Alone or Lonely: Which is Worse?

  • Collage, Mitten-hands stop me from reaching out. Noodle-brain -in my mind, not my heart

    First, I’ve been feeling a bit lonely lately.  Lonely in the sense I’ve not had time, taken time, to be in contact with my good friends, locked in my home office with paperwork.

    Second, I saw an interview on one of the morning shows about how some women were choosing not to marry at all or wait until their late 30’s, 40’s or 50’s — how their lives “alone” were not lonely.

    Third, I was talking to a friend about how difficult, how lonely it must be for someone to lose a spouse through death.
    She looked at me with a slight questioning surprise in her eyes when I said that it can often be more painful to be alone in a relationship than lonely without one.

    The question of which being more painful, alone or lonely, is an interesting one.
    In my practice, I see the anguish of couples who are without connection, without love, without companionship while IN a relationship.  I’m absolutely not diminishing the anguish, the pain of losing a beloved spouse or partner.

    I’m simply saying that loss through death can be mourned and the finality, while always difficult, can be acknowledged and accepted.  
    When the relationship is dead and both partners are still alive the grieving never stops, the pain often keeps increasing rather than diminishing.

    For those of us with chronic medical conditions there is often a pervasive sense of being alone.  A thought that no one can really understand, no one can help even if they want to, that we have been abandoned by God or worse yet, being punished . . .

    I think that loneliness has to do more with our state of mind than state of our body or state of our relationships: How we view the world;  How we define our expectations, fantasies, shoulds, coulds and woulds.
    Upon more reflection the most devastating might be  
    being alone AND lonely,
     also a state of mind.
    Powerful thing that noodle-brain.

11 comments on “Alone or Lonely: Which is Worse?

  1. Hi Judy…seems I’m off and on when it comes to commenting, but this post really got to me since my husband passed away nearly 4 years ago, but we had 50++ good&bad years together…It seems now I’ve become much more aware of losses, or perhaps it’s the “shoulda/woulda/coulda” that often haunt my thoughts (I’ll be 80 in Jan–decided I’ve got 20 years left–):O Seems to hurt more now than it did at the time of the losses.


    • 80 is huge. It puts most people into another frame of reference, another passage. As the years progress there are more and more losses which I think, highlights the reality of alone and can deepen the sense of lonely. For me the way to make a bit of peace with the shoulda/woulda/coulda is to understand what it is I’ve learned from the gains and losses. If I’ve learned, no matter how painful the event, then it is harder to have regrets. If I haven’t learned it’s time to learn and grow.
      Easier said than done.
      Thank you for taking time to comment and giving me more to reflect on.


  2. I’ve been alone and happy with it (yet, still had a loneliness I couldn’t fill)..I’ve been alone and hated it…I’ve been lonely, was lonely most of the time (Oh yes, I understand being lonely in a crowd!!), I get lonely now but not all consuming like it used to get.. I got married very young, but it didn’t last long… (Mo, like the next line of that song…”Two can be as bad as one, It’s the loneliest number since the number one.)
    then I waited, I lived alone, I had room mates, I had lovers, I worked on me, found I liked me, and felt much less lonely…but I never found the complete absence of loneliness until I married my husband…at 41.

    I say complete absence, but I do still feel lonely sometimes…but it’s different now. I know I have someone, I’m not completely alone…even when I’m alone. But I am lonely for certain friends, for my mother…people who have drifted away, or I’ve lost…lonely for community.

    This is a very thought filled post.

    I think lonely is worse. Because it was painful being alone in a relationship…but that was mainly because I was lonely, even though I wasn’t “supposed” to be.

    Alone by choice, isn’t lonely.
    Alone when you don’t want to be…is very lonely indeed….even in a crowd.


    • Wendy,
      Thank you for your thoughtful thought filled comment. When we all take a look back at our lives it is interesting how the ebb & flow can repeat itself until we do the introspective work, that you did, that helps us create a different pattern. And even then within the new ebb and flow the old patterns creep in. Sometimes I wonder if it is simply a matter of acceptance of what is – waving the white flag of surrender instead of maintaining the battle — oooooooooo I feel another post coming on !


  3. Having been alone and been lonely, I think lonely is the hardest. As an only whose family moved every year and half or so, I am very used to be being alone. I am also used to being lonely.
    Alone can be a choice, a state of being that can be accepted, celebrated, enjoyed. I go out to eat by myself, shop by myself, used to go to movies by myself (often because there was no one to go with, but I focused on the fun I was having)
    Loneliness (where ever it is within or without a relationship(s)) is an empty, sad, on-the-outside-looking-in kind of feeling. I’ve shed more tears over loneliness than aloneness. In a crowd, I can feel lonely, but not alone. But, then that’s me.


    • Lorraine,
      I’ve had many in my practice over the years who moved and moved during their childhood and every single one feels just as you are describing – in the middle of hoards of people and lonely. That’s just not you. It’s a product, I believe, of the moving.
      thank you for creating a real face to what I tried to describe.
      P.S. good to see you back!


  4. Wow Judy! Great post. I lived alone for many years, moved out of my childhood home at 21 and didn’t get married until I was 32. Never had a room-mate until I got a Husband. I was “alone” often when I was single, especially since I worked weird shifts, mostly 3pm till 11pm, or midnight shifts. BUT I was never lonely. Now I am married with three male boarders…hubby, son #1 and son #2, and again am often alone…but seldom lonely. (I am lonely for the companionship of my Mother, but that’s a whole ‘nother post) In contrast, my older sister is often lonely, she feels lonely even when she is surrunded by family or friends. She is divorced and has no children….but she has so many people in her life that love her. I feel so bad for her…I can’t fix her feelings. I want to fix her. Lonely must be hard.

    As Three Dog Night said once “One is the lonliest number that you’ll ever do”


    • Maureen,
      Thank you for the honest and personal examples of what I was trying to say and for the reminder of “One is the loneliest number . .” I think lonely is a feeling that is hard to express- music does that.


    • Hi Judith – I was telling a friend over coffee today my new theory: that there are very good evolutionary caveman-type reasons for pair-bonding when we are young and of child-bearing age. That’s when it’s handy to have your caveguy out there fighting off the sabre-toothed tiger and bringing home the mastodon bacon to help feed the family while we stay home, nurse the babies and keep the family fed and healthy to ensure they survive to continue the species as adults. But as children grow and leave the cave, and as we age, too, the need for pair-bonding seems less clear. That’s why girlfriend were invented.

      Even just a century ago, the lifespan of the average woman was less than 50. It would have been unthinkable to imagine living with a mate into our 60s and up.

      And let’s face it, as we age, so do those caveguys. My girlfriend’s longtime husband, for example, spent six years trying to make up his mind about the paint colour she’d chosen for their bedroom walls. SIX YEARS! (I would have strangled him long ago – I’d be out of prison by now for good behaviour, and I’d have the frickety-frackin’ walls painted the colour I want….)

      I wrote about a similar theme at “In Praise of Solitude After a Heart Attack” –


      • Carolyn,
        Now I know why I like you!
        I see the headline now: SMEARED! Man dies by paint roller. Found covered with acrylic paint, wrapped in a bed sheet and the words “acrylic you fool”, written across his chest. Murderer on the loose.


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