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Coupling

Are You Lonely Tonight?

Until I find my lasting love, I'm learning to be satisfied with a party of one.

By Marianne Jacobbi
May 10, 2009
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Years ago, I was watching E.T. with my daughter, who was 6 at the time. She was mesmerized by the story of the lonely young boy who befriends an alien who's also lonesome and wants to go home. We were at the end, where E.T. says goodbye and takes off in his spaceship, and my little girl was sobbing. Some parents remember their child's first words or first day of school. I remember those first empathy tears. She'd felt it: the ache of loneliness and love.

I've met many lonely people in my dating experiences -- women and men who are single like me and hoping for lasting love they're not sure they'll find. We're middle-aged and starting over after two-digit marriages, and we struggle with bouts of loneliness that can hit hard in the wee hours and drive you to do things like text old flames or watch the Obamas dance to "At Last" all night on YouTube. (I've done that, I swear.)

Loneliness affects your "executive brain," William Patrick tells me when we speak recently. He's the Ipswich-based coauthor, with John Cacioppo, of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. "It diminishes your willpower, your judgment, your perseverance. When loneliness really settles in for too long, it can make us a little nutty and lead to bad things" -- like unhealthy relationships, binge eating, smoking, drinking, and sex with strangers. He says chronic loneliness is bad for your physical health and "shows on your face and every cell in your body."

We all deal with our loneliness differently. When my guy friends are feeling lonesome, they go online to find dates and distractions or escape into sports, the gym, and sci-fi. (I read that Steven Spielberg based E.T. on an imaginary friend he invented after his parents' divorce when he was young.) I do many of the same things, though space fantasies aren't the cure for me or most women I know. In the lonely hours, which for me tend to be after dark, I lie on the couch and reach for my people Prozac -- the phone. I call my children, cousins, siblings, and friends.

Having been both single and married, I know you're bound to have Eleanor Rigby kinds of days whether you're 15 or 50, in a couple or not. I don't pretend to know what it's like to lose a partner to death, which has to be the worst kind of loneliness of all. People talk about how it's better to be alone than lonely in a relationship, and I know that's true. I also know that loneliness feels like the opposite of love -- it feels empty and disconnected -- and when you're single, it takes work to keep that feeling at bay. You have to stay active, expand your world, and invest in others. One single friend who's been alone for some time is pursuing a lifelong dream and getting her doctorate at age 53. Another, so down in the dumps after her divorce that she wore black every day for a year (including black underwear), now fills up her life running a volunteer arts program for kids.

I had never lived alone a day in my life until after my divorce, and now, with the empty nest, I'm slowly mastering the art of aloneness -- and learning to distinguish between being alone and feeling alone. I've learned to protect myself in places that trigger loneliness attacks, like the airport, where it's easy to feel like some kind of off-screen loser in Love Actually. I ask a friend to pick me up after a trip. I treasure that I have people like that in my life.

What's the best cure for loneliness? "Simple acts of generosity," Patrick tells me. "They call it the 'helper's high.' " He says that when we're lonely, we feel this overwhelming need to be taken care of. "The key is to find simple ways to take care of others. It gets us out of ourselves, opens us up, and that's usually all it takes for human connection to begin."

Connection -- it's what helps us cope with the existential aloneness we all feel at times, both in and out of love. It's what my little girl felt that day many years ago watching E.T. It's the lesson I'm still working on here in my life on earth. Get out of yourself. You'll feel better. You'll feel less alone.

Marianne Jacobbi is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. She lives in Cambridge. Send comments to coupling@globe.com.