Letters from Esther #54: Curiosity is a balm for loneliness.

By Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

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Shall We Begin?

Alone v. Lonely: There’s a difference.

On a recent hike, I spoke with a friend about the difference between being alone and feeling lonely. Being alone is often a condition for peaceful solitude and introspection. For parents with young children, a moment alone is so rare, it’s a thing to be savored, even if it’s a few extra minutes in the bathroom. For so many of us, alone time is me time. It’s time to read, exercise, lay about, meditate, masturbate, do whatever you want.

Feeling lonely, on the other hand, is an emotional, existential, and social experience that can be profoundly debilitating. In my office, I’ve heard many people talk about loneliness, the kind that is timeless and familiar as well as the kind that seems specific to this era:

  • the loneliness of young people who made the difficult choice of going no contact with their parents and the loneliness of parents suffering after losing a relationship with their child.
  • the loneliness of new parents shocked by the isolation this new stage of life has thrown them into, precisely at a moment when they need more support.
  • the loneliness after breakups, bad dates, extended separations, and stalled family reunions.  
  • the loneliness felt when cheated on, the compounding effect of negligence and deception.
  • the loneliness of the person who had an affair to offset the loneliness that crept up on them—even while surrounded by a loving spouse, kids, and community.
  • the loneliness of not having someone to go home to after a hospital stay, so you stay one more night.
  • the loneliness of struggling with your mental health and watching the world outside seemingly continue on without you.
  • the loneliness of taking two buses to work, surrounded by others in the same position, but not speaking to anybody.
  • the loneliness of being different and trying to act like everybody else.
  • and the loneliness felt when an important relationship, of any kind, suddenly falls apart over a difference in opinion, values, or politics.

This last one is the most prevalent story of loneliness I hear lately, particularly with teens and college students, though it’s not limited to that group. What causes the hurt is less the consequences of vitriol and high-pitched opposition, than the acute pain of being close one day and not speaking to each other the next.

When is loneliness most painful?

Loneliness is most painful not when we are alone but when we are misunderstood, rejected, ostracized, or ignored by the people around us.

As social creatures, we benefit from exploring the incomprehensible and painful complexities of our world in community, in dialogue and debate. It’s how we learn. As anxious creatures, however, we often give in to our urge to simplify those complexities into binaries with clear rights and wrongs. We allow false certainty to give us a sense of moral clarity. And, from this place, we find ourselves screaming at a parent, partner, friend, or stranger on the internet: How could you possibly think this way?!

My work is about encouraging people to instead ask: “How did you come to think this way?” It communicates a willingness to listen even if you don’t agree. It says you care about them enough to try to understand. It says: Our relationship is worth it. The answers to “How did you come to think this way?” often reveal details about a person’s childhood, fears, losses, and hopes for the world. These are insights you may never have learned had you not asked.

Curiosity is a balm for loneliness.

Every day, there are headlines, posts, and conversations that leave us feeling as if we’d rather be alone than engage with others on such sensitive and divisive topics—whether it's politically-driven, a schism in your family, or one of a million other topics we are collectively fighting about as a society.

My work, in part, is about helping you to disagree without disconnecting. It’s about helping you approach the unfamiliar with curiosity even if it scares or enrages you. It’s okay to respond to such overwhelm with self-isolation. But I hope you won’t stay there too long. I hope you will emerge and seek connection outside of yourself even if it’s hard, even if it means meeting new people or learning a new skill or going to a place you’ve never been.

P.S. I am so excited to share with you that, this spring, I embark on my first-ever U.S. live tour. If you’re looking for a new type of date night with your partner, with friends, or for some self-care, I can promise you an eventful evening full of insights into modern love, prompts for connection, and more. To see if I’m in your city and to purchase tickets, click here. I hope to meet you in person soon.

Let’s Turn the Lens on You

  • Reflect on a joyful experience—past or future—of being alone.
  • What stands out to you about it?
  • Why is it important to you?
  • Reflect on an experience of feeling lonely.
  • What helped you transcend it?
  • What would it mean to deepen your connection with someone new?
  • What about with an old friend with whom you’ve lost touch?
  • Describe an experience where your curiosity made you see things differently.
  • How might you show up differently in moments of conflict to preserve that connection?
  • How might you ask or encourage another person to join you in that?

More From Esther

It is with great pleasure that I invite you to join me on my first-ever live U.S. tour as I shine a light on the complex cultural shifts transforming relationships today, inspiring the audience to rethink how we connect, how we desire, and even how we love.

Cultivating novelty—whether through stories or experiences—is key for sustaining passion. Maintaining a sense of mystery and surprise helps counteract the routine and repetition that can sometimes lead to a decline in desire over time. Novelty sparks your curiosity, encourages exploration, and shows that even this person who is so known to you is still somewhat unknown, with untold dreams, longings, silliness, and surprises.

It is possible to turn conflict into connection. It takes empathy and grace, hard work and learning new skills. And it takes a bit of bravery. But if you’re up to the task, my course Turning Conflict Into Connection will help you make the most out of conflict. Inside, you'll uncover why you keep having the same fights, learn how to break free from unhelpful cycles, and find peace even when you disagree.

Conversation Starters

A compendium of highly recommended sources of inspiration and information

I’m Reading:

  • Each week, I receive the “Five Things Making Me Happy” newsletter from renowned happiness expert and New York Times bestselling author, Gretchen Rubin. It is full of helpful advice, research, and resources, plus little vignettes into Gretchen’s worldview and what she is up to. It’s a fun one.
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