Coping with social isolation after the end of a long relationship.
November 26, 2012 11:40 PM   Subscribe

I had a serious relationship of about ten years that ended a bit more than a year ago. My SO was my sole source of human friendship and companionship. Now that I'm on the other side, I'm struggling. How do I cope with the lack of meaningful human interaction and what can I do to move towards something better?

On a day to day basis, I feel fine and even good and I'm introverted by nature, but as time passes, the lack of human connection or friendship is wearing on me.

But, to be honest, I'm not sure I have that much to offer others in terms of friendship. My social/conversational skills are poor and I feel so distant from others right now. I almost feel like I've just emerged from suspended animation and this whole time people have been learning how to have idle conversations on what they did last weekend or how much leftover turkey they have, etc. etc. and turn those into actual connection but it's like a foreign language to me. So I'm feeling a bit pessimistic that things will improve in the near future.

What can I do in the short term to cope or to improve my outlook? If anyone has been in a similar situation in the past, I would be interested in hearing your experiences. Any advice or thoughts would be much appreciated.

Note: I am currently seeing a therapist. I'm not exercising as regularly as I'd like but I'm working on it.
posted by prex to Human Relations (23 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
So I'm feeling a bit pessimistic that things will improve in the near future ... What can I do in the short term to cope or to improve my outlook?

Not to depress you, but to hopefully be helpful - I DON'T think that things will improve in the near future. I think that building a satisfying social life can take quite a bit of time. And I think the hope or expectation that it will happen in the near future is something that keeps isolated people really trapped. Because if you go to a coffee shop with these high hopes that you will meet cool people, and then you end up not talking to anyone, you can feel depressed and like you are a really big failure. And if you go to an activity you enjoy expecting to meet a lot of likeminded people you relate to, but it turns out to only be people totally different than that, you get disappointed. And if there is a gathering of people you don't know that well maybe you feel like you would rather just chill at home than make awkward small talk for hours.

I think you need to go into this with the expectation that you are going to take many actions to try to build a social life, that you are going to do them consistently, and that none of them will begin paying off for at least 6 months. Now, that may not be true and you could meet your best friend on a total fluke on the first try, but I think going in with that kind of expectation is way more helpful and helps you avoid depression, discouragement, and quitting.
posted by cairdeas at 11:53 PM on November 26, 2012 [24 favorites]

I think social skills can be learned. The good thing is you are interested in pursuing meaningful relationships with other people - you're not put off by the entire idea of social interaction. As well, it seems to be pretty common in an LTR/marriage to exist in a limited social/emotional world. You're not alone, and you can pull yourself out of it.

The whole idea of smalltalk does not come naturally to many people. There are many, many introverts out there who struggle to cope with interacting in a day to day function. But it can be learned.

Really, the secret is just asking questions to show interest in people. Maybe your therapist has some ideas about how to develop strategies for that. But, once again, you're not alone. And you can learn how to interact with others on your own terms.

As for actually meeting others, like I usually suggest in AskMe, it's all about finding situations where people share similar interests and values.

When we returned from Japan to Canada 8 years ago, it was pretty tough to interact with "Canadian" families (my wife is Japanese). Communication styles were different, and there were few shared cultural experiences. So, we got plugged into the Japanese/Canadian community, for example.

In your case, perhaps there is an interest you have. For me, I like plants and natural history, so, if I had free time (I have kids) I would likely join the local naturalists society, which does a lot of work reclaiming local parks from invasive species.

If I was looking for a member of the opposite sex to date (which I am not) I would probably want to take up ballroom dancing or something like that. I'm an outgoing person by nature, so it's no big deal for me, but there has to be a group that you could join with a shared experience.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:13 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Find something that you care about -- a cause or a hobby. Find a group dedicated to that and get involved. Go to meetings, volunteer to work on projects. This eliminates the need for small talk and great schmoozing skills and gives you a chance to get to know people with whom you have at least something in common.

I would recommend a religious community (in addition to the above) if you are so inclined. If you don't have any specific religious views or objections, you might check out a Unitarian Universalist congregation. But, whatever you do... that's another group of people with whom you might be able to develop some good relationships.

Social skills take practice. You will find that contact with people and developing relationships becomes easier as you do it.

Don't fall into the trap of staying home and playing on the internet while watching TV. Go to places where you can meet people and meet people.

I wish you the very best of luck and would love to hear how things go for you.
posted by driley at 12:19 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I hate the answers above, but they're right.

I ended a 20 year marriage 2 years ago. I had to find new connections. Sure, most of the time my introversion means my aloneness is fine, but it's unsustainable.

I tried reading in pubs (nobody where I come from makes friends that way) and being places where there were people, but the main success I have had is with online dating sites. Some of these people have become my friends - real friends, that mean I have someone to talk to. The hard thing to learn is to spread my need for connection around. Too much with one person and it scares the shit out of them - or they are a weirdo. It takes time to learn, and I don't have it down pat yet either.

Hobbies, volunteering, work, whatever gets you out of the house and making small talk with people - do it - some of it, every week, at least.

In terms of social skills, being able to be interested in someone else is enough. Ask how their day is been, what are they doing on the weekend, do they see their family often, and so on. And they will talk and talk.

There's people on metafilter who want to connect too, I've made a couple of lovely friends who I rely on from here (Linda & Stace, I'm looking at you), so if someone connects with you by memail, write back. Say whatever. They'll think of something to say back.

Keep trying. Don't give up. Look for local events. Try and make people who sell you stuff laugh.
posted by b33j at 12:53 AM on November 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

For me it was time. I wasn't with him for too long, just 4 years, but I'm pretty introverted and he was my main friend and closest companion. I didn't see my other friends very often. When we split, I moved into a new apartment and lived by myself for the first time. I did that for a year and I didn't rush myself.

I spent a lot of time by myself and exploring my neighborhood. When my one good friend would invite me to her get-togethers, I always said yes. That helped me get out of my comfort zone, stretch myself, and practice interacting with others in a friendly environment.

Slowly, I started to get back in touch with friends from the past I wanted back in my life. I started interacting more with co-workers and went to lunch with them or walks around the parking lot. I also got a second job in retail as a sales associate in a store I liked which was huge for making me get out of my head and talk to people in a controlled, focused environment.

Towards the end of the year, I was ready to move into a new place with a roommate. It's been a great learning experience to share a space with someone who is NOT my lover.

The main thing was that I allowed myself to do whatever I felt I needed to do and I did not rush myself. Outside of my job(s), I spent a lot of time alone to grieve, be introspective, meditate, research ideas and religions that intrigued me and adopt some new perspectives, and make little, reachable goals for myself whether it was trying a new recipe or working towards getting a specific amount of money in my savings.

You have 10 years worth of routine established and it could take a few years to get a new one rolling. It takes patience and practice.
posted by E3 at 1:09 AM on November 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

An immediate and easy answer is: service. You might not have much to offer in terms of conversational or social skills, but that's not necessary. There is such a ton of volunteer work to be done in any community. And, even if you don't do an explicit volunteer activity, any type of interest group has tasks that need to be done. E.g., I am involved in my local Burning Man community and there is no shortage of hands needed to set up parties, organize our trucks to get out there, clean up, manage the mailing list, whatever. I rent at a local shop space, and there are clean up days where everyone's participation is be helpful. Community theater requires a lot of participants. Soup kitchens, any political cause, etc. Conversation -- and human connection -- happens really easily during the downtime, in between moments of being useful. Even if you're quiet and don't say much, simply being in the presence of other human beings is really good for a person and service is a straightforward way to just get more hours of that into your week.
posted by kellybird at 1:46 AM on November 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

Single introvert here, formerly terrified of groups and the perceived pressure to be superficial, now finding to my bewildered delight that I have an active and fulfilling social life. The primary driver for this was doing a foundation year training in counseling/therapy. It included going through a lot of emotionally fairly intense stuff with strangers, and the highlight was a weekend on group dynamics that made me realize that my own exclusion, and all those "others" who were so much better than me in group social situations, existed mostly in my head. It completely annihilated my fear of groups.

Obviously this course of action is not for everyone, but if you're an introvert and impatient with superficial social connection I would wholeheartedly recommend joining some group where lots of emphasis is placed on confronting fear and breaking down barriers to work well together in a shared endeavor. Improv classes are fantastic for this. As are writing groups, acting classes, drawing classes, choirs. Adult arts education is all about people getting together to face deep fears.
posted by stuck on an island at 3:57 AM on November 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

10 years with one person who was literally your everything?

I can think of no better relief than to keep some level of connection with him. 10 years of such deep involvement is simply too much of an investment to walk away from, completely. As long as he didn't abuse you.
posted by Kruger5 at 5:55 AM on November 27, 2012

You know, Kruger5, I really can't disagree with you enough about that.

prex, I think it's really important to spend time figuring out who you are now, and that means keeping your level of contact with your ex minimal, as it sounds like you are already doing. Great advice upthread about how to do that.
posted by woodvine at 6:02 AM on November 27, 2012 [10 favorites]

I'd go places where there are people and let things happen naturally.

Take evening courses in subjects that interest you.
Volunteer for causes you're passionate about.
Interact with people at work, if you don't work, get a little job somewhere.
When I joined a UU church I was so busy and active and immersed in people it wasn't even funny.

You can be that little bump on a log, and as you warm up, you'll find that most people are friendly and will be happy to sit with you and hang.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:04 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do you leave the house that much? Take yourself out to coffee or brunch by yourself?

If you don't - start. I'm not saying that you'll automatically make tons of friends that way, mind you; but it will get you out into the world into spaces where there are other people. It's a babystep.

But it's an important baby step, I think. Because you will still have some interaction with people (ordering from the waitress counts!) and it will be to remind yourself that "oh yeah, I can also have a perfectly lovely time without anyone else as well". Get out, go to coffeeshops and take a book. Let other people's conversations around you just sort of drift in and out of your consciousness. People-watch. Eavesdrop if it sounds like people are talking about anything interesting, or don't.

Do that often enough and maybe you'll get so caught up in overhearing the people at the next table one day talking about something that without thinking you find yourself leaning over and saying "sorry, I couldn't help overhearing...." and you join in. And if they're friendly, they'll keep talking to you. And if not - well, you're still having a nice afternoon with your latte and your book, so it's all good.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:17 AM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

There are many, many introverts out there who struggle to cope with interacting in a day to day function.

I'm sorry, but while that may be true, it has nothing to do with being an introvert. Most introverts don't have trouble interacting day-to-day, and if you do, it's not a matter of your introversion but rather about a lack of social skills or untreated social anxiety.
posted by deanc at 6:21 AM on November 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

Do you want to take the edge off occasionally when you're feeling lonely, or do you want to create new social connections?

When I was alone and socially isolated in a big city on an internship (didn't want roots as I was only there 6 months), I went to a movie at a cheap matinee every weekend as "social exposure". Just being around other people was enough.

Check into Meetup groups in your area - I've seen a number of them for people with limited sociability (introverts, social anxiety, aspergers/etc, other just-for-fun ones). There is no investment other than your time (unless you choose an outing that takes money), and you are free to never go back. You can also join a recreational sports league - most of them are excuses to go for pizza/etc afterwards at the lowest skill levels. If the team takes itself seriously and you don't want to, you don't have to stick it out.

Make it a habit to smile and nod at people as you walk by them. You can work up to "Afternoon" or other greetings. Ask how the checker is today at stores and wish them a good day, or say hello to other people in line with you.
posted by bookdragoness at 6:28 AM on November 27, 2012

Do volunteer work. Find some organization, and give them some time every week.
You will create social bonds by regularly helping out that group - and it will have meaning right from the beginning.
posted by Flood at 6:57 AM on November 27, 2012

The best thing to do is get involved in some activities. You will meet new people there and have things to talk about. Like being creative? Take a group pottery class. Like singing? Join a choir. You won't need to rely on social skills because you're putting yourself in a position that acts as a crutch for social skills.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:02 AM on November 27, 2012

Lots of good ideas already, but I wanted to throw out the possibility of living with housemates. There are downsides, obviously, but it offers introverts two big things: (1) regular low-level contact with a set group of people (who you might gradually befriend to various degrees, or at least practice your small talk on) and (2) secondary exposure to a wider group of people -- e.g., one or more of your housemates might be an extrovert and host or go to gatherings, where you can sort of tag along or be a fly on the wall and happen into additional social relationships. At the minimum, it means that you don't have to generate everything from scratch, at least for the time being, and you can use the existing social milieu as a crutch until you have the few good friends that most introverts rely on for their social happiness.

This might not be an option, for a variety of reasons, but I've seen it work in just the described way for several friends of mine, so I thought I'd throw it out there anyway.
posted by acm at 7:44 AM on November 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

But, to be honest, I'm not sure I have that much to offer others in terms of friendship. My social/conversational skills are poor and I feel so distant from others right now. I almost feel like I've just emerged from suspended animation and this whole time people have been learning how to have idle conversations on what they did last weekend or how much leftover turkey they have, etc. etc. and turn those into actual connection but it's like a foreign language to me. So I'm feeling a bit pessimistic that things will improve in the near future.

I am going through something similar. I will spare you the details but like you, as I emerge from my post-relationship funk (this one really broke me), I see that there's a lot that my city has to offer me, but I don't feel that I have anything to offer it.

I think you have to lose the idea of the "near future" or any timeline at all. You were a long time in that relationship, and you ought to take some time to get to know yourself and what you're interested in and what you want to do and what you want your social life to be like. It's probably quite different than what it would have been 10 years ago. So instead of robotically taking a book to a coffee shop, explore your bookstore and library and the programs offered at both and play around with e-readers and go on a Lincoln biography binge (ok maybe not Lincoln, you could lose another decade that way) and just in general get to know yourself and your preferences. Enjoy your own company, not just because you're an introvert, but because with all those Lincoln factoids at your fingertips, you're interesting.

For me, this is going to involve a pottery class ... not just as a random "take a class!" thing, but because I have decided that what I really want is squarish plates that aren't sloped up from the center, and with a little lip around the edge. They wouldn't stack/ship well so they don't exist in commerce, and I tend to prefer the rustic over the polished anyway, so I am going to make them myself. I don't expect that I will make new best friends at pottery class, but I will come away from this class with my own plates that I made myself, which will feed my long-buried creativity and thoroughly crushed confidence, and give me something pretty cool to talk about when I do hang out with people.

So I think it's a two-stager ... one, get to know yourself and feed the interesting parts of you. And then two, get to know others via the usual means (meetups, classes, book clubs, dating, whatever). Lose the self-imposed deadlines and you'll enjoy the process more.
posted by headnsouth at 7:50 AM on November 27, 2012 [9 favorites]

It's been mentioned already, but just wanted to highlight reaching out to close friends who knew you before you married, even if you've fallen out of touch. For me at least, it was important to impose a sense of continuity on my life that way, to realize that there weren't just these blocks of dream-years that existed out of time, with unreal people and situations.

Obviously, measure expectations, as cairdeas said - people change, of course, and their interests (and availability) may not match yours perfectly, and it's wise not to lean on any one person overly much. But I felt hugely relieved - it was good (easy, effortless) just to be around old friends. At worst, you may enjoy a brief moment of connection with people who remember you when you were 20. At best, you may actually revive some of those friendships.

Re propriety/face-saving in those situations - when I connected with my best high school friend, whom I hadn't seen in ten years, I think I held it together for the initial phone call and first half hour of meeting before bursting into tearful confession. She was still pleased to see me. We meet every couple of months or so (she's married, lives a bit away, has a full life; it's enough), and things have moved to a more mutually supportive dynamic since. So glad I called her.

(I've expanded my social circle since, so slowly (classes, hobbies), and developed ongoing friendships with some amazing people. But few of these new relationships are as basically comforting.)
posted by nelljie at 8:51 AM on November 27, 2012


This may sound like a ridiculous idea, but hear me out. Toastmasters is designed to help people build confidence about talking with strangers.

It may not be the place you meet new friends (though I know people who have made close friends there) but it's a great jump start for yout socializing skills.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:07 AM on November 27, 2012 is what I recommend to you. After my divorce, I was where you are now: no social life, living inside my own head, plagued with anxieties about meeting new people. Meetup was awesome for me.

Someone on MeFi once said that two strangers need something to hold them together while the friendship glue sets. This is so true! Just meeting someone once isn't enough to make friends if you're a serious introvert.

Meetup has lots of different groups for most areas, even my small college town. The key is persistence; join all the groups that interest you and attend every event that sounds tolerable. Make yourself go even if you have to drag yourself out of the house. Once you start seeing the same people at the Meetup events, it will be easier to talk to them. I found that my weekly trivia group bonded quickly because we could talk about trivia and not too much about ourselves. I know a similar group that bonded over board games for the same kind of reason.

I tried volunteering, online dating, and the like. It did help that I put myself in the position of starting conversations with strangers, even 80-year-olds. But it was Meetup that connected me to other people who were in the same boat as me, looking for new friends and fun things to do.

Just keep pushing yourself. I look back on myself where I was, after my divorce, and I really can't believe I'm the same person now. It was so hard, sometimes, because I do have a lot of social anxiety, but I'm so glad that I was persistent.
posted by aabbbiee at 11:15 AM on November 27, 2012

so, in trying to expand my own social group, I've been going to the local metafilter meetups. Everybody there is awesome, and makes anyone who shows up feel welcome, whether they're chatty, or just a listener. I've been going about once a month for 9 months or so, and would call many of the people that regularly attend new friends.
posted by garlic at 1:32 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

This article on how to make friends that came out today is a good one. (Note: for future reference, this website tends to wipe all of their articles like every other year or so, so may not be a permalink forever. If you like it, save the text.)

In my experience, friendships come from regular proximity. The best way to make friends is a volunteer job or hobby group or something that meets regularly and indefinitely. Making friends via a class has potential, but the friendships may come out circumstantial once the class ends. You need to hang around a group of people on a consistent basis for relationships to develop.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:42 PM on November 27, 2012

Thanks everyone for all of your thoughts and advice. I appreciate the acknowledgement that this will be a difficult and sometimes unpleasant process. Reading your responses makes me feel a little more positive about people in general. Thanks again, internet strangers!
posted by prex at 8:30 PM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

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