John regularly told his wife, Jane, “I feel all alone in this world (within our family, at my job, or in our neighborhood).” At the beginning of their marriage, Jane genuinely believed that she could fill that void in his life and frequently went to great lengths to demonstrate that John was not as alone as he felt. However, any relief he experienced was temporary at best and in most cases, Jane’s efforts were never enough to stop the troubling comments. After ten years of attempts, Jane became discouraged and gave up trying to satisfy John’s needs. This is when John’s loneliness intensified even more and became almost unbearable. Loneliness is a common thread in people with a personality disorder (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. This means that while a person might actually not be alone, they tend to feel isolated due to their unique perspective on the world anyway. Second, someone with a PD can frequently have inappropriate and impulsive responses to others, which will unintentionally push them away. Finally, the inflexibility and difficulty changing habitual mannerisms make true intimacy difficult for a PD 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 accordingly. Only then can a partner set more balanced expectations for their relationship. Each of the PDs we will discuss address what causes the loneliness, how a person with a PD expresses it, and what a partner can do to help neutralize it or make it livable.
- Paranoid PD. Their obsessive fear, both rational and irrational, drives others to run away because their own anxiety and stress levels are so high. Loneliness feeds the paranoia, which causes isolation from others in an unhealthy relational downward spiral. Partners wanting to neutralize the effect must not dispute the fears but accept them even if they are highly improbable.
- Schizoid PD. Their natural detachment from others makes it impossible for anyone to get close. This PD lives almost like a hermit and is not easily discovered. Partners, who are involved even if at arm’s length, need to protect the PD’s privacy at all costs.
- Schizotypal PD. Their odd and eccentric behavior deters most from getting close because of their peculiar thinking. Their feelings of loneliness are strung together with random events and unrelated sequences leading to unusual conclusions. Partners should see this pattern as normal for the PD and resist the urge to break it down or change it.
- 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. Partners should be on guard.
- 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 are sometimes expressed in self-harming or self-injurious behavior. Partners need to reassure the PD that their abandonment fear is unjustified to neutralize the loneliness.
- Histrionic PD. Their sexualization of mundane events and uncomfortable moments is awkward and unappealing to others. Typically, this PD seeks out some type of sexual contact to overcome feelings of loneliness. Partners should encourage this PD to use words, not their bodies, 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.
- Avoidant PD. Their fear of being shamed by a partner causes them to push away others which intensifies isolation. Most of these PDs want relationships and show loneliness through withdrawal. 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 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, judgmental comments, and suffocating partners with countless 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, try to consider as part of the definition of the disorder. This way, the people working or living with a PD might recognize the underlying disorder sooner so a more balanced approach can be achieved. It may also help to set realistic expectations while learning more about your partner and their needs.