What Is Emotional Loneliness And Why Does It Occur?

Emotional loneliness is caused by feeling disconnected from those around you. It also differs from emotional isolation, and social loneliness and isolation.
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Emily Deaton
What Is Emotional Loneliness?

Emotional loneliness is the state of feeling emotionally disconnected from the people around you or being unable to connect with them on a deep or meaningful level. 

If you’re experiencing this type of loneliness, the perceived poor quality of your relationships is causing you to feel this way.

Key Takeaways:

  • Emotional loneliness is complex and can manifest in a variety of ways depending on its cause; because of this, there isn’t one single way to relieve it.
  • If emotional isolation is accompanied by feelings of anxiety, depression, or paranoia, consulting with a medical professional may be warranted.

Struggling with loneliness or having a mental health crisis?

  • Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255); Deaf or hard of hearing dial 711 before the number or connect via online chat

Complete Mental Health Resource List

Just as with any other type of loneliness, emotional loneliness can be caused by different circumstances. Some of the most common triggers include:

  • Parental neglect in childhood
  • Trauma in childhood or adulthood
  • Substance abuse
  • Situations that cause an individual to be seen as different or as an outcast

Emotional loneliness stands apart from other types of loneliness and it is not the same as emotional isolation.

Additionally, loneliness itself is an emotion.

Why Does Emotional Loneliness Occur In Some People?

Emotional loneliness can come about from many different circumstances that may begin in childhood or adulthood.

  • Childhood Neglect Or Trauma:

Some theories suggest that people are more likely to struggle with creating close emotional bonds as adults if they didn’t have such attachments with a parent or parent-like figure as infants or children.

However, a trauma that occurs during childhood or adulthood can also make it difficult for individuals to establish quality relationships with others, which may contribute to feelings of emotional loneliness.

People who are recovering from traumatic experiences may be more likely to experience chronic emotional loneliness, as well.

Sharing traumatic experiences with others, though valuable and healing for some, can be incredibly difficult — and being unable to do so may make the situation worse.

In cases such as this, the best course of action for victims of trauma who are struggling with emotional loneliness is to seek help from a qualified professional.

  • Substance Abuse:

Studies have found that those who abuse drugs are more likely to feel emotionally lonely, although it is uncertain whether the drug abuse develops from loneliness — or causes it.

Regardless, relapses in drug use are often affected by it.

One study from the Stellenbosch University in South Africa found that feelings of loneliness contributed to relapse in 76% of young men and 67% percent of young women following in-patient drug abuse treatment.

People who are dealing with emotional loneliness related to drug use will find the most capable help in the hands of trained professionals and facilities designed to treat addiction.

  • Situational Life Changes:

In other instances, a person might develop short-term emotional loneliness when a relationship begins to break down or ends in divorce, when relocating to a new city, changing jobs, or facing other significant changes in their lives.

During such transitional circumstances, loneliness will typically resolve with time as an individual acclimates to these changes.

What Is The Difference Between Emotional Isolation And Emotional Loneliness?

In practice, emotional isolation often looks very similar to emotional loneliness. However, there are a few key differences between the two.

What Is Emotional Isolation? 

Emotional isolation is the act of pulling away from people on an emotional level.

This defense mechanism causes a person to close themselves off in the presence of other people. It is marked by superficial communication and active avoidance of close, intimate relationships or deep friendships.

While emotional loneliness is the state of feeling disconnected from others (even though you might want connection), emotional isolation is the act of pulling yourself away from the people around you — whether it’s intentional or not.

Sometimes, emotional isolation can be a conscious choice for someone who has a wide circle of friends.

When used as an intentional defense mechanism, emotional isolation is a means of keeping connection and communication on a wholly superficial level to avoid fostering deep or meaningful relationships.

In other instances, however, people can emotionally isolate themselves without even realizing it.

A person may use emotional isolation as a barrier to avoid feeling vulnerable or being hurt, and to protect themselves if they struggle with trusting others.

Emotional isolation can arise from trauma and may be a sign of underlying psychological issues.

How Is Emotional Loneliness Different From Social Loneliness Or Isolation?

Emotional loneliness is similar to other types of loneliness but there are important distinctions between them.

Unlike social isolation and social loneliness, it involves emotional connections rather than communal ones.

Social loneliness, which is often conflated with emotional loneliness, occurs when an individual doesn’t have a social network.

Unlike the latter, social loneliness relates to the quantity — not the quality — of relationships an individual has.

The concept of social isolation also differs from social loneliness and emotional loneliness.

Social isolation, as the term suggests, involves intentionally separating oneself from social interactions.

Closing Thoughts

Resolving emotional loneliness can be a challenge.

It takes time and energy to nurture emotional bonds and finding someone with whom you can connect isn’t always easy.

Still, it is always worth the effort to create and maintain such close connections with others.

Feeling understood and seen by someone else is invaluable, and close emotional relationships can help you to feel happier and less alone in the world — if you let them.

If you are struggling with loneliness right now, there are resources to find help.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of The Roots Of Loneliness Project, the first-of-its-kind resource that comprehensively explores the phenomenon of loneliness and over 100 types we might experience during our lives.

Find Help Now

If you’re struggling with emotional loneliness, we’ve put together resources to meet you wherever you are — whether you want someone to talk to right now, or are looking for longer-term ways to help ease your loneliness.