talkative, gregarious woman. The sexual chemistry can be incredibly strong." But later the very characteristics that attracted us may gradually start to repel us because they are, in their way, a reminder of what we (at least in some small corner of our minds) fear that we lack. For some people, the quest to find a lasting passion whose urgency never abates is an excuse to stay single. This "is a common and very effective means of protecting yourself from intimacy," Firestone says: No relationship can measure up.
A better guide to the potential of a new relationship is to ask yourself whether being with the other person is more enjoyable than not. Was your original conversation amusing, intellectually stimulating, challenging, even memorably adversarial or odd? Then it is worth pursuing. Physical intimacy differentiates our central, partnered relationship from all others, but the desire needn't be instantaneous. It can grow, often from the most mundane contact. How many women have noted how sexy a man is when he's doing laundry?
"My grandparents met at the altar," says Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California–San Francisco School of Medicine and author of Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather's Blessings. But over the course of a 50-plus-year marriage and four children, they fell passionately in love. "Everyone who knew them describes them as inseparable," Remen says. "Their love was the foundation of all their children's families."
You feel attached to your immediate family and friends but not to your community, the nation, the broader human family. Does that matter? Welcome to the club. In the past 30 years, the number of Americans who've become members of a group, any group—the PTA, the Elks club, the NAACP, church congregations, Girl Scouts, bowling leagues—has plummeted. "We rarely gather anymore," says Robert D. Putnam, PhD, the Malkin professor of public policy at Harvard University and author of Bowling Alone (2000), a landmark book that examined 30 years of data about American civic involvement, and coauthor of the more recent Better Together: Restoring the American Community. Voting participation is also way down. We invite neighbors over for dinner 45 percent less often than in the 1970s.
Such disengagement does matter. "The best predictor of a low crime rate in a neighborhood is when most of the people know their neighbors' first names," Putnam says. Health suffers, too, when we cut ourselves off from others. "Your chances of dying in the next 12 months are halved by joining a group," he says. "Social isolation is as big a risk factor for death as smoking."
Happily, societal alienation is tractable; each of us can tackle it. If you have children, just attend your local school's next PTA meeting, Putnam says. Invite your friends to a cookout or lunch in the park. "There's a relatively new scientific discipline about happiness," he says. "It shows that money can increase happiness, but not by much. By far the strongest component of happiness is how connected you are." Merely going on picnics has been found to increase a person's contentment by about 15 percent over those who never dine alfresco at all.
Turn off the television, too. The drop in American civic participation is closely tied to the period in the early 1960s when household TV ownership reached 90 percent. Participation in youth sports is also down dramatically across the country. "Instead of watching the football game on Sunday, go outside and play football with your kids," Putnam says. "This isn't like telling you to eat your broccoli. It's more like 'take two parties and call me in the morning.' America would be a happier, healthier, more prosperous place if we connected—one to another. That's a scientific fact." (For lots of specific suggestions about participating in your community, school, neighborhood, and nation, see bettertogether.org, run by the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America at Harvard University.)
But you don't enjoy groups. In fact, you'd rather be by yourself most of the time. Should you try to make yourself more social? How? The good news about the science of connections is that "some people just don't need very many," says Peter D. Kramer, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University and the author of Listening to Prozac and Should You Leave? In many cases, one or two close relationships can be sustaining and sufficient.
"Psychiatry has come back to an interest in innate temperament," says Kramer, and experts believe that certain people are born shy or introverted. This doesn't mean they're stunted or socially maladroit. In Solitude: A Return to the Self, the late British psychiatrist Anthony Storr points out that creativity is often linked to seclusion. Henry James, Beatrix Potter, Franz Kafka, Beethoven—all were loners (though not all were content; Kafka claimed to want to marry but couldn't bear the thought of a wife actually watching him write).
The notion that aloneness entails loneliness is particularly American, says Rachel Naomi Remen. "In many other cultures, silence and solitude are accepted and built into the days." Not only does imagination thrive but contemplation is easier when the mind is uninterrupted by the activity of others. Perhaps, Remen suggests, we should wonder about the person who can never be alone: "We all need time to hear ourselves."
That said, if you're cloistered in your home, day in and day out, or just too drained to see anyone, those could be signs that you may be depressed and should talk to a therapist. Sometimes just making yourself get out to meet a friend or attend an event can help your mood. For any introvert who decides to brave a party, Kramer says, "start small. Find one person to talk to." Introduce yourself. Ask innocuous questions about family and work. Ask follow-up questions. Even within the hubbub, you can remain focused and centered and enjoy the company of another.
• Your partner has grown emotionally distant. Or you've come to take each other for granted. There's no hostility, but not much intimacy either. How to draw closer?
Thankfully, emotional space is relative and any distance may have more to do with how the two of you define intimacy than the way you feel. "Some people believe that the closer you are, the more you can be together without talking," says Deborah Tannen, PhD, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of the groundbreaking 1990 work on male-female communication You Just Don't Understand. "Other people, often women, think that the closer you are, the more you talk." Both camps desire intimacy, but in a different fashion. "He may want to come home and not speak, since home is his refuge. She feels he's being withdrawn and uncommunicative," Tannen says. She asks questions. He feels pressed. She feels rebuffed. The schism grows.
"In therapy, we talk about relational currencies," says Kathleen Galvin, PhD, professor of communication studies at Northwestern University and a family therapist. "Those are the ways people have learned to express affection, whether by saying 'I love you' or giving gifts or going for a drive to spend time together." If, like bordering nations, two parties employ different currencies, transactions tangle, skirmishes erupt, cold wars set in. When one person says, "I love you," and the other responds, "Let's go for a drive," "neither person is likely to feel satisfied."
To close the distance, try becoming an in-home anthropologist. Note when you most long to talk. Is it in the evenings, when the children are finally in bed? Is that when he's most apt to be mute? Are the silences between you tense or contented? "If you need to have conversations with your partner to feel connected, tell him," Tannen says. But listen, too. Recognizing that he might have a separate approach to intimacy can be, in its way, intimate. Ask whether you could sit quietly together, maybe listening to music (a different communion than conversation, but also valid) for half an hour or so; then take the next half hour to just talk to each other.
You have no children and feel left out of the regenerative circle of life. "Children are our entrée into the future," says therapist Kathleen Galvin, who is a mother of three. They're also a way to extend our youth, as anyone who has played hide-and-seek or shared Goldfish crackers with a toddler knows.
The urge to connect to a child meshes nicely with what is, fundamentally, a duty, according to Rebekah Miles, PhD, an associate professor of ethics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who is writing a book about morality and child rearing. "In my opinion, there are no childless people," she says. "We all have responsibility for children." No one, even if he or she wishes it, can be disconnected from the next generation. We leave our marks, direct or subtle, on our children, our neighbors' children, and our nation's children.
"But there are other ways to leave something behind," says Galvin. "The wish to project oneself into the unseen future, to outlast mortality, is fundamental to human nature and prompts many of our most lasting endeavors. Artists are often motivated by this impulse. Those who command the building of skyscrapers—especially those who attach their own names to them—know the feeling of generativity."
So take up painting, woodworking, or quilting. Or get involved with other people's children. "You can volunteer at a library or the Boys and Girls Club," says Galvin. "Or tutor. I have students who have remained a part of my life for decades." And if, after all of this, you still need more interaction with children, Miles, the mother of two young girls, has a suggestion. "Call me," she says. "I can always use babysitting help."
You're in high school, the girl with no date to the prom. Only it's now and the neighbors are the ones having parties and not inviting you. Or your colleagues are going to lunch while you sit alone at your desk. You feel excluded. It doesn't take much for most women to start fretting about being unlikable. "There's a little voice inside each of us that is constantly judging and finding us inadequate," says psychologist Lisa Firestone, who has spent her career studying that phenomenon. This self-hectoring tape, your hypercritical inner parent, is extremely difficult to ignore, she says. It guides many of us into behavior that reinforces our own harsh internal judgments and distances us from people who might offer a more positive opinion. The voice whispers that your coworkers would never enjoy your company anyway.
"When I have a patient who complains about being snubbed," Firestone says, "I ask her to look back to the moment just before. Did she do anything to provoke the other person?" For instance, when the women at the office were gathering to go out for lunch, were you hunched over your desk, looking defensive? Or if a neighbor passes you on the street, do you barely just nod before hurrying on your way?
To change the dynamics, you must be active, courageous, and willing to risk rejection. Go up and talk to a neighbor or colleague, says Firestone. "Your inner voice may scream at you to stop, but you have to persevere." Invite the very person who seemed to reject you to lunch, to a party, on a walk. People are generally kinder than we suppose.
And if not, shrug, smile, and move on, remembering that rude people have intimacy issues, too—there are plenty of others who would definitely appreciate your company.
You're forced to spend time with someone who irritates or bores you: a stepfather, your brother's new wife, your boss. How do you find common ground? First the practical solution. When you're confronted with a person you're connected to but feel no connection with, try this simple tactic: Pretend you're a talk show host or reporter and interview her. Ask questions. Listen. Ask more. Let your questions slide from the general to the gently personal. "It's sometimes astonishing what you will learn when you let people talk about themselves," says Deborah Tannen. "They become more animated, more interesting, when they're bathed in the spotlight of your interest." We all want to be heard, to be seen, and for ourselves, not as the boss or sister-in-law or whatever role the other person knows us in. "When you learn about people's struggles—what their hopes are, their dreams—this allows you to find the common ground," says Remen.
It's also worth considering, says Lisa Firestone, whether your original assessment of this person—boring, annoying, grating—is based on your own anxieties. Perhaps a part of you worries that your brother, now engaged, will have less time for you. Your resentment colors your opinion of his fiancée, even before you ever meet her.
This expectation of dislike can develop its own self-fulfilling momentum. When she first introduces herself, you may react a little coolly. She rightly reads your response as scorn and draws back. You find her even more unpleasant. The underlying issue, meanwhile, has nothing at all to do with her. Next time, Firestone suggests, "look at her directly, make eye contact." Try to see her as an individual, not an impediment to your desires.
If all of this querying—of the other person, of yourself—fails to improve the connection, there's a philosophical stance, a certain perspective you can adopt. Remen recalls a psychiatrist who when asked how he could work with someone he didn't like, said, "Ah, everyone, at depth, is beautiful. Remembering this can soften your judgment." Though we've heard it before, Firestone urges us to have compassion—even toward people who seem very different. "It's hard to hurt those with whom we feel we share something," she says. "If nothing else, we all have our imperfect humanity in common."
You aren't a member of an organized religion but yearn for spirituality in your life. Virtually everyone at some point feels a need to be connected to something larger. This doesn't mean you've got to rush out to the nearest religious service. "There are so many definitions of the sacred," says Rabbi Tirzah Firestone (no relation to Lisa), a psychotherapist, counselor, and author of The Receiving: Reclaiming Jewish Women's Wisdom. "Some people can feel part of the infinite when they are in nature. Some people feel it doing yoga or meditation or listening to music."
Rachel Naomi Remen agrees. "One of the most profound ways to experience spirituality," she says, "is through the heart." Look around and ask, "Who needs me?" Give of your time and kindness. Some of the cancer patients Remen treats, perhaps newly awakened to a sense of life's fragility as well as its value, begin doing things like reading to sick children in the hospital. "Most often it is through love that we experience the great spirit that binds us," she says.
And don't automatically discount the church—or temple, or mosque—even if you're a skeptic or haven't attended one in years. There is grace in sharing a room with others who are seeking spiritual union. "Most cities have churches that offer ecumenical, informal services, if you're uncomfortable with sermons and such," says Rebekah Miles, who is not only an ethics professor but also an ordained Methodist minister. Or you may find, like millions before you, that you can be transported by the sacraments of a high service. "I often attend the Episcopal church near me," says Miles, despite her position in her own church. "The liturgy is really beautiful. It sounds holy"—which is why the language, and the longing for it, have endured.
You wish you had a stronger connection with tradition, ancestry—something to anchor you.
Tapping into your past, to what is bred in your bones, can be a labyrinthine journey. "Nowadays we're all a blend of ethnic backgrounds," says Kathleen Galvin. Americans can have multiple family ancestries: European, African, Hispanic, Asian, Filipino, Maori, you name it—often generations removed. Several Web sites provide access to lineage information (familysearch.org is the online version of the Family History Library, the largest genealogy library in the world). Beware of companies that promise you an authentic history and a "family crest" for a fee. Many of these enterprises are fraudulent.
A more immediate way to connect to your past is directly through family members. Sit down with your grandmother or grandfather, suggests Remen. Bring a notepad. A family's past resides in its stories, not its begettings, which is all that genealogy can tell you. Send out an email to far-flung uncles and cousins and ask if they'll share anecdotes, photos, or even a memento. Holding your great-grandmother's faded daguerreotype can be stirring. "You begin to understand that why you're the way you are may be related to who you came from," Remen says. "You realize, 'Oh, that's where I got my stubbornness, from my grandmother, who stood up to everyone.'"
Revive, too, some of the traditions and occasions that may have faded as you've grown up. If you spent every Christmas as a child at Uncle Harry's house with all your first cousins running around like banshees, invite everyone—including the next generation of banshees—for a rousing holiday feast at your home. Or throw a family reunion and include all the relatives (the great-aunts and great-uncles, the second and first cousins once removed). Sharing experiences as well as memories grounds you with a sense of belonging.
The one caveat is not to go overboard on the genealogy research, says Joyce Catlett, author, child mental health specialist, and frequent collaborator with Lisa Firestone on books and lectures. "I've seen people become obsessed. It's isolating. They spend months on the Internet," using the past to avoid engaging in the present. Instead of squirreling away what you learn, then, pass it along. "It's wonderful to claim a piece of the past for yourself, to find out that you're, say, part Irish," Galvin says. "But it's not much fun to be part Irish alone." So read to your children about St. Paddy; wear goofy green hats together. Traditions and memories that are carried on into the future link the next generation not only to the past but also to you.