Ann regularly told her husband, Andrew, “I feel all alone in this world (within our family, at my job, or in our neighborhood).” At the beginning of their marriage, Andrew erroneously believed that he could fill that void in her life and went to great lengths to demonstrate that Ann was not alone. However, she would have only temporary relief at best and in most cases, his efforts were never enough to stop the comments. After ten years of attempts, Andrew became discouraged, exhausted, and frustrated. He finally gave up trying to satisfy Ann’s loneliness needs. This is when Ann’s loneliness intensified even more to the point that she talked about wanting to die.
Loneliness is a common thread in people who have a personality disorder (PD). Andrew didn’t realize the impact of Ann’s loneliness until she was diagnosed with a PD. The feeling of loneliness is due to three main reasons, all of which are part of the definition of a PD. First, a person with PD has an inaccurate perception of reality. So while they might actually not be alone they tend to feel isolated due to their unique perspective on the world. Second, their inappropriate and impulsive responses to others unintentionally push them away. And last, their inflexibility and difficulty changing their habitual mannerisms make true intimacy difficult for them and their partner.
To get a more accurate understanding of the problem, it is important to distinguish between the different types of PDs and how loneliness manifests. Only then can a partner set more balanced expectations. Each of the PDs address: the cause of the loneliness, how the person with a PD expresses it, and what a partner can do to neutralize it.
- Paranoid PD. Their obsessive fear, both rational and irrational, drives others to run away because the anxiety and stress are so high especially when combined with conspiracy theories. Loneliness feeds the paranoia which causes isolation from others leading to an unhealthy relational downward spiral. Partners wanting to neutralize the effect must not dispute the fears (or conspiracy theories) but rather accept it even if it is highly improbable.
- Schizoid PD. Their natural detachment from others makes it almost impossible for anyone to get close. This PD lives hermit-like and is not easily discovered, confronted, or social. Partners, who are involved even if at arm’s length, need to protect the PD’s privacy at all costs. Most with this PD eventually become comfortable being lonely.
- Schizotypal PD. Their odd and eccentric behavior deters most from getting close because of their peculiar thinking and emotional reactivity. Their feelings of loneliness are strung together with random events and unrelated sequences leading to unusual conclusions. This natural tendency pushes others away. Partners should see this pattern as normal for the PD and resist the urge to tear it or them to shreds.
- Antisocial PD (Sociopath & Psychopath). Their fantasy of hurting others, threats of harm, and intimidating stares scare most people away. This PD generally is comfortable feeling alone and prefers life to be this way. Most expressions of loneliness are actually attempting to manipulate others so the victim will become more vulnerable and therefore primed for attack. Partners should be on guard whenever engaging with this personality.
- Borderline PD. Their extreme mood shifts and high emotional tolerance are nearly impossible to match for a person who does not have Borderline PD. Feelings of loneliness and the fear of abandonment is sometimes expressed in self-harming or self-injurious behavior. Partners need to reassure the abandonment fear to neutralize the loneliness. Don’t ever minimize their feelings or the backlash will be harsh.
- Histrionic PD. Their sexualization of mundane events in uncomfortable moments is awkward and unappealing to others. Typically, this PD seeks out some type of sexual contact or physical intimacy to overcome feelings of loneliness and feel connected. Partners should encourage this PD to use words, not their body to express their fears and feelings.
- Narcissistic PD. Their daily need for affirmation, attention, adoration, and affection is a tremendous burden for others to bear. Usually, their loneliness is expressed in fits of anger. This is a strong indication that their needs are not getting met. Partners can reduce the intensity of the outbursts by supplying the needed attention. Fortunately, small doses of attention usually go a long way.
- Avoidant PD. Their fear of being shamed by a partner to them causes them to push away their partners which only intensifies the isolation. Most of these PDs want relationships and show loneliness through the withdrawal of the relationship. Of course, this makes matters worse, not better. Partners should realize that the distance they feel is actually a cry for attention.
- Dependent PD. Their fear of having to make even the smallest of decisions alone and the need for constant reassurance from others is exhausting to a partner. Neediness or asking input over mundane decisions is an indication that this PD is feeling lonely. Partners should resist the urge to become frustrated by the lack of decision making and find ways to assist without making the final choice.
- Obsessive-Compulsive PD. Their insatiable need to compartmentalize, quantify, and qualify a relationship pushes partners away who just want to live and enjoy life. Loneliness is often expressed as rigidity in routine and judgmental comments which suffocates partners with countless close-ended questions. Partners should resist black-and-white thinking and instead offer shades of grey as solutions.
- Passive-Aggressive PD. Their backhanded and sarcastic way of dealing with confrontation drives others away because they are unsure of when the next attack will happen. Loneliness, for this PD, is treated in the same manner as anger by procrastinating, pouting, or conveniently misplacing needed items of their partners. In response, partners should resist the urge to become angry but rather use a consistently direct approach.
Because loneliness is a common thread in every personality disorder, it would be convenient to have it be considered as part of the definition of the disorder. However, as of now, it is not. This way, the people working or living with a PD might recognize the underlying disorder sooner so a more balanced approach can be achieved. When Andrew realized that Ann had an underlying PD, he was better able to come alongside her instead of getting frustrated.