Essay

What I want my children to know about building human connection and avoiding loneliness

My children are adults now, beginning to live their separate adult lives. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own start, and how lonely I was for a while. I had to work hard to make connections with other people. I wanted to give my children some advice from my experience about building and maintaining those connections. I have communicated these thoughts with them.

You know how hard I’ve pursued my career and how much time I’ve spent in my hobbies. They’re important to my life, but they’re not the most important things. Without friends and family, my life wouldn’t be all that great.

My experience tells me that the most important element in your personal happiness is being connected to other people. You will be wise to make a major life focus of creating and maintaining those connections. If you’re as introverted as me, you might not need a lot of connection, but you need some. Without enough human connection you will become lonely, and loneliness is painful and bad for your mental and even physical health. We’re all lonely sometimes, but it’s truly terrible for you to be lonely most or all of the time.

At home on a Sunday morning when I was 22

When I graduated from engineering school in Terre Haute, my first job was in town. Many of my school buddies hadn’t graduated yet, and my girlfriend was from Terre Haute, so I had plenty of people to spend time with.

After about a year, all but one of my school buddies had graduated and moved away and my girlfriend and I broke up. I had no family in town, and my one remaining friend, Michael, was consumed with a troubled marriage. I love being alone, but aloneness soon turned into loneliness. I was unprepared for how acutely painful that would be.

On the air when I was 26

I did some things that really helped. First, I picked up a part-time job as a radio disk jockey. Once in a while I went out for a beer with some of the other DJs, and one of the stations I worked for had popular in-person events that I attended.

Second, I joined the local electronic bulletin-board community. This was how nerds like me connected online before the Internet. After a while we realized we could meet in person sometimes, since we all lived in or near Terre Haute! We started having summer cookouts, which led to us going out for beers once a week. We called that the Tuesday Night Drinking Society, the only rule of which was that we never met on Tuesdays. It was a lot of fun.

Third, I joined a church where a number of singles my age attended. We had lots of fun together. I even invited my good friend after his marriage finally ended. This is also where I met your mom.

You’ve heard me speak fondly of my years in Terre Haute and these people are largely why.

After a few years I moved to Indianapolis and left all of my friends behind. Even though I drove back nearly every weekend to be with your mom, those were some mighty lonely days. I was miserable all alone in my apartment. My life improved greatly when your mom moved to Indianapolis and we got married. But as you know, our marriage didn’t work and then I lived alone again. I had not kept up with my Terre Haute friends, and while I had made a couple new ones here, we were all raising young children and thus very busy. Fortunately your uncle, my brother, had moved here by then, and we saw each other a lot. Having you over on the court-ordered schedule was also a real bright spot in my life.

It wasn’t until your uncle moved to Utah that I realized how much I had relied on him for companionship. Again I faced the pain of loneliness. He moved back after a couple years, but in the meantime I focused on building and rebuilding connection with people I knew. This is also part of the reason I started dating again. I didn’t date when you were young because I wanted you to have my undivided attention. But by this time you were in high school and starting to become independent.

I’m not as good as I want to be at keeping up the friendships I have. I give myself a pass because of the serious challenges Margaret and I have faced since we married; there isn’t enough time for everything I want to do. I don’t even spend as much time with you or your grandmother as I want. But I can’t keep letting this be, as I will always need the connections I’ve made.

I want to encourage you to form friendships, stay connected with your family, consider creating your own family, and cultivate deeper bonds with good people in your lives. Here are some things I’ve learned that I hope will help you.

Friends

Focus first on making and keeping friends, even before you seek romantic relationships.

Making friends involves taking risks. Keeping friends involves investing your time into them.

When you encounter someone in the world and spend enough time with them to realize you enjoy them, to try to make a friend of them requires you ask one simple question: “Hey, I’m really enjoying doing this with you. Would you like to hang out together sometime?”

Most people will say yes, but that’s because some of them don’t know how to say no. Here’s the secret way to find out: exchange contact information and then contact them later to set up an outing with them. If they don’t respond or their response is tepid, take it as a no and move on cheerfully.

If they do respond well, choose something simple like going out for a coffee or a drink. If you know of some activity you can do side by side that allows you to talk, such as going to a car show or a street fair, do that. Especially for men, the stakes feel lower when they do things side by side.

Me and Michael in 2007, friends since 1985

It’s much like asking someone on a date, except you want to build a friendship, not a romantic relationship. But you have to start somewhere, and this is a low-stakes way to do it. You will face some rejection, but the sting is light.

A hidden tactic is to look for people who appear to need a friend even more than you and make a point of doing something alongside them where you can ask them the simple question as well.

You will notice that I’m talking primarily about making friends in the “f2f IRL” world. Online friends are great and I have several. One is an inner-circle friend to whom I would tell anything, and we’ve carried on primarily an email friendship for 18 years. But you need “f2f IRL” friends much more.

This means you have to go out into the world. Put yourself in places where there will be people with similar interests to yours — join groups, volunteer, and find a church. It’s classic and corny, but you can make it work.

You can also make friends at work, but take it easy. Friendship can be messy, and a friendship with a co-worker that goes south can be challenging because you have to work alongside them every day. That happened to me once in my early 20s and it was very unpleasant. Since then, I keep work relationships light. But we all eventually change jobs, and when we do it’s great to reach out to former co-workers we enjoyed and ask them the simple question. I have made a couple good friends that way.

Partners

Your life partner should be your closest friend, confidant, and companion.

I know a few people who had it easy finding a life partner, but I think for most of us it takes time and effort. It sure did for me. You’ll have more than one significant other before you find the one you keep.

When you are seeing someone, you will want to spend a lot of time with them. You might even find yourself inadvertently ignoring your friends in favor of your significant other. It’s counterintuitive, but people you date come and go, while friendships are more likely to last. Make sure you spend some time with your friends so they’re still your friends should you break up with the person you’re seeing.

You are likely to become friends with some of your partner’s friends. Making friends this way is wonderful, but if you and your partner ever break up, you are almost certain to lose those friends. If you have friends already before you enter a romantic relationship, they will likely still be your friends when it’s over. If you don’t have your own friends, after a breakup you lose your whole social circle.

This is why I say to focus first on building a satisfying network of friends, and then on finding a partner.

It is a valid life choice not to date and/or not to choose a life partner. Not having a partner gives you time to pursue so many interesting and fulfilling things. Just understand that you are trading away that deep connection and ready companionship.

The family you grew up in

The family you grew up in is far from perfect, as you well know. But I think you’ll agree that we love and accept you. We have our quirks and shortcomings, but it is basically healthy for you to be around us.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a healthy family that loves and accepts them. Such people may find it necessary to limit or eliminate time with their families. It’s a real loss.

The family I grew up in – I was 5

Anyone who experiences love and acceptance from an overall healthy family is wise to keep investing in those relationships, because family can be an ongoing source of love and support. It also feels good to hang out with your family because of the long-term bonds and the innate feeling of belonging.

You are like your mother and me in many ways. We understand you, and we love you. I want nothing more than to see you do well in your lives, and I feel sure your mom feels the same way. I also really enjoy hanging out with you!

The family I grew up in has been a huge source of support for me. When your mom and I split up, I leaned hard on your grandparents and your uncle. Those were incredibly hard times which would have been much harder without my family. They listened to me as I ranted and cried, and they offered advice (some good, some not, but so it goes with advice). Also, your uncle let me live with him for a while, and your grandparents loaned me money so I could get by.

Even in less challenging times, such as when you’re just having a bad day, your family can commiserate with you, and even lift you up and encourage you.

It’s wise, I think, to live near enough to your family that you can see them when you need or want to. I lived a four-hour drive away from my parents when I was in my 20s, and it proved to be too far for me to see them often enough. On the other hand, I was glad to not live down the street from them so I could more easily establish my independence. It would have been nice to live maybe an hour away.

It’s not like I deliberately chose to live so far away from my parents. I wanted to pursue a career in software development and I couldn’t find work in the field in my hometown. Even now, I am sure I made the right choice. Where you live is your choice, as well. Just understand that the farther away from family that you live, the more you trade away these good things.

Your children

Your children can be a source of deep connection and, when they’re adults, support.

You shouldn’t have children because you’ll receive these things from them. Rather, have children because of the innate drive to do it, because you have the means to provide for them, and because you have love to give them. Simple love and acceptance is the number one thing to give your kids for them so they can be whole and healthy as adults. I wish I had figured that out far earlier in your lives!

Us, when you were about 1 and 3, making a memory

Raising children will challenge you and make you grow in profound ways. Also, it’s truly lovely to make good memories with your children. Family bonds just feel wonderful! There is no substitute.

But if you raise your children well and they feel your love and acceptance, they are very likely to want relationships with you when they are adults. It’s great! These fully formed people who are a lot like you and share so many common memories with you will come around and see you.

This is especially important as you age. I’ve watched my parents and my wife’s parents go through this: your friends and age-peer family start to die, and your circle of connections shrinks. It’s important to keep making friends at every stage of life. But if you have children, they become a much more vital source of human connection. They can also really help you navigate the changes that come when you’re older, both in talking them through with you and physically helping you with things you need. Margaret was of huge support to her parents when they could no longer manage living independently. She found them assisted living and did a huge amount of work to put their house on the market. Your uncle has given your grandmother a great deal of emotional and physical support since your grandfather died. Your older years will be a great deal harder without children who love you and come around to see you.

It is a valid life choice not to have children. You will have greater freedom and money to pursue other things that interest you. Just understand that you are trading away the personal growth that parenthood brings, the potential for good and deep relationships with your adult children, and the support your children can give you in old age.

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It’s surprising how hard your 20s are as you adjust to full-on adult life. You are busy enough working and doing the routine stuff of life that it might be hard to consider adding on seeking and cultivating friendships. But don’t put it off. The more you invest in it now, the happier your life will be in the years and decades to come.

Articles in The Masculinist newsletter and blog have influenced my views here and were a driver behind me writing this essay.

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18 thoughts on “What I want my children to know about building human connection and avoiding loneliness

  1. This is all excellent advice. Giving friendships the nourishment they need to thrive has been one of my weaknesses. And I have invested deeply into the friendship within my marriage which is good, but which also comes at a cost to outside friendships.

    Fortunately, each of my children seems to have friendship making and keeping skills that appear to be far better than mine have ever been.

    • I have a similar weakness. I tend to reach out to friends only when things are going well and I’m full of energy. The last five years, that’s been seldom.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    I would find it difficult to comment on this in less than 40 pages, but a few major points.

    I was completely lost for years after my parents moved us, as kids, from Chicago to Milwaukee, It took years to find people to interact with that thought like we did or had the viewpoint of the world my family did. Of those, Many of those relationships were “lost” during the friendship break-ups after high-school, and college. Some could be held into, some could not. My older sister made one friend in all her years in Milwaukee, and made more only on leaving for work, never to return.

    “Forcing” relationships with people that are inappropriate for you is how you end up married to someone you shouldn’t be married to . Loneliness is not a state of being, it’s a state of mind. I’m not lonely because I spend massive quantities of my time alone; I’m OK because most of the people I interact with on a daily basis I wouldn’t have as friends! I have nothing in common with them, and don’t look at the world as they do. I don’t “work” at friendships, many of my friendships were so obvious from the beginning.

    99.9% of the women I had access to, and dates with, in what’s considered the peak marriage years of early 20’s to early 30’s in Milwaukee, if I would have married any of them, it would have been pure disaster! The 5 years I spent in Washington DC, I easily met women on a monthly basis I could have been successfully married to, and I would be married today if I hadn’t moved back to the mid-west to take care of an aging parent. I closed my studio in Milwaukee in the late 80’s and took a job managing a photo department in a Chicago retailer for 3 years, and have at least 3 friends I made there I talk with or e-mail, monthly, 30 years later!

    Which brings me to my most important point! What I leaned from living as an adult in Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Paul, Washington DC, and Indianapolis, is that SOCIOLOGY IS DIFFERENT EVERYWHERE! Washington DC was a place I could make a friend walking down the street, in 4 years of living in Indianapolis, I never even moved my furniture there, kept it in storage out state, because I never lived anywhere less appropriate for meeting people I really had anything in common with, although some of that changed in Zionsville with the “euros”. It’s important to have friends, it’s important to have lovers, it’s important not to develop those situations with people you have nothing in common with, and it’s absolutely possible to live someplace that has a toxic overall environment for you, and where it will be impossible for you to develop those situations!

    • You very clearly value finding likeminded people. I’ve sought people who are different from me, on purpose. There’s a limit — someone who’s got felonious tendencies would not be someone I’d want to hang with, and there is an outer limit in educational attainment difference that affects my ability to be a friend.

      It’s true that there are places to live where you can’t make good connections. I’ll grant that.

  3. Shirley B. says:

    As always, very well worded. with the insight that comes from personal experience. I hope your sons will value your advice and will, in time, come to appreciate what it has given them.

  4. Great post Jim, very helpful.

    It’s the oldest cliche in the book, especially to young people, but time does go so fast. The guy I would still say is my “best” friend if you asked me (aside from my wife), I haven’t seen in person in at least four years, which is pretty shocking to realise. How can he still be my best friend?

    Family and work take up most of my life, with a little space for hobbies like photography, reading and writing in between. I can’t see where I would have time to regularly see friends, but I understand that friendships do require two way input to maintain them. I don’t feel I have the energy or time, but know on some level I could be missing out hugely. I have people at work I like and a few online friends I talk to regularly, but rarely, in fact virtually never go out just me and a friend.

    Thought provoking!

    • When I ended my Ride Across Indiana I did it at my friend Michael’s house. We see each other every 2-4 years and he still called me his best friend. Friendship really is whatever works for you, at the end of the day.

    • I spend a lot of time trying to figure out life, because it’s so confusing to me. It’s like finding the algorithms that describe it. When I do, it takes some stress out.

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