Feeling alone

I am serious with a woman, but sometimes I feel like she's a character in my drama, not that we're acting it out together.


Cary Tennis
February 11, 2004 1:26AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I'm a man in my mid-30s living in the Midwest. I've always been quiet, never very social, never a great conversationalist. These traits have served to leave me sometimes lonely but usually content.

Then, out of the blue a woman enters the picture! She's very pretty, very nice, and seemingly interested in me. We spent a lot of time going slow and getting to know each other. Over many months, after spending most of our time together, things have gotten serious.

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She's wonderful. She's interested or already involved in a lot of the strange things I like. I feel wonderful with her. But I don't know, maybe I just don't know what to expect from these things. Things are getting to the point where we're thinking and talking about permanence, and rings, and all of the other things that go along with these thoughts. I'm worried about how well I'll do with that.

Sometimes we'll be lying together late at night, and I get this frustrating sense of aloneness. That there's a whole entire person and mind next to me, yet all I can sense in the end is me. Like she's a character in my drama, not that we're acting this out together. Isn't marriage supposed to be some sort of glorious union of the spirit? Have I just been alone for too long? Am I a solipsist? Or am I entirely unrealistic, and the gulf between people can never really be bridged?

I really want to do the right thing by this woman. I love being with her, but sometimes at night when we separate, I feel relieved that I can just be by myself. I'd appreciate any advice you can offer me.

No Clever Nickname

Dear Person Without a Clever Nickname,

What a beautiful image: You lie next to your lover in the quiet dark, in a setting so peaceful that your own consciousness, sadly distracted and fragmented during the day, arises now and fills the room and causes you to wonder for a moment if she is real or simply a projection of your unshackled mind. It's so overwhelming that for a moment you are filled with alarm. Is this solipsism?

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Don't worry. She's real. She's as real as anything else in the world of sensation, anyway. But, being real, she is separate. So naturally, if you expect to experience a permanent melding of your identity with hers and a dissolving of your sense of separateness, you will be disappointed. That is not going to happen. We are all alone, but perhaps the introvert senses that aloneness more keenly, because he is less able to lose himself in a sea of people. And perhaps when love tempts us with a promise of ending that aloneness we feel its presence more strongly.

Maybe that's what it is. Perhaps you live in a world of subjective impressions so strong that they are sometimes painful, of perceptions so complex and subtle that you cannot adequately express them in a linear way. So you succumb to moments of doubt about the validity of what you feel -- indeed, you doubt your own mind. So let me quote Carl Jung at some length on the general situation of the introvert vs. the extrovert:

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"The contents of the collective unconscious are represented in consciousness in the form of pronounced preferences and definite ways of looking at things. These subjective tendencies and views are generally regarded by the individual as being determined by the object -- incorrectly, since they have their source in the unconscious structure of the psyche and are merely released by the effect of the object. They are stronger than the object's influence, their psychic value is higher, so that they superimpose themselves on all impressions. Thus, just as it seems incomprehensible to the introvert that the object should always be the decisive factor, it remains an enigma to the extravert how a subjective standpoint can be superior to the objective situation. He inevitably comes to the conclusion that the introvert is either a conceited egoist or crack-brained bigot. Today he would be suspected of harbouring an unconscious power-complex. The introvert certainly lays himself open to these suspicions, for his positive, highly generalizing manner of expression, which appears to rule out every other opinion from the start, lends countenance to all the extravert's prejudices. Moreover, the inflexibility of his subjective judgment, setting itself above all objective data, is sufficient in itself to create the impression of marked egocentricity. Faced with this prejudice the introvert is usually at a loss for the right argument, for he is quite unaware of the unconscious but generally quite valid assumptions on which his subjective judgment and his subjective perceptions are based. In the fashion of the times he looks outside for an answer, instead of seeking it behind his own consciousness." This is from "Jung's General Description of the Types." You can find it in volume 6 of Bollingen's collected works.

Isn't that good?

Now here are a couple of specific things I would like to reassure you about: Marriage isn't supposed to magically transform you. I would suggest that you try to acquire knowledge in the history of things about which you are a little apprehensive. One of those would be the history of marriage. If you learn enough about marriage as a cultural institution, I think it will help you place your expectations in perspective. If you come to see, in particular, how romantic love developed, perhaps you will identify some of the half-truths you have picked up, more or less naturally, from this saturated media air we swim in, and see how they serve to distort or obscure what actually happens when two people get married. Don't worry about gaining an ultimate answer; just form a narrative that makes sense to you. Let it seep in, as knowledge does, through the topsoil and down into the aquifer.

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It's natural to wonder how well you will do with the social rituals involved in marriage. Everyone is fearful. But trust your own process of arriving at decisions. You took enough time with the courtship. That is a good sign.

And concerning introversion in general, if Jung is a little obscure, this article by Jonathan Rauch in the Atlantic is a wonderfully humane and accessible treatment of the topic.

Now, as I've said many times, I'm no expert. I'm making a lot of this up as I go along. But I think one danger of strong introversion is the difficulty of determining whether to trust or doubt your own internal processes; so it is paramount that throughout your life you continue to absorb information about the world, through novels, through plays, through whatever medium the human spirit is represented. This keeps you nourished. It allows you to check what is going on inside you against what is going on in the world, without having to hold tedious and exhausting conversations with individuals.

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That's the beauty of having a sort of informal but lifelong individual study program. You don't have to go and talk to others about this. But you do need to develop this ability, because you need a balanced view of how your own inner phenomena fit in the history of questing, contemplative individuals. This, I believe, is the key to living as an introvert in an extroverted society. You don't have to worry so much about being able to explain yourself to others, but you do need to look outside yourself enough to see that what you are experiencing is not pathological or extreme -- it is instead in the tradition of doubt and questing that fuels the world's great writing and art.

Oh -- and the other important thing to remember about being an introvert, as the Rauch article explains so well: It's no slur on her if you feel relieved when she finally leaves and you get some time alone. Introverts can be drained of energy by constant interaction with others. So if you're going to make a life with her, look for ways to build solitude into your relationship. If you can find a house with enough room so that you have somewhere to go and work on things by yourself or simply hang out, that might come in handy.

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Want more advice from Cary? Read the Since You Asked directory.

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