When you live somewhere far away from your hometown or a place with many friends and family, and then get divorced, you spend a lot of time alone.
There are differences between being alone and being lonely. More than two years removed from marriage, I am alone more often than I was right away, but feel less lonely.
But as someone who thrives on social connectivity and human interaction, there can be no doubt that I find myself in the loneliest period of my life.
I’m going to be fine because this won’t be permanent, and because I actively pursue social activity today more so than I did during the hardest, darkest days following the divorce.
But like so many of these experiences new to me in this unexpected life phase, it dawns on me that I can’t be the only one experiencing this.
The Recipe for Social Isolation After Divorce
I’m sure it can happen multiple ways, but here’s how it happened for me.
I was born in Iowa and lived there until I was 4. Then, my parents divorced and my mother moved us to Ohio where we lived near her hometown.
I grew up in a small-town, big-family environment and had a large group of friends throughout elementary school and high school, so even though I was an only child, I never experienced loneliness.
My college years proved to be the most-connected, and I believe not coincidentally, the most-fun years of my life.
Because I was young and took for granted the connection between friends and family, and my internal happiness and well being, I moved to Florida more than a thousand miles away after graduating college.
My girlfriend, who would later be my wife/ex-wife, was with me, mitigating some of the loneliness and social isolation we both felt after a few months living so far from home for the first time.
After a few years, we moved back to Ohio, only this time, we moved near my wife’s hometown—a place where I had no roots, hundreds of miles from all the people I knew and grew up with. Still, it felt much more like home than Florida. My wife’s immediate and large extended family welcomed me, and holidays were warm, vibrant affairs, and that helped offset any loneliness or social isolation I felt being in yet another new place far from home.
We made friends. Almost all were married couples because when you’re married, you tend to befriend and hang out with other couples.
It wasn’t perfect. My dad’s side of the family was 500 miles away. My mom’s side was a four-hour drive away. But we had made a home and forged a comfortable life with our new friends and my wife’s kind family.
Even though it was a slow death at home, so sneaky I didn’t even recognize it happening until she finally said one night: “I don’t know if I love you anymore,” it must have seemed quite sudden to friends and family because my wife and I were so good at wearing masks and pretending.
She’d had enough. And she left.
And at first, I was so out of breath, and so emotionally and mentally and spiritually damaged, focused on the loss of my presumed lifelong partner, half of my little son’s childhood, and all of my hopes and dreams for the future, that loneliness and social isolation weren’t on my radar.
In fact, there were many days and nights where I didn’t want to talk to anyone.
But time heals even the deepest wounds. And something like normalcy returns.
You lose friends from the fallout.
You lose an entire family because when you divorce your spouse, you often divorce their family too, no matter how kind and loving they remain in your sporadic post-divorce meetings.
So you take stock of your life.
I have no family.
I lost friends.
My son needs both of his parents, so unless we all agree to move somewhere, this is where we are for many more years.
You accept your fate. It’s not ideal. You’d move if you could. But your son matters so much more than anything else, that there’s no internal debate.
When you are a divorced parent to children fortunate enough to have a viable parent nearby to help love and care for them, you tend to be geographically stuck. And if you’re someone like me who happened to move with your partner to a place far from home, you find yourself here. Just like me.
Longing for more.
Yearning for the joy and comfort of lifelong friendships.
But resigned to your fate.
This is where I live. And I have to make the best of it.
The Journey Home
I’m visiting family and friends this week in western Illinois.
No matter how many years of vibrant social living you’ve experienced, when you live alone as I do now and rarely see people from your past, it’s easy to forget how soul-enriching it is to be with loved ones.
It has been a wonderful visit. Incalculable fun and laughter with people who have mattered for as long as I can remember.
But this is the last day. The one that always arrives too quickly.
Tomorrow, we—my young son and I—return home.
Not home, per se. But, home.
It reminds me that home isn’t just a destination, but a state of mind, a state of being.
That it’s about people and how we feel when we are with those people. Those beautiful few we let all the way in. The people who cross from friend to family, despite the absence of shared bloodlines.
I came across this today in Medical Daily:
“While solitude can stimulate creativity and even improve our attention span, it can also have deadly consequences. A 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science found social isolation increased people’s likelihood of death by 26 percent, even when people didn’t consider themselves lonely. Social isolation and living alone were found to be even more devastating to a person’s health than feeling lonely.
The human species is inevitably a social species that has depended on other members since birth. We’re social creatures that need other people in order to be well and thrive. Naturally, surrounding ourselves with others and fostering close relationships are the antidote to living happy, healthy, and well.”
I can’t go back in time and change the course of my life or marriage.
I can’t run away to places in this world where I have family and friends networks that mean so much to me.
And I can’t rely on others to do anything for me.
It has to be me. It has to be us—everyone who finds themselves in these relatively unique life circumstances.
We have a responsibility to create the best-possible life for our children. We have a responsibility to be the happiest, healthiest versions of ourselves so that we can be the parents our kids need.
To totally sell out and rock a pretty annoying cliché, we all have a responsibility to make lemonade. You know, because of the lemons.
Our families can’t do it for us.
Our faraway friends can’t do it for us.
It has to start with the choice to be friendly and generous to others. To courageously try new things and participate in new activities. To put ourselves out there for acceptance or rejection and being willing to roll with the punches knowing we’re going to earn a few new “family” members along the way.
Because when you can’t be home, you have to make home.
To inject more life into life.
And it boils down to one simple choice: What am I going to do today?