Dealing with Loneliness

Since we have started this blog, we’ve noted different people on the Internet and in real life creating questions to help them make sense of the choices we have made. Some of the questions have included: Are these two terribly oppressed by religion?Do they have non-existent sex drives?How long could they possibly last as a ‘celibate’ couple?, and What kind of boundaries do they have?. Recently, Mark Yarhouse authored a blog post where he encouraged people to avoid rushing to judgment about how we have chosen to live our lives as LGBT Christians. In this post, he writes, “I suspect that for them it feels like the ‘risks’ (if you will) associated with a partnership of this kind outweigh the potential for loneliness or isolation many people report in remaining single.” Here, Yarhouse seems to be suggesting that we embarked on our partnership together with an expressed intention of avoiding loneliness. Indeed, loneliness is often perceived as the issue for LGBT people adopting a celibate way of life. Wesley Hill’s book Washed and Waiting devotes nearly 30 pages in an attempt to give celibate LGBT people hope that loneliness can end. However, we think it is all too easy to view loneliness as a celibate person’s most significant struggle, and also to assume that two people have decided to live in a celibate partnership because it is the best alternative to lifelong loneliness.

First a disclaimer: We have both benefited from being embedded in many different kinds of communities before we ever met each other. Being in academia (as we both are) connects an individual to communities where people regularly share ideas, have reasonably flexible schedules, and organize periodic social events. We’ve lived with roommates, housemates, and alone. We currently live together, and we suspect that celibate people who live their lives in community with others experience loneliness differently than people who live alone.

Now for a more direct answer to the implicit question raised.

To be completely honest, loneliness was the farthest thing from our minds when we began our relationship. We had spent several months getting to know each other as friends. Sharing life together came naturally for us. We have common interests, life goals, and spiritual commitments. Our lives intersected in an organic way, and we fell into a rhythm of doing life together.

We’ve seen plenty of people from across the entire sexual orientation spectrum enter into romantic relationships with the intention of overcoming loneliness. From where we sit, these relationships are ripe for partners to manipulate each other. In this sort of relationship, a person becomes a means to an end rather than being seen and appreciated as an individual. We’d also contend that people in relationships driven primarily by a desire to overcome loneliness will likely struggle to live out a celibate vocation together. The pull of overcoming loneliness can cause the pair involved to look inwardly towards each other rather than outwardly towards a radical hospitality.

While it seems like we are speaking from a privileged position of being in a relationship, we would like to point out that in certain circumstances, being in a relationship can actually cause people to experience profound loneliness. Sarah has had previous experiences in committed relationships, some involving sexual intimacy, that lacked the emotional and spiritual depth required to be vulnerable, to feel safe, to be heard, and to feel validated. When committed relationships of any kind carry with them a vacuum of love and support, a person can experience the most profound sense of loneliness associated with being rejected by the person with whom he or she is trying to share life. There’s at least some truth in the adage that you must first learn to enjoy being in a relationship with yourself before you have much to offer another in a committed partnership, celibate or otherwise.

It also strikes us as sort of bonkers that two people would forge a lasting partnership from the ordering of “I’m lonely, you’re lonely, let’s be lonely together!” Lonely is an individual emotion in which every person has to sort his or her preferred strategies for coping. When Lindsey feels lonely, Lindsey distinctly prefers to take a walk in solitude somewhere reasonably connected with nature or to enjoy a special treat like a cupcake. When Sarah feels lonely, Sarah seeks a change of venue and looks for opportunities to be around a lot of people in the city, having random conversations with people hanging out in different places. We’d contend that loneliness is an emotion that can clue us in that something’s not quite right. It’s a valid emotion to look out for. When loneliness is not addressed, it can lead to unhealthy forms of isolation; but the two states do not need to go hand-in-hand.

We do not mean to trivialize how other people experience loneliness. In some ways, we think it makes sense to speak of the experience of a celibate, LGBT person as alienating. A celibate, LGBT person can experience a double-whammy of social exclusion in a world that normalizes the experience of married, cisgender, heterosexual people. It can be difficult for any unmarried individual to feel especially at home among peers who are establishing families. It is much harder when unmarried people feels as though they need to be vigilant less they let their LGBT statuses “slip” in unsafe contexts. We are grateful that more LGBT Christians have come out of the closet even in very conservative Christian traditions. It’s harder to feel alienated when you know other people like yourself.

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6 thoughts on “Dealing with Loneliness

  1. I love the description of the celibate LGBT experience as “alienating.” I find myself in a place where I trust very few people to listen openly to what I’m wrestling with. It’s difficult to navigate. Great post!

  2. This is so well written, and I resonated with so much of it. For me as a cis/hetero single person, the narrative of loneliness is one I’m familiar with — and one I often feel, frankly — but I’m often disappointed that it gets applied so predominately to unmarried/unpartnered people rather than to all humans. The idea that the solution to loneliness is partnership, especially of the romantic sort, is so pervasive and so false.

    I think part of the problem is that we have a very isolated cultural milieu in the west, probably moreso than at any point in history that I can think of, at least. Add to that the fact that individualism and optimism are so prized in the U.S. and much of the west, and you get a whole lot of people who aren’t just alienated from one another in fact, we’re also alienated from one another in experience — we’re additionally isolated by anything that makes us feel different from people around us, or causes suffering or pain. So my gay Christian friends have to struggle for community because they live in the 21st century west, AND because they feel different from those around them.

    • I think both of us would agree with you on all counts. Often when I ask single friends why they hope to be married or have a partner someday, the immediate response is, “I don’t want to be alone for the rest of my life.” This is one reason I think it’s easy to assume that long-term or lifelong committed relationships are first and foremost about preventing feelings of loneliness. The common perception of single life is that it is profoundly alienating by its very nature. It’s really easy to forget how profoundly lonely some relationships can be for both partners. -Sarah

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