As a mental health therapist, you’d think I’d have all of the knowledge and skills needed to navigate loneliness, side-stepping it easily. But you couldn’t be more wrong.
Feeling lonely is so much more than a simple feeling of a lack of connection. It can cause what feels like a physical weight of dread in our hearts, never-ending hopelessness, and a deep sense of not belonging. I’ve waded through this season more than once in my life. My hope is that by sharing my stories and lessons learned with you, it can be the spark to bring you out to the other side of your loneliness.
Around 18 years ago, I met a man who would change my life as I knew it. Despite being so young, I knew he was my destiny! His Coast Guard blue uniform definitely helped seal the deal, too. In the years since we said “I do,” we’ve navigated challenges and hardships that take my breath away when I think of them. Has there been adventure, beauty, and joy? Sure. But life as a military spouse can be a very lonely one.
I was only 22 years old when we married, and just months later, we moved halfway around the world from my family and everything I knew. It doesn’t matter how much you try to prepare; you’re never really ready. There would be moments when I despaired that God had left me behind.
Those early years would be fraught with a lot of growing and changing. I would weather losing family members, feeling guilt from being gone, and trying to build a healthy marriage with no mentorship around me.
I hope my struggles can serve as a lesson and inspiration for the wider Christian community to come alongside our military neighbors a little bit better. We so desperately want to feel like we are not just welcomed but wanted. There were many times when I felt like a tolerated guest inside the walls of a church.
Our roots may be temporary, but they need to be fed and watered, too.
Though many of you reading this article may have no military connections, I venture you’ve felt loneliness and may even be experiencing it right now. Even inside your own church, if you have one. The COVID-19 pandemic forced much of the world into isolation which led to a mental health crisis unlike anything else we’ve ever seen before.
Walking through this journey as a seasoned military spouse would inspire me to write my book, Never Alone: Ruth, the Modern Military Spouse and the God Who Goes With Us, in hopes that I could reach folks going through it and help them get to the other side.
Ruth has always been a treasured book of the Bible for me. The words “Where you go, I go” transcend and parallel so much for my life. From following my husband from duty station to duty station to the friendships I cultivated to build my circle, the story of Naomi and Ruth did nothing but inspire.
But before we dive into the beauty of Ruth and the lessons learned, I think it’s vitally important to understand what loneliness is and isn’t. Check out this quick excerpt from my book on the three kinds of loneliness we should recognize and understand:
1. Situational loneliness is exactly what it says and revolves around environmental factors. Examples include interpersonal conflicts, disasters, or migration (for us, this is a fancy word for moving, something we are deeply familiar with). Sadly, we’ll probably all sit in this type of loneliness a time or two, or five. Situational can also equate to life stressors, something almost entirely unavoidable but more easily treatable.
2. As human beings, we thrive on close emotional attachments. When that is missing, it can lead to loneliness, which can then spiral into a myriad of mental illness symptoms. This can accompany a loss of someone close to you who you had previously confided in and shared attachment with. Think about things like broken friendships, lost connections due to frequent moves, or any other force coming between you and a close attachment. It causes emotional weight like no other.
3. Isolation and a lack of community support is detrimental. Emotional and social loneliness go hand in hand, each wreaking havoc on your health. This kind will arise when there is no sense of belonging or feeling valued. As creatures of God who were intended to thrive in families, groups, or communities, missing support and connection socially is perhaps the most harmful. In this type of loneliness, we will see isolation and declining health, and it is a road that takes a lot of work to find your way back home.
The Church’s Role
I believe the Christian church has an opportunity to tackle all three of these different types of loneliness and be part of the solution to healing. Though many may show up to Sunday services in their best, very often, it’s to hide a mess going on in the background. By showing up well for everyone in genuine and intentional ways, you can foster the foundation of not only faith but the ability to see the light in the dark, even when it appears hopeless.
The local church has the opportunity to provide wrap-around care to folks going through situational loneliness, emotional loneliness, and social loneliness.
-Truly include people within the church! Don’t just ask how someone is doing; get to know them on a deeper level and help them feel seen.
–When fostering relationships with the military community, include us. We want to be part of the ministry and the body of the church – even if it’s only for a few years.
And outside of the church, there are many tools and tricks to navigate the impacts of loneliness, which is usually accompanied by things like depression. My advice is to build a go-bag to tackle the feelings that come along with loneliness. Here are a few tools you should utilize:
1. Engage in thought-reframing, which is a key component of cognitive behavior therapy. This means that when you have a negative intrusive thought, replace it with something positive or change the way you have that thought. This prevents spiraling.
2. Infuse joy into your day. Coping through loneliness means finding ways to actively seek happiness. Music, exercise, reading, or crafting are just a few ideas for intentionally seeking joy. Do what brings you joy!
3. Talk to someone. Therapists need therapists! Having an unbiased person outside of your circle to give you advice, help you look at things differently, and unpack what’s in your head and on your heart can be revolutionary.
In reading the story of Ruth, we see unimaginable hardship. Naomi has lost not only her husband but then her two sons and finds herself lost. Not only is she floundering, but she’s really bitter and angry at God while she does it all. Ruth was the one daughter-in-law who refused to allow Naomi to leave her behind as she made her way back home, and the pagan woman would become the anchor she so desperately needed to find her way back to God. She would also be the unlikely ancestor to bring us our Savior, Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 5:10 (ESV) is encouraging: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”
If you’re going through it, I see you, and so does He. God is with you, friend. You’re never alone.
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Im Yeongsik
Jessica Manfre is the author of Never Alone: Ruth, the Modern Military Spouse, and the God Who Goes With Us, and the proud wife of a U.S. Coast Guardsman. She is a licensed social worker, author, and Chief Financial Officer and co-founder of Inspire Up, a nonprofit foundation that serves the military and first responders. She has also received national media attention for her initiative, #GivingTuesdayMilitary, which encourages people to offer one million acts of intentional kindness. Facebook: @JessicaManfreLMSW Instagram: @jess_manfre www.jessicamanfre.com