IN THE EARLY '70s loneliness became
a hot topic in the American media. Journalists began to chart the rise of a new service industry that catered to lonely people, who now flocked to singles bars and computer dating services, to encounter groups and spiritual cults. Sociologists and psychologists soon followed with studies analyzing why--in the midst of the "Age of Relationships"--loneliness had ceased to be a private affair and was now a public matter.
What they revealed, in books like Philip Slater's Pursuit of Loneliness and Robert Weiss' Loneliness: The Experience of Emotional and Social Isolation, as well as in rediscovered classics like David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd and Jules Henry's Culture Against Man were problems with which we are, by now, all too familiar. Geographical and emotional mobility, divorce, communities fragmented and segregated into age and interest groupings, the architecture of loneliness so prevalent in our cities and suburbs, the competitive thrust of the "old individualism" and the self-preoccupation of the "new narcissism," all combined to shatter relationships faster than they could be re-formed.
Focusing on the society, rather than the individual, this literature of loneliness did not offer any easy solutions. For this reason, it provided little solace to the lonely man or woman.
He or she might discover that loneliness was not necessarily due to a personal failing, and that millions of others suffered from a parallel problem. But that was small compensation to a person desperate for companionship. No, the lonely were moved to look elsewhere.
What they found, of course, was a very different literature of loneliness -- a literature that descended directly from the American success ethic, which assures lonely people that they can attain whatever they seek by dint of good salesmanship and the power of positive thinking. Written by authors who take their inspiration from business and management schools, these books -- of which the three reviewed here are just a representative sample -- try to teach lonely people how to sell themselves to others; how to appreciate whether they are getting a good buy in their latest relationship; how to extract the maximum profit from a social encounter; and how, if such an unfortunate thing should occur, they can get rid of a "lemon" mate or spouse.
Interchangeable in tone and format, Human Connections, Friendship, and How to Break Your Addiction to a Person admit that loneliness is a pervasive problem in American society. Yet, they argue, it can be banished if you follow the list of do's and don'ts they outline as guides to future action.
Human Connections: How to Make Communications Work, by John R. Diekman (Prentice-Hall, $10.95; paperback, $4.95), a speech therapist and management consultant whose previous book was Get Your Message Across, offers a beginner's course in self-salesmanship for people who want to "make communications work for them." This course, Diekman advises, is a must since "it is our communications that determine the character and quality of our lives."
We are what we communicate -- nothing less and nothing more. So it is imperative that we become "effective communicators," and "good word merchants." To do so we must learn that no ideals or principles shape our actions or beliefs, nor does concrete reality influence our communications. If anger gets in the way of a relationship, it's not because there's anything real to be angry about, it's because old childhood needs and patterns color current verbal formulations. If people misunderstand one another, it's not because there is anything of value -- like a job, a relationship, an idea, or a theory -- at stake, it's because we haven't phrased things just right.
Our task is therefore to establish goals, set aside "communications time," eliminate any shred of judgment or preconception from our minds, and "monitor our relationships" to make sure we're abiding by all of Diekman's commandments-- "don't confuse who you are with what you say," "don't have unrealistic expectations," "don't label your partner or yourself," "don't impose your meanings on the other person."
In spite of the fact that such obsessive attention to words and images will add an enormous dose of anxiety to any human interchange, Diekman promises that an end to loneliness will immediately follow his course. Indeed, the happy graduate could then consider picking up Joel D. Block's Friendship: How to Give It, How to Get It (Collier; paperback, $4.95) and put his newly acquired connections skills to the test.
Block, a PhD (we are not told of what, although we are informed that the author has appeared on the Phil Donahue Show) bases his work on an extensive survey of attitudes toward friendship. Block insists that friendship is not an option we can pass up on the vehicle of life. It is rather "essential for optimal functioning." Like a well-tuned machine that will produce efficiently for its owner, we need other people if we're to continue to be productive. Friendship, he tells us quite candidly, "Is an untapped natural resource" that we must never take for granted.
Lest Block be accused of so doing, he takes us on a journey through every conceivable "friendship experience." First we examine friendship between women and women, only to discover that sisterhood has not, unfortunately, been powerful enough to vanquish female competitiveness and distrust. Friendship between men and men fares little better; men have not been able to overcome their socialization and their macho still keeps them apart. In a chapter on friendship between men and women we learn that sexual attraction still gets in the way of what would be a beautifully platonic affair, and in a chapter that includes testimonials by celebrities like Jane Pauley, Robert Stack and Dick Clark, we glimpse the problems of the rich and famous.
Finally, Block gets to the heart of the matter: how we can get friends and hold them. What we must do is feed our friendships with the proper "nutrients" -- authenticity and acceptance, and direct expression of needs and desires -- and eliminate any potential "toxins," such as blame, excessive dependence and lack of self-awareness. Again we are told that if we carefully monitor our relationships they will endure.
According to Dr. Howard Halpern, the author of How to Break Your Addiction to a Person (McGraw-Hill, $12.95), getting rid of friends or lovers is no harder than acquiring them. And because we may have to be free of a bad relationship before we can purchase a good one, Halpern teaches us about addiction breaking. A therapist who apparently specializes in helping people sever emotional bonds -- his other books include Cutting Loose: An Adult Guide to Coming to Terms With Your Parents and No Strings: A Guide to a Better Relationship With Your Un-Grown-Up Child, Halpern explains, in no uncertain terms, the hazards of a bad relationship. "Maybe the Surgeon General hasn't determined it yet, but staying in a bad relationship may be dangerous for your health. It can shake your self-esteem and destroy your self-confidence as surely as smoking can damage your lungs."
Upon learning of the dire consequences of a soured love, the reader speedily searches for a remedy. But, Halpern warns, consciousness must proceed cure. Like an alcoholic or drug addict, you must first admit your addiction before you can end it. Halpern gives a check list of the sure signs of addiction, which include failure to obey your better judgment, rationalizing your decision to stay with an unhappy relationship, going through withdrawal when it's nearly over, and feeling really lost when it has, in fact, ended. This is what the "attachment addict" feels when bound so tightly to the "attachment fetish person."
After several chapters which analyze, in typical sh pop psychologese, what holds such relationships together, Halpern offers a series of solutions. The addict is advised to keep a "relationship log"; to find patterns in behavior; to get in touch with something outside of himself, like nature (one young fellow cured his addiction by going on a trip to the Grand Tetons); to write memos to himself; to establish a supportive network of friends; and, if all this doesn't work, the addict should try psychotherapy (Halpern doesn't suggest himself, but I'm sure his number is in the telephone book).
A final chapter gives the addict a selection of "Aphorisms to Break an Addiction By," which include such useful gems as "you can live without him/her," "half a loaf isn't better than none," "you are a whole and valuable person apart from that relationship." Said in the appropriately reverent tone, they are sure to break the spell.
As absurd and silly as these books are, they are nonetheless enormously popular because they identify and purport to address problems we have all had or have recognized in others. Their failure, of course, is that they do little more than name names. Although they counsel a journey inward as a solution to individual loneliness, the voyage they recommend is no more than the briefest summer vacation. There is simply no attempt to understand the complexity of the roots of individual loneliness.
As to its social roots, these books make absolutely no mention of the fact that loneliness may be a consequence of real social, political and economic changes. In counseling the lonely person to stick to writing memos and lists to himself, they encourage the belief that the self can exist happily outside a social matrix, that the world does not set up concrete obstacles to human connection.
Loneliness, however, is a symptom of what has gone wrong with our modern world. It may have always been a part of the human condition -- a problem individuals have always experienced. But it is now, undeniably, a social problem as well. These books, like so many others, do not ask us to struggle, together, to understand the complexity of our common dilemmas so that we can, perhaps, act to change them. Rather, they try to convince us that we can, in fact, beat the human condition.
That is their ultimate failure. In asking us to ignore reality, they ask us to ignore each other. And so they dissolve the links that could bind us together, and leave us utterly and unbearably alone.