Wednesday, November 29, 2006

For Some People, Intimacy Is Toxic.... The Virtues of Solitude

I've been wanting to mention a brief essay in the Nov. 21 New York Times by psychotherapist Richard Friedman that describes a patient who defied the "article of faith among psychotherapists that an intimate human relationship is good for you." A software engineer pushed by family and constant therapy to be more social, he finally became engaged to a woman, and then came to Friedman after a suicide attempt, treatment for depression, and breaking from the engagement. Friedman found "He wasn't depressed or unhappy at all. He enjoyed his work as a software engineer immensely, and he was obviously successful at it. It was just that human relationships were not that important to him; in fact, he found them stressful...intimacy, it seems, is not for everyone."

It hardly seems surprising that genetic and developmental reasons lead some humans to be extremely affiliative, while others can be quite content in solitude. "Solitude: a return to the self" is in fact the title of an excellent and thoughtful book by Oxford University psychiatrist Anthony Storr. He notes: "The current emphasis upon intimate interpersonal relationships as the touchstone of health and happiness is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Earlier generations would not have rated human relationships so highly; believing, perhaps that the daily round, the common task, should furnish all we need to ask.." Storr provides an interesting history of how mental health came to be equated with the quality and quality of social relationships, and argues that a preference for solitude, self understanding, and a more muted social presence can be also be compatible with robust mental health.

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