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Relationship Endings And Loneliness

Having examined separation and loss in parent-child relationships, what happens when these phenomena occur in romantic relations? As young adult dating relationships end, presumably both partners experienced a decline in the social aspects of their lives. But in many couples, one person initiates the breakup whereas the other is "left behind." Charles Hill, Zick Rubin, and Letitia Peplau (1976) found that the initiators suffered significantly less loneliness than the partners who were spurned. Perhaps having control over such life changes helps reduce the distressing effects of loosing a partner.

After their young adult dating experiences, many individuals marry and eventually end those unions via divorce. In one study (Woodward, Zabel, and Decosta 1980) fifty-nine divorced persons were asked when, and under what circumstances, they felt lonely. For these respondents, the period of greatest loneliness occurred before (rather than after) the divorce decree became final. Both ex-husbands and ex-wives felt lonely when they felt out of place at a particular social event or excluded by others. For ex-wives, loneliness was also triggered when (1) they wanted to join an activity but were unable to do so; (2) they had no one with whom to share decision-making responsibilities and daily tasks; (3) they felt stigmatized by being divorced; and (4) they had financial problems.

A University of Tulsa study involving seventy-four men and women compared the divorce experiences of lonely versus nonlonely individuals. Lonely individuals blamed more of the marriage's problems on their former spouse. They also had more difficulties in their relationships with their ex-partners. They argued more over childrearing, felt less affection, and had less friendly interactions. In terms of adjusting to separation, lonely respondents drank more, experienced greater depression, and felt more cut-off from their friends. They spent more time with their children and were less likely to become romantically involved with a new partner.

For many North Americans, marriage lasts "till death do us part." If relationships end via death of a spouse, U.S. Census data show a 5 to 1 sex ratio with women predominantly being the individual left widowed. Helena Lopata (1969) has identified several ways that widows miss their husbands. For example, when their spouse dies, women lose a) a partner who made them feel important; b) a companion with whom they shared activities; c) an escort to public encounters as well as a partner in couple-based socializing; and d) a financial provider who enabled them to participate in more costly activities and enjoy a more expensive lifestyle. With such losses, it is not surprising that loneliness is a major problem in bereavement.

Robert Hansson and his associates (1986) found a general tendency for greater loneliness to be associated with a maladaptive orientation toward widowhood. Prior to the death of their husbands, the lonely widows engaged in less behavioral rehearsal (e.g., finding jobs, getting around on their own) for widowhood and instead engaged in more rumination about the negative consequences of their spouse's impending death. At the time of their spouse's death, subsequently lonely widows experienced more negative emotions and felt less prepared to cope. Lonely widows were also less likely to engage in social comparison with widowed friends.

If a spouse dies unexpectedly, loneliness is especially pronounced. To overcome loneliness, widows typically turn to informal supports (e.g., friends, children, and siblings) as opposed to formal organizations or professionals (e.g., their church, psychotherapists). In widowhood as in other transitions, time heals: Feelings of loneliness are greatest shortly after the loss of a spouse but decline over the months and years. As widows continue their lives, the quality of their closest friendship is more likely to be associated with their experiences of loneliness than is the quantity or quality of their quality of their closest kin relationship (Essex and Nam 1987).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsLoneliness - Concept And Prevalence, Loneliness And Marriage, Parents, Children, And Loneliness, Relationship Endings And Loneliness