It’s hard to feel alone inside a long and happy marriage. But it’s easier than it looks, perhaps, to feel lonely. Last week, Italian police officers responding to reports of screaming and crying inside an apartment in Rome found something unexpected behind the door. Jole and Michele were a devoted elderly couple who had ostensibly got themselves worked up over a sad story on the TV news, but some gentle questioning elicited the fact that both were struggling with terrible loneliness. After 70 years of apparently loving marriage they still had each other, and yet that clearly was not enough.
This being Italy, the officers rather charmingly cooked them a meal of spaghetti with butter and parmesan and stayed to chat, before doing the washing up and posting a flowery account on Facebook of how loneliness can suddenly sweep over you “like a summer storm”. The story went viral because it’s so heartwarming, and yet on second reading it’s also rather unsettling. The lonely are not quite the people we think they are.
It will be 20 years ago this summer that the first Bridget Jones novel was published, a timely reminder to ignore the spectacularly awful sequels and remember just how neatly the original skewered some of the myths about lonely singleton life.
Bridget was famously terrified of dying alone and forgotten, but ironically the one thing she wasn’t was lonely: she was riotously surrounded by friends and family, even if they did all keep harping on about her getting a proper boyfriend. It’s smug marrieds who can all too easily collapse in on themselves, severing old friendships they will come to regret in the process. (Anyone who thinks that having a baby means you’ll never feel alone again, meanwhile, has yet to find out how it feels to be home with a howling infant, desperately trying to engage the postman in conversation because he’s the only sentient adult you’ll see for hours.)
It’s all too easy to become consumed by family life and then wake up in middle age, ostensibly at the centre of a rich and busy life, struggling to remember your last meaningful conversation. That feeling may not be loneliness yet, but it’s a first step on the road.
For while the cavernously empty feeling endured by the bereaved or unwillingly single can indeed be a terrible thing, and life-shortening to boot, it’s not the only kind of loneliness. A recent University of California study found that while almost half of its elderly subjects confessed to feeling lonely at times, only 18% of them actually lived alone.
Unhappy marriages, atrophying into long silences and separate lives, might have something to do with that, but the story of Jole and Michele suggests something else: a distinct kind of loneliness stemming not from the absence of significant others but from a feeling of disconnection with the wider world, a sense that you’re no longer part of something shared and human. Is it just a coincidence that the Italian couple’s crisis seems to have been provoked by a run of news stories – violent attacks, abuse at a kindergarten – revealing human nature at its coldest?
Fleeting loneliness comes to all of us occasionally, but it solidifies into something deeper and darker for those who start to perceive the world as a harsh and hostile place, one that wouldn’t welcome efforts to connect even if you try. It’s that nagging feeling of rejection, of not belonging or standing somehow apart from others, that is the true hallmark of feeling lonely in a crowd, and it’s by no means the preserve of the old.
Interestingly, a recent Brunel University study of over-50s found more than half of those identifying themselves as lonely had been that way for over 10 years, suggesting the feeling had become part of the fabric of their lives. (The same study, by the way, found levels of loneliness had barely changed since the second world war; so much for the idea of a modern epidemic, caused by fragmenting and hectic modern family lives.)
So perhaps it’s not so surprising that this week’s obituaries of the fabulously wealthy Duke of Westminster, a father of four, should describe him as “lonely”. Immense wealth can of course be isolating – although the money clearly didn’t make the duke unhappy enough to get rid of it, or indeed to eschew the family tradition of minimising inheritance tax liabilities – but in Gerald Grosvenor’s case something else seems to be going on. What emerges is a picture of a man struggling all his life with feelings of inadequacy and anxiety, worried that he had done nothing to live up to the reputation of those ancestors who built his unearned fortune. Bullied at school, he reportedly left Harrow without one proper friend.
And if you can’t bring yourself to feel sorry for a billionaire, the blunt truth is that not all lonely people are lovable old grannies who tug at your heartstrings. An unhappy few have pushed others away with their self-destructive behaviour and are now paying a high price for it; some have struggled bitterly all their lives with the art of making friends, never quite mastering social norms. How much of the late-night bile spewed on social media simply reflects the envy and frustration of those who see other people happily connecting all around them and just don’t quite know how to join in? Loneliness has its dark side, one not so easily solved by more visits from the grandchildren or well-meaning volunteer “befrienders” popping in for chats over coffee.
For Jole and Michele, at least, perhaps there will be a happy ending. Now their story has been made public, perhaps surviving relatives or old friends will rally round, and if nothing else the knowledge that strangers worldwide are now asking how they can send letters or visit must do something to restore their faith in human nature.
Yet while a little kindness goes a very long way, it’s too easy to pretend loneliness can all be solved by a few more companionable plates of spaghetti. It makes for a less heartwarming story but the truth is that, like the poor, the lonely may to some degree always be with us – even, perhaps, when they’re ostensibly with someone else.