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An Expert Explains Why You Feel So Lonely All the Time

Failing to connect with other people can seriously screw with your dopamine reward system, says psychiatrist Amy Banks.

Annie Vainshtein

Image by Sarah MacReading

We're living in what you might call an epidemic of loneliness. Recent research has shown that many of the people we feel close to probably don't reciprocate the feeling. Millions of men feel like they have no one they could turn to for emotional support. In 2015, TIME magazine—never one to shy away from big bold pronouncements—ran a story titled, "Why Loneliness May Be the Next Big Public-Health Issue." And last month, the New York Times even pointedly questioned whether your friends actually like you.

Amy Banks, a psychiatrist who is a founding member of the Jean Baker Miller Institute at Wellesley College and the author of Wired to Connect, has thought a lot about loneliness. Banks has devoted her entire career to studying the neurobiology of relationships and how our social interactions shape our brains. Specifically, Banks treats patients who suffer from "chronic disconnection"—what happens after years of focusing on individual success and neglecting relationships.

Recently, I spoke to Banks about why so many people fall into patterns of chronic disconnection, what it's doing to our bodies and brains, and what we can do to fix it.

VICE: I think we all can imagine what being lonely means, but what does it mean when someone is "chronically disconnected"?
Amy Banks: Let me start with a description of a healthy connection, because I think you'll get it. Number one is you have a feeling of zest: that energy, the spark you get with your best friend or somebody when you're in a good conversation. Second is you have clarity about yourself, the other person, and the relationship. The third thing is a sense of value or self-worth. You feel better about yourself. You believe that this person's going to care and that they're going to hear you. And finally, it really breeds a desire for more healthy connection.

When people are chronically disconnected, or in a relationship that has a chronic disconnection, you usually see just the opposite. People have no energy; there's almost a paralysis. They start getting confused about whose issue is this—is it mine, is it yours? So clarity is gone, and you feel bad about yourself. You feel like, I have to protect myself, I feel like I have to be even more isolated. All of the things that go up in a good relationship completely tank in a bad one.

How many people do you think are affected by chronic disconnection? Because, in hearing about it, it seems like everyone I know.
Well, I think that's kind of the point. You're saying that in your life, you feel like almost everybody is. I think it's endemic to the culture that we live in—people are taught that depending on one another, this interdependence, which is actually kind of the most essential human characteristic, gets labeled weak or too needy.

A quarter of people in our country cannot name a single person they feel close to [according to Robert Putnam's 2000 book Bowling Alone]. I think you're really talking about the large bulk of humanity in our culture that really feels isolated.

Why do you think that's the case?
American culture is so far off the scales in this idea of separation and individuation. It's, like, embedded in our DNA at this point. So at the very get-go, when we're little kids, you get fed into the competitive pipeline and that gets reinforced—the more and more you do on your own, the better person you are. That becomes the value: "I should be able to do these things on my own."

But then you find a partner and the very skills that would actually allow you to have a good, solid relationship and partnership in life tend to be missing. For some people, they're so competitive that it's hard for them to move into that place of not being domineering, and not being the one who's right. For other people, it's literally just missing the skill set. How does one argue, how do you listen, how do you speak your voice—all of those absolutely essential relational skills get lost in this hyper-intense competition to stand alone at the top of the heap.

Do you see more chronically disconnected people in relationships or in those who are single?
Having a primary partnership does not necessarily mean you don't feel chronically disconnected. One of the things I see most often is getting into a relationship and then giving the other person what they wish they were receiving from the relationship. So both people are actually, in a sense, giving to their partner what they want and not knowing what the partner wants. And so you can have literally two people in a relationship saying, "I'm the one that gives all the time but neither one feeling like they're getting anything."

For many young people, work comes first and relationships come second. You're saying that can be damaging in the long term?
This separation and individuation puts blinders on us—we just get into this mode, and we forget that we're interacting with people every day, all day. Relationships at work can be rewarding. Maintaining email contact with your best friend from high school, which maybe you just do once a week, can be really sustaining. Having somebody ask you when you get home at the end of the day how your day was, rather than staying in that cubby-hole of isolation... I think so many people get into that, and it's just like a way of life.

And there's been a whole generation of men that have kind of woken up at age 60, around retirement age, realizing they spent all their time working and all of sudden they're like, What about relationships?

What would you say to those people?
Your dopamine-reward system has been hijacked. Our dopamine-reward system, which is the same pathway that is affiliated with every addiction known to man—drug, work, porn addictions—that system is, in the beginning, primarily connected to things that are healthy to you, including human nurturance. Cuddling with your mom, breastfeeding, drinking water, eating healthy food—all those stimulate the dopamine-reward system.

So one of the things that happens when you get into a hyper-individualized society is you begin to take relationship out of the equation of what stimulates dopamine. And then, people want the dopamine and replace it with another thing to do repeatedly. I think work plays that role for a lot of people.

So how, specifically, can people start to feel better about their relationships?
Relationship is at the core of human health and well-being, not isolation. Not individuation. Everything grows out relationships, not away from relationships—we have the model that from when you're born, socialization will lead you to ever-increasing levels of independence. That central premise just gets off to the wrong start.

The best relational advice that I would give, it's often gendered: Listen more than you talk. Or do more of what you don't usually do. If you're comfortable in the relationship, you probably need to shake it up.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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