Paper People
Photo: Thinkstock
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."