Q: I’m a 41-year-old married lesbian. My wife and I used to work from home together. She recently got an important job, and she’s now gone all day, five days a week. I’m happy for her, and this is good for us in the long run, but I’m really sad and lonely.—Isolated
A: Avoid any temptation to kidnap strangers lingering in your building’s lobby. “Are you going to cut me up and put me in your freezer?” the terrified UPS man will ask. You: “Uh, I thought we’d just hang out and have coffee, but whatever works for you.”
Healthier (and less felonious) forms of coping start with unpacking what loneliness is. The late neuroscientist John Cacioppo explained loneliness as a painful feeling of “disconnection” from others. He differentiated loneliness from a desire for solitude, “the pleasures of sometimes being by yourself.” And he and his wife and research partner, psychologist Stephanie Cacioppo, noted that loneliness has been associated with serious negative effects on not just emotional well-being but also physical health, including an increased risk of heart attacks. (It seems heartbreak isn’t just a metaphor.)
It might help to understand that our emotions are actually our watchdogs. They rise up in motivate us to engage in the sort of behaviors—like connecting with other people—that would help us survive and pass on our genes. For example, humans evolved to be cooperators—interdependent—which is to say we’re “people who need people.” Take author Henry David Thoreau, an icon for hermitude and self-sufficiency who put in big chunks of alone time out by Walden Pond. What few people realize, notes Thoreau expert Elizabeth Witherell, is that he was also a huge people person.
As for you, it’s possible that some of what you’re experiencing is the discomfort we often feel about change. But chances are, you’d feel a good bit better if you could replace at least some of the level of daily human engagement you’re used to. You could go out to a coffee shop for part of your workday—the same coffee shop every day so you can connect with other regulars there. You could also invite work-at-home friends over to your place to be co-workers. Volunteer work could be helpful, too.
No, it isn’t the same as having your wife there with you all day. But it should dial down your separation distress—perhaps even substantially. This should allow you to let your wife know you really missed her—but maybe just with a sexy kiss at the door. No guilt tripping, sad-wife-face or going man’s best friend-style—spending your day shredding all the paper products in the house with your teeth and then moving on to the drywall.
Q: How do you know when a man’s “I love you” is for real? I’ve had men express their love to me with great sincerity, only to vanish not long afterward. Are all men this fickle? Manipulative?—Upset
A: Why does a man say “I love you”? Sometimes because, “Look, a ferret in a top hat!” doesn’t do much to get a woman into bed.
To parse whether a man’s “I love you” is just the later-in-the-relationship version of “You related to Yoda? Because yodalicious,” you need to consider context. The exact same statement can have different meanings depending on the context—the situation, the circumstances in which it’s made.
Not surprisingly, research by evolutionary social psychologist Joshua Ackerman and his colleagues suggests that men’s I-love-you’s “are likely to be more sincere (i.e., less colored by the goal of attaining initial sexual access) after sex has occurred.” They also find that men, on average, start thinking about “confessing love” 97 days into a relationship—so just over three months.
All in all, the best lie detector you probably have is context—racking up a good bit of time and experiences with a man and seeing how well the walk matches the talk. You might even wait till the three-month benchmark before concluding that the I-love-you’s are likely to be for real—and aren’t, say, the best possible airbag for what might come shortly afterward: “I got you a little something on my work trip. It requires a short course of antibiotics.”
Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon at 171 Pier Ave. #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. @amyalkon on Twitter. Weekly radio show, blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon. Order Amy Alkon’s new book, ‘Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence.’