As late as 1969, loneliness wasn't even mentioned in most psychiatric textbooks. When Robert Weiss, PhD, then an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, began examining the topic in the early 1970s, he found that a quarter of those surveyed in a representative sample of Americans admitted to feeling lonely within the preceding few weeks. At the time, as Weiss noted in his landmark book, Loneliness: The Experience of Emotional and Social Isolation, the subject was "much more often commented on by songwriters than by social scientists."

Picking up where the Beatles left off, Weiss began to study the condition. Now professor emeritus of the department of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, he says his interest in loneliness was a by-product of research on marriage. He spent more than a year attending Parents Without Partners meetings, talking to people whose relationships had ended. "Very early, I learned that loneliness was an issue for these people," he says. It didn't seem to matter that the parents were in a support group, with people they clearly cared about and who cared for them, says Weiss, remembering one woman who told him, "I get together with my friends and we talk about how lonely we are." Eventually setting aside his marriage research, Weiss tried to pin down the many ways in which loneliness manifests itself, to quantify and rank the varieties, like some kind of lepidopterist of the lonely.

But it's a stickier business than hunting butterflies, this kind of cataloging, because there are not 11 kinds of loneliness or even 1,011. There are millions of iterations—those Parents Without Partners who caught Weiss's attention, for starters. There are the people who are physically separated from friends or family, and the brittle, acutely self-conscious, solitary guests, willing themselves to walk through the door of a party in full swing. Or the men and women who feel, despite their social obligations, work interactions, and all-around busyness, as if they're miles away from the people in their lives.

Others are caught in the less obvious and almost illogical loneliness that can exist between two people in love; the kind that marks out the exact limits of intimacy and the deep disappointment that surfaces when you've finally found someone...and still you feel alone. Some people are set upon by the particularly virulent form that occurs when they're sleeping next to somebody who doesn't really want to be there, and they realize how aggressively a person can prohibit closeness, even when he isn't conscious. Or the inverse predicament, the despair of the long-single that poet Marge Piercy traces as: "Every day alone whittles me. / I go to bed unmated and wake with a vulture perched on my chest." Or the utter bereftness of the widow who, each night in the minutes between taking out her hearing aid and the Halcion kicking in, falters in her stoic acceptance and rails at the Almighty to get a move on and reunite her with her deceased husband. 

It goes on and on—each lonely person confined to his lonely little mental specimen jar. How could you possibly study them all? But Weiss realized that he didn't have to collect each and every type; the disparate states could be classified into two categories that would help researchers chart the problem.


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