Loneliness and Social Isolation Are Growing – And Concerning
The former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, has also released a
new book on loneliness. While not focused only on seniors, Dr. Murthy identifies a widespread problem. His proposed solutions include service and being mindful about maintaining real – not virtual – connections.
We now know that social isolation contributes to mental and physical health challenges. Seniors are especially vulnerable to social isolation, for many reasons. We also know that relationships can buffer against the dangers of loneliness and social isolation. But only good and supportive relationships help. Bad relationships, filled with tension (often over sex) and stress are actually bad for you!
It seems that working to create and sustain a thriving relationship pays off. Avoiding the pitfalls of relationship problems helps avoid poor health as we age. If you needed another reason for working on building a healthy relationship, this is it!
But relationships with a wider network of people offer powerful benefits as well. It’s not just your most intimate relationship’s role to sustain you. Building strong connections with others helps, too.
Nonmonogamy’s effect among adults 55+
This recent research brought to mind my 2015 study of the consensually nonmonogamous. We found that respondents 55 and older practicing consensual nonmonogamy reported greater physical health. They also reported greater personal happiness and marital happiness.
Our positive findings were connected to the increased sexual frequency reported by our nonmonogamous respondents. A robust body of research documents the positive effects of sexual frequency on relationship satisfaction and personal health.
An important finding was that our divorced, widowed, separated and never-married respondents – those identified at greater risk for social isolation and loneliness – were significantly happier and healthier than their GSS counterparts. It appears that, through nonmonogamy, these “singles” enjoy a much more robust sex life, with attendant benefits. Our relatively small sample size limited the strength of our conclusion. But this remains a tantalizing area for future research. At the time, I was interested in pursuing the social support aspect, but other commitments got in the way. It seemed to me that persons engaged in most forms of consensual nonmonogamy must have a wider social support network.
The bottom line is that our research, even though preliminary, suggests there may be another approach to addressing this challenge. Our findings are especially relevant to the most vulnerable population: “single seniors.” Engaging in consensual nonmonogamy may offer benefits for health and well-being as well as relationship satisfaction.
This is not to say that the choice of nonmonogamy is for everyone. But, this choice may be a pathway for some to gain powerful benefits. If this is something you might want to explore, I have some resources that might be helpful. I also offer coaching based on my years of experience with the nonmonogamous community.
Why does a relationship coach care about loneliness and social isolation?
Because both situations often spring from poor choices within relationships. These poor choices can lead to separation or divorce. They may lead to an unsatisfying relationship that actually damages your health.
These problems are very much in my wheelhouse as a relationship coach and educator. I help people build better relationships. One of the things I help people with is learning to have a healthy Differentiation of Self.
Our social prescriptions for relationships create social isolation. They damage our kin and friendship networks. We expect too much of marriage/relationships. We expect too much of our partners. The burdens we now place on relationships were never meant to be borne by them.
Steps we can take to combat/prevent loneliness and social isolation
The “togetherness ethos” imposed by Western culture is suffocating. So buy yourself some “social isolation insurance.” Start becoming healthier by cultivating a new hobby or significant interest. One that your partner doesn’t share. Don’t let your new enthusiasm become an overwhelming time sink or budget-buster. If you do, that will create new and thorny challenges to confront! Don’t try to involve your partner. Hopefully this new interest helps you to build a new friendship network—with individuals of both genders. Just puttering in the garden by yourself has benefits, but they’re not what we’re after here.
It’s a good idea to have a conversation with your partner about this, and why you’re doing it. It’s not about them. Encourage them to do likewise. The idea is to break free of too much couplehood. Begin to have a social support system independent of your main relationship.
By loosening the bonds a bit, you recreate the separate person your partner fell in love with. Each of you deserves to have friends, activities and interests that are yours alone. Doing this will increase your own self-esteem and sense of personal autonomy. It also affords you and your partner opportunities to see each other as separate, complete human beings. The stifling cloak of couplehood gets really itchy after a while, so it’s perfectly fine to leave it in the closet periodically! Familiarity may not breed contempt, but individuality definitely breeds interest and attractiveness! It can even lead to renewed sparks in the bedroom!
You’re getting a “twofer” here. You get a more interesting relationship today. You build a larger social support network for your future. Both are good for your emotional and physical health.
Loneliness and social isolation are real problems. They are worthy of our respect and of taking steps to prevent them occurring in our lives. Here’s some of my observastions. What are your thoughts?