One of the most significant challenges you may confront as a result of your divorce is learning how to be alone. Particularly if you’re a parent with joint custody or visitation, this may mean coming home to an empty house on several weeknights and weekends each month, something you may not have had to do since your single days.
I can still remember as if it was yesterday the first time my ex-husband took our children to dinner without me. Sure, he had taken them out alone while we were married. Once we had separated though, it felt different. That’s because it was the first time he didn’t offer to bring food back for me, and the first time I wasn’t welcome to go. I don’t remember what I ate that night or if I did. I only remember folding laundry through my tears while everyone was gone.
A year-and-a-half later, the summer I finalized my divorce, all of my children went to sleepaway camp followed by a vacation with their dad, and I spent 9 weeks by myself. I’d like to say I learned that summer how to be alone but not lonely forever. I can’t. All these years later I still feel that way from time to time. And you know what? I’m okay with it. Instead of shunning my loneliness, I’ve come to terms with it. As I see it, being lonely is part of the human condition.
A recent study by global healthcare provider Cigna suggests I may be right, and lonely people are not alone in their loneliness. According to the survey, 46 percent of Americans reported sometimes or always feeling alone. Forty-seven percent described feeling left out. Living with others can help, say researchers, but only so much; those who shared living quarters had an average loneliness score of 43.5, while those living by themselves averaged 46.4 percent. Single parents and guardians as a group, however, fared worse on the loneliness scale than survey takers as a whole, averaging 48.2, and despite living with children were still more likely to feel lonely.
With loneliness linked to an increased risk of death and other serious health problems, it’s, therefore, critical to face these feelings head-on. The Cigna study recommends finding the right balance of sleep, time with family, exercise, and work. Survey respondents who got either too much or too little of these activities scored higher in loneliness, whereas those who achieved the right balance of sleep, socializing, work, and “me time” scored lower. All of which indicates people need to learn how to be alone but not lonely.
What’s the best way to accomplish this? In my personal experience, it’s to regularly check in with myself and ask why I’m choosing to go out, stay in, or spend time with a particular person or group. If my answer is that I’m only going out, socializing, or engaging in an activity I don’t enjoy because I can’t bear to be in my own company or, conversely, am choosing to be by myself to prove that I can be alone even though I don’t have to be, I take a step back. I recall that whenever I base my actions on want rather than need, I make smarter choices, experience greater relationship satisfaction, am happier in the long run, and, eventually, no longer so lonely. Then I remind myself it may just take a little time alone and periods of loneliness to get there.
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