Relationship Tips

There Are 3 Unique Types of Loneliness—Here’s a Breakdown of Each, and How To Deal Accordingly

Erica Sloan

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During the pandemic, many of us have experienced being physically alone, and often, to a greater extent than ever before. For some folks, social distancing mandates may have also triggered loneliness—the feeling of being disconnected from others, versus simply the state of being alone. What many don't realize, though, is that loneliness can show up and persist regardless of how many people you might encounter on the daily. This has to do, in large part, with the reality that there are multiple types of loneliness, each with its own cause and effects.

A true sense of interconnectedness—or, the opposite of loneliness—includes many different forms of connection, all of them adding up to the full picture of social health. So, when you’re missing any of these types of connection, you’re also more susceptible to one of the different types of loneliness, even if you’re surrounded by people.

With this in mind, figuring out where a blank space falls in your social-connection puzzle can provide you with clarity on what your needs are, says therapist Emily Fiorelli, LMSW. “Consider whether you might be lonely because you’re missing a romantic connection, because you feel an absence of belonging among friends, or because you feel isolated among colleagues,” she says. These scenarios roughly correspond to different types of loneliness: intimate, relational, and collective.

“Consider whether you might be lonely because you’re missing a romantic connection, because you feel an absence of belonging among friends, or because you feel isolated among colleagues.” —Emily Fiorelli, LMSW

Below, relationship experts walk through the different types of loneliness and share strategies for handling them through refocusing and retraining your thoughts.

The 3 types of loneliness, how they typically show up, and what to do about each

Intimate loneliness

“Intimate loneliness occurs when we don't have a deep relationship with someone whom we can turn to in times of need,” psychologist and friendship expert Marisa Franco, PhD, previously told Well+Good. That could mean the absence of a best friend—or really just any good friend—or a spouse or family member with whom you feel like you have no real boundaries: No issue or problem is off the table for a heart-to-heart.

It’s very possible that the pandemic elucidated for you just who fits into this dimension of close confidante (and who doesn’t), as these are typically people whom you’d lean on during a crisis. That said, feeling disconnected from yourself can also lead you to hold back from creating this kind of close dynamic with another person—who may actually be very willing to offer you support, says therapist Elizabeth Marks, LMSW.

How to deal: To break that self-sabotaging cycle, it's essential to find new ways to connect with a close friend or partner, says therapist Sara Stein, LMSW. “Go back to whatever brought you together in the first place, whether it was a shared love of a certain musical genre or an adventurous meal,” she says. That act alone can make space for deeper vulnerability, which can prevent feelings of intimate loneliness from surfacing in the first place.

Relational loneliness

While intimate loneliness comes from feeling like you lack a close confidante or essential friend, relational loneliness is more intertwined with the perceived or real absence of a broader friendship network.

As such, this type of loneliness was likely the most common to arise during the pandemic. In fact, research in middle- and older-aged adults has shown that frequency of contact with this group of “core social partners” was the strongest preventative metric against developing relational loneliness. And thanks to social distancing, that frequency likely dropped to all but zero during lockdown.

How to deal: While making plans with these friends again may be a simple solve for this type of loneliness, Marks says personal factors like low self-esteem can get in the way of feeling truly connected, even when you're physically together. A helpful tip from Dr. Franco? Prime yourself with the assumption that your friends like you just as much as you like them. “Research shows that we're typically less likely to be rejected than we think we are,” she says.

Collective loneliness

Beyond your intimate friends and even your inner circle lies the wider community of people with whom you might share weak-tie connections—that is, the “fringe” friends with whom you might enjoy some common interest or purpose, as well as acquaintances like your neighbors. Collective loneliness happens when you’re feeling disconnected from this larger group. And it likely spiked during the pandemic, too, as virtual platforms often fall short when it comes to recreating happenstance interactions, like running into someone at a bar or the office water cooler.

How to deal: “As restrictions continue to change, take advantage of the moments where you can safely surround yourself with others, even if they are people you don't know well or at all,” says Stein. “A quick change of scenery such as a walk around the block or a stroll in your neighborhood can serve as a reminder of the community that does exist around you, and you might be pleasantly surprised at just how comforting that can feel.”

If lonely feelings are still percolating, remember that how you choose to perceive and handle that loneliness is within your control—and can play a major role in absolving it, too. In fact, according to a 2016 review of the scientific literature on loneliness, one of the most effective treatments for loneliness, cognitive behavioral therapy, centers around helping people identify “automatic negative thoughts they might have about social interactions,” and to “regard them as possibly faulty hypotheses that need to be verified rather than as facts on which to act.”

In other words, rather than doubling down on negative thoughts surrounding loneliness, view the feeling as an opportunity to rethink the role of different relationships in your life—and as a push to ramp up your practice of activities like journaling, meditating, and any other form of self-care that requires only the company of one.

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