“Don’t worry, Wilson, I’ll do all the paddling. You just hang on.”Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away to his soulmate, the volleyball

Russell Collins

Russell Collins

Time and again over the years, I’ve met with people who live together unhappily. Not just couples coming in for therapy, but mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, siblings, in-laws, business partners, college roommates — any configuration of two or more. And I’ve come to believe that the fundamental problem separating these people is loneliness.

Despite their deepest yearnings to be connected to each other, each gets tripped up by invisible triggers, emotional traps, misread cues, phantom insults and injuries. They end up fighting, separated by self-protecting walls, alone and isolated in their misery. You could make the argument that most of human suffering can be connected in one way or another to loneliness.

Neuroscientist John Cacioppo actually does make this point: His research suggests that mood, anxiety, self-esteem, social confidence and optimism are all to a significant extent driven by the ups and downs of loneliness. We know a lot today about these feelings that we didn’t know even 10 years ago. We know where it’s generated in the brain. We have theories that explain it rationally as a product of evolution. Best of all, we know how it works in cycles between people to disrupt their relationship, and we have good therapeutic models to make changes.

I began to realize just how intractable and disruptive loneliness can be to a relationship years ago when I was in training to be a therapist. A couple I’ll call Jill and Brady called the agency I worked for to get help with their marriage. The life they described was in many ways typical. Married just three years out of college, Jill and Brady had pretty traditional ideas for their family. They agreed that Brady’s construction business could bring in enough money to support the family, so Brady worked while Jill got pregnant with their first child, Heather By year five of their marriage, they had three children, and by now, in year 10, they felt secure enough to put a downpayment on a little house.

What struck me first about Jill was her air of confidence. She sat straight and spoke quietly in a voice that was raspy from a childhood bout with throat cancer. This period should have been a great time for her, Jill felt. She had enough hours in her day to give the kids the attention they needed, with plenty left over for nature photography — her passion — and a daily walk along the wilderness trails located just behind the park. Brady’s distinguishing characteristic was that he just wanted to be a good guy and do the right thing. He tried hard to be an attentive husband, but his work came first, and that meant weekends and overtime. He was content overall in the relationship, except that Jill seemed unhappy with it.

“I don’t want to change anything in my life,” she objected in her quiet voice, “just … it makes no sense, I know, but I’ve got this lonely feeling inside.” In case we didn’t understand the seriousness of it, Jill added, “It almost never stops hurting.”

In the brain, loneliness arises in areas overlapping with the centers for physical pain. When Jill quietly described the dull ache of loneliness that went with her throughout the day, she wasn’t speaking metaphorically. The pain of loneliness is as real as the pain of a hot stove. It’s neurologically almost identical. We know this now because we can watch both loneliness and physical pain arise in the brain with the new scanning technology. We are also beginning to understand the interconnections between these pain centers, thinking centers, memory, and the place where powerful emotional reactions are triggered in the brain.

As Jill and Brady talked during their first two sessions, it became pretty clear that, besides the usual emotional letdown that sometimes comes with the arrival of children and the daily routine, Jill had other reasons for putting up barriers to intimacy with Brady. Her childhood bout with cancer created chaos in her family of origin. Her mother was unable to hide her own terror from Jill. Her father said he couldn’t handle the drama, and moved out the house. His departure had devastated Jill.

In the early years of her marriage to Brady, she’d often felt the familiar panic when he was out of town, or when he came home late from work. She’d find herself calling the office frantically, and even driving to his job sites to check on him. When she saw his car parked just where it was supposed to be, she would be angry with herself and resolve to start trusting Brady, who was feeling overwhelmed and resentful of her intrusiveness. They would fight, then both apologize, but the conflicts were wearing down their ability to stay connected.

Then one day Brady didn’t come home until morning, saying he just needed some relief from the pressure, and had spent the night at a buddy’s house after drinking too much. Jill didn’t question Brady’s story. But it exacerbated her sense of isolation, and caused her to seek out a therapist to help them get past these overpowering feelings.

The purpose of loneliness is obvious, once you accept the idea that many mammal species, including humans, evolved to survive in groups. In our ancestral world, people who knew how to operate in concert with others had a big evolutionary advantage over those who didn’t. And feeling lonely was an important signal that our connection to the group was getting weaker. So the genes that make us vulnerable to loneliness got passed down along with the genes that encourage us to cooperate. If we wander too far from the group, or if we begin to behave in ways that are unacceptable, the internal alarm is there to remind us and help guide us home. That alarm is the pain of loneliness, and — as castaway Tom Hanks demonstrated so poignantly — in the end we will find a way to escape its searing grip, or die.

Jill and Brady and I did many months of couple therapy. At first, we were successful, giving the couple hope that Jill could finally work through her demons, and Brady could get the relief from her intrusiveness he needed. But by the third month, things were sliding backward. Jill said she felt lonelier than ever, at which Brady expressed puzzlement, throwing up his hands with a look over at me that said, “See what I have to put up with?” In those days, and at that particular agency, it was believed that the key to a better relationship was communication. I worked with Brady and Jill to develop skills for the honest expression of their needs and feelings. They discovered the power of listening. These skills helped them grow closer, and there were times that Jill’s loneliness grew less painful. But just as we would begin to gain ground on it, a minor incident would cause Jill to pull back, causing the painful rift and the loneliness to reappear.

What I was up against is what John Gottman discovered in his research with couples and families: Knowing about this kind of communication — even being skillful with it — is just not the same as being able to use it when tensions get high. Teaching communication skills, or any new behavior between family members, it turns out, can be important in healing rifts, but it simply isn’t enough to change things permanently when members are overcome by emotions such as loneliness, rejection or fear of abandonment. This is because, when loneliness is intense enough, it overpowers all our planning and skillfulness in communication. And that kind of deep, intense loneliness, usually accompanied by fear, is often the result of events stored as memories in the more primitive parts of the brain during childhood.

Because little children’s survival depends completely on their relationship with adults, their developing brains send out signals of panic and rage when those connections are threatened. Jill‘s developing brain responded appropriately enough with panic to the instability in her household as a child. Unfortunately, that panic and rage in response to signals of abandonment got “wired in” and arose inappropriately in her current relationship Brady. When this happened, both Brady and Jill retreated from the relationship and erected emotional barriers to protect themselves. While these barriers kept them safe, they also left them isolated and yearning for connection. The aching loneliness felt by Jill especially would cause her to reach out desperately, often unskillfully, to Brady, which would usually just trigger a new round of conflict between them.

Jill and Brady and I worked together for over a year. At the end of that time, Jill and Brady thanked me profusely. They felt I had done a good job and had helped them understand their issues and learn new skills for tackling them. And it was true that in session, they could often identify the dysfunctional patterns of communication that caused them so much suffering, and their relationship was undeniably more peaceful. But it wasn’t enough. Jill particularly was still plagued by loneliness and a yearning for more. A year after our last session, they filed for divorce. They blamed themselves for not following through with the skills they had learned.

Unfortunately for Jill and Brady, I couldn’t see this cycle of overwhelming loneliness, followed by fear, rage, attack and defend as the central dynamic in their unhappiness. I wish I could say that Jill and Brady were the only couple who failed to benefit from this new understanding of the emotional dynamics of couples. But it wasn’t until more recently that a new round of research revealed that couple therapy as it has traditionally been practiced wasn’t producing the results we thought it should. Fortunately, intense, comprehensive new studies by researchers like Gottman have begun to reveal the flaws in the old models, and creative, evidence-based clinical models have emerged that are changing the game in couple work. Theorists and clinicians are working with new discoveries about trauma, attachment, sensorimotor functioning and the neurological effects of various clinical interventions with couples.

In 1966, psychologist Gerald Manus called couple therapy “a technique in search of a theory.” Not so anymore. With clients like Jill and Brady today, couple therapists are working from a detailed map of relational psychology, producing superior outcomes, and keeping couples together that in the old days would have been lost to divorce.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.