Attachment Theory and Social Loneliness

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Loneliness

Research
Loneliness is characterized as an emotional and cognitive reaction to having fewer and less satisfying relationships than one desires. Loneliness appears to be a common characteristic throughout the world. A study completed on Dutch students found that lack of reciprocity in a relationship resulted in loneliness, especially among those who perceived themselves as giving more than they were receiving (Buunk & Prins, 1998 in Baron & Byrne, 2003). Although the nature and purpose of loneliness have long been discussed in philosophy, theology, and literature, the scientific study of loneliness has a relatively short history. Early works were done by Frieda Fromm-Reichmann and John Bowlby, in discussing attachment bonds (Baron & Byrne, 2003). The failure to establish friendships can be attributed to attachment style. Dismissing and fearful-avoidant individuals resist forming friendships because of the potential for rejection, a fear of intimacy. Individuals with these same two attachment styles tend to mistrust others, and loneliness is associated with a lack of interpersonal trust (Gardner, Pickett, Jefferis & Knowles, 2005). Robert S. Weiss outlined an attachment theory of loneliness in which deficiencies in social relationships serving specific functions (e.g., attachment, social integration, nurturance) were posited to contribute to feelings of loneliness. Weiss described loneliness as “a chronic distress without redeeming features” (Weiss, 1973, p.15) and he further distinguished between social loneliness (e.g., lack of social integration), and emotional loneliness (e.g., absence of a reliable attachment figure). This theoretical perspective, also called the social needs approach, continues to motivate loneliness research (Dykstra & Fokkema, 2007).

A second theoretical approach to loneliness has focused on social skill deficits and personality traits that impair the formation and maintenance of social relationships. Research in the social skills area has shown that loneliness is associated with more self-focus, poorer partner attention skills, a lack of self-disclosure to friends, especially among females, and less participation in organized groups, especially among males (Baron & Byrne, 2003). Personality research has shown that loneliness is associated with depressive symptoms, shyness, neuroticism, and low self-esteem, optimism, conscientiousness and agreeableness. Early studies suggested that behavioral and personality correlates of loneliness tend to be true only for chronically lonely individuals, not for situational-lonely individuals whose loneliness is adequately explained by potent situational factors (e.g., widowhood, geographical relocation) (Van Baarsen, Van Duijn, Smit, Snijders, & Knipscheer). It appears that a failure to develop appropriate social skills in childhood, results in unsuccessful interaction with peers, and thus to loneliness. For example, a child who is either too hostile and aggressive or too shy and with drawn is very likely to be rejected as a playmate. Some engage in teasing peers about their appearance or their intelligence or other attributes and fail to realize the hurt and anger they cause (McWhirter, Bessett-Alesch, Horibata, Gat, 2002). Unless there is some sort of intervention to alter self-defeating behaviors such as aggressiveness, shyness, or teasing, interpersonal difficulties typically continue throughout childhood and adolescence into adulthood. A third theoretical approach to loneliness is represented by cognitive discrepancy theory, which specifies loneliness as the consequence of altered social perceptions and attributions. Specifically, loneliness is defined as the distress that occurs when one’s social relationships are perceived as being less satisfying than what is desired (Baron & Byrne, 2003). From a cognitive discrepancy perspective, it is clear that loneliness is not synonymous with being alone, nor...
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