Why do I just want to be alone?

I had a friend I’ll call George who was in his mid-40s whose twenty year marriage had recently ended in divorce. George had called me to meet him for coffee at the neighborhood coffee bar a couple of months after his divorce. (This was something we had done periodically for several years.) He told me how he had been simply devastated when his former wife revealed to him that she had recently found someone new whom she considered her last chance to have a “real” life. George said he believed that the two of them had had a real life. He had been puzzled and deeply hurt by her decision to seek a divorce. He told how many friends and family members had reached out to him to express their sympathy and support but he had been unable to find any comfort in their well-meant actions. He claimed he felt like he just wanted to be on a mental desert island without any live connections, even by phone or internet. These days, he said, he found it painful even to try to hold a conversation with well-wishers. He admitted that he had even now hesitated to contact me or a couple of other longtime friends for fear that we might try to talk him out of how he felt.

Many people, especially those who have been basically outgoing their whole lives, wonder why, in the aftermath of losing a spouse in divorce, they now have an almost overwhelming desire to just be alone. There may be a couple of reasons underlying such an intense desire.

The basic reason is that people who are grieving the end of their marriage find themselves feeling very wounded amid the ruins of their couple-life which they had hoped would be ‘thappily ever after”. At such a time, all attempts by friends and family members (and even strangers), however well-meant, can all be just too much! There is a natural desire to withdraw like a wounded animal back into one’s den to lick one’s wounds. Of course, a prolonged desire for isolation can be a symptom of depression. No one need apologize to anyone else, or judge oneself weak or less of a person, because one feels depressed in the wake of a terribly painful experience like the abrupt end of a marriage one had hoped would be life-long. Depression is actually a normal human reaction by one’s inner self to a personal trauma one has experienced. It is as if one’s inner-self partially shuts down to conserve energy so she or he has the strength necessary to heal. Such depression usually lessens with time as one’s inner self slowly heals. (On the other hand, chronic long-term depression may be a distress signal from one’s inner self which now finds itself completely overwhelmed. Depression such as this may well require that one have the assistance of a professional healthcare provider.)

Another reason for one’s tending to withdraw from even one’s friends and family members can be one’s sudden stunning realization that everything is changed now! One may fear that she or he now lacks the knowledge, skills, or ability to rebuild long-term relationships either within the former relational network of friends and family members or within a “couples’ world” as a newly-single person. It is true that any real re-connecting naturally takes time and energy as well as a basic willingness to risk. But one often discovers that others who really know and care about her or him may well be ready to re-connect but they have been holding back for the “right” time. (Of course, in addition, one may be surprised to discover during one’s time of greatest need, people whom one had no idea actually knew and cared about her or him.) In the end, one should not be too hasty to judge another’s level of knowing and caring. The stressful time of one’s profound grieving is not an idea’ environment for accurately assessing one’s interpersonal relationships. It goes without saying that bridges that do not need burning should not be burned! The good news is that, because of our inbuilt human drive for healing, normal situation-based depression (as opposed to chronic, severe, unfocused depression) naturally tend to heal with time.

I told George that I saw it as a good sign that although he might prefer to just be completely alone, he was now able to begin reaching out to a couple of us long-time friends. told him that this might well be a sign that his inner healing had already begun, even if it seemed like it had a long, long way to go. We exchanged wry smiles, and gave each other a hug for old time’s sake before we parted ways.