Loneliness theory of patterns

Jeannette Rijks, pioneer in the field of loneliness, came up with a theory of loneliness that makes it easy to predict when people will feel lonely and, more importantly, it makes it easier to help people find ways to end their loneliness.

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Jeannette Rijks

A theory that is not rooted in a scientific tradition, but has emerged from it. A theory of relationships.

Pattern theory of relationships

By Jeannette Rijks

Loneliness is a feeling that everyone is familiar with, even though not everybody will have the same description for the feeling of being alone, left out, login to have a friend  Loneliness is described as a feeling of emptiness. A sense of being disconnected from others, being disconnected from the world. It is a sad feeling and it is often accompanied by feelings of fear and powerlessness. Anyone who has a life pattern that does not provide balance in life may feel lonely. Anyone who cannot break free from that feeling, who is not able to form relationships that fulfill their needs, suffers from loneliness. 

This is often called “being lonely”. This has consequences for the functioning of the brain: chronic loneliness leads to serious health problems and brain changes.

How does loneliness arise?

Loneliness is a survival mechanism. A signal that warns us: beware, danger! Find the others! Learning how to deal with the feeling of loneliness should be just as natural as learning to deal with pain. Loneliness warns us against insecurity, because a person alone has less chance of survival. It’s that simple.

We experience loneliness as soon as we are left alone for the very first time, without the familiar presence of our caregiver. An infant lives in a world of fixed patterns: eating, sleeping, being cherished, being cared for. That safe pattern has now been disrupted. Many people learn to deal with loneliness in a natural way. Certainly not everyone experiences this early loneliness and this learning how to deal with it as traumatic. 

Not everyone experiences this as traumatic, but for those who do, the basis has been laid for fear of loneliness. In addition, loneliness is now forever linked to a sense of powerlessness. Research shows that 60% of the population has no problem coping with such a change. However, 40% experience this as a major threat to their own safety.

Early disrupted pattern

For many people, however, the foundation for long-term loneliness has been laid there. Moreover, loneliness is now forever linked to a childlike feeling of helplessness and despair. A striking number of people who say that they ‘have always been lonely’ say that they experienced something at a very young age that made them feel unloved and left alone. Feelings of being not good enough or of being a burden to others are common among people who suffer from loneliness.

What is Loneliness?

A new definition of loneliness, which finds support in recent research (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008) is this: [1]

Loneliness is the physical experience of a lack of (patterns of) connection with other people.

Jeannette Rijks

How serious is loneliness?

People who find themselves lonely have demonstrably higher stress levels than others. This undermines the immune system. Loneliness makes you unhealthy. People who suffer from loneliness often have higher blood pressure, wounds heal more slowly and they feel less healthy. Loneliness occurs among all age groups, although older people feel lonely more often than people between about 30 and 45 years old and persons of around the age of 20 are more likely to feel lonely. 

Patterns in our brain

We live in a world of patterns. We only know our world thanks to the fact that our brains recognize patterns in everything. If the patterns have a fixed rhythm, if they have regularity, then we feel safe, then we understand the world. As soon as a pattern is disturbed, it makes restless.

We tend to stick to our set patterns. They give us security, familiarity and predictability. A disturbed pattern is usually a sign that something is wrong. When expectations are disrupted, people often become angry or disappointed. 

Relationships have names

Our relationships ara no exception to this rule: we experience relationships in patterns, even if we are not aware of that fact. It maybe strange to think of relationships as being patterns of connection, but they are. We even have names for many of those patterns. Mother, grandmother, neighbor, colleague … these are all names that indicate the relationship we have to that person. We therefore know which pattern belongs to tat kind of relationship.

For some relations we do not have special names, but they are indeed relations: that lady who is always begging outside the supermarket. The man who collects the waste paper. The guy from the postoffice that always has a friendly word for old ladies. 

Pattern theory in relationships

We live in a world of relationships, sometimes strong, sometimes weak, but they are always there. We immediately relate in some way to people we meet. At first glance, we either like each other or we don’t. We immediately form a relationship with someone else, even if we are not consciously doing that. 

An example will show you. Imagine going to the theater or the cinema. So you go away during the break and when you come back, where do you want to sit? Exactly. And what if you come back and someone else is sitting in ‘your’ chair. How does that feel? That’s how quickly we form a pattern of relationships. 

Patterns in everything

Patterns can also be found in how we talk to each other, what we expect from each other, how we dress or where we go. In fact, everything in our relationships is bound by a pattern.

We tend to whish to maintain our fixed patterns in relationships. Deliberately breaking up a relationship often costs us a lot of effort, trouble and heartache, even if we feel that relationship harms us. But very often we don’t even realize that a pattern in a relationship has been broken and then we can feel overcome by loneliness.

Living in Relationship with Others

We are all primarily relational beings. We live thanks to our relationships. Relationships are of vital importance to us. And if something is not right in those relationships, if a pattern is disrupted, we feel that as loneliness. It is nothing but a warning sign of our body: ‘pay attention, do something about your relationships, because something is not right! Your needs are not met.’

Loneliness always arises when a pattern in your relationships is disrupted. That may have happened in early childhood, so that you have never really known a healthy pattern of relationships. Many people are aware of loneliness only later in life, when they end up alone, for example. Loneliness is a normal phenomenon and in itself it is not a problem. Of course it feels bad and sad, but it is not intrinsically bad. It would only be bad if you never felt loneliness. That’s like not being able to feel pain. 

Loneliness is normal

Loneliness is normal and predictable and it has one cause: mismatched patterns of relationships. When people are faced with changing circumstances, for example when they are admitted to a nursing home, or when they have lost their health, when they are (temporarily) unable to live in their own environment, when they suddenly have to deal with one or more carers when they have a child, their pattern of relationships changes.

Circumstances like that always lead to loneliness. It’s always loneliness when you feel sad because something has changed in the pattern of your relationships. Knowing what is going on, understanding that you can expect loneliness in life is an important life skill we all need to have.

Loneliness is always the result of inadequate patterns of relationships in someone’s life

Jeannette Rijks

Not every disturbance of patterns is followed by loneliness, but loneliness is always the result of disturbance of patterns. Loneliness is the result of changed patterns in your life. For example, divorce or living independently are examples of such changes.

Even very desirable changes, such as starting a life together or having a child, can have the effect of creating a feeling of loneliness! You have lost your familiar patterns, your safety. Those who do not adjust to the new identity that life has given them, are unable to live a happy life after such a change will suffer from loneliness.


Disturbance of patterns is always accompanied by stress. In order to form new patterns it is necessary to take new paths in life. This can be very threatening and again a source of stress. Anyone who does not know how to reshape life, who continues to feel powerless, has a problem. A new pattern emerges: the pattern of permanent loneliness. Permanent loneliness undermines the immune system and thus poses a serious risk to someone’s health.

What are the consequences of thinking in patterns?

What is the point of saying that you are lonely because the pattern of your life has changed, rather than because you are separated? What is the point of saying you have an unsatisfactory life pattern, instead of not being so socially competent? Many.

First: tackling loneliness does not necessarily have to do with ‘more people

The first remarkable fact is that tackling loneliness does not necessarily have to start with more contacts between people. It is possible, but it is not necessary and it may sometimes even be counterproductive. Loneliness is also not necessarily the result of the way people treat each other nowadays. Loneliness is the result of the lack of feelings of security, of connection with life, feelings that arise from disruption of patterns.

After all, any disturbance in the pattern in your life is also a disturbance in the pattern of your relationships. In that sense, loneliness is a sign of our time: the pattern in our world is a pattern of changes that seem to be happening faster and faster and that affect the world of many. We see disturbed patterns everywhere.

Second: how loneliness arose is not important

Looking at loneliness as a result of broken patterns of relationships takes the emphasis away from the specifics of someone’s situation. In fact, it doesn’t matter if you are lonely because you are single and without work, or if you are in a wheelchair. What is important, of course, is the knowledge that the cause lies in disturbed patterns and the insight into how a new balance with new patterns can be formed.

Third, loneliness does not arise from the person’s shortcomings

Third, it is important not to think in terms of the shortcomings of the person who suffers from loneliness. Thinking in patterns means looking at how the patterns in life deliver what a person needs. There may be things you need to learn to make life with others more fun and enjoyable. That doesn’t mean you have a shortcoming, it just means you can learn something. 

Fourth, don’t form a pattern of help!

Fourthly, it has major consequences for ‘assistance’. Anyone who, as a care provider, establishes a pattern of providing help, forms for the client and for himself, or the organization, a pattern of… care! This is exactly the reason why assistance so often leads to dependence on assistance.

Of course, withdrawing help once that kind of pattern has formed in the client’s life is in itself another disturbance that will create stress. Assistance therefore only makes sense if it is aimed from the outset at forming patterns that are sustainably satisfactory for both parties.

Help cannot always lead to the client’s independent functioning. True relief will be aimed at establishing the most satisfying pattern of life possible, within existing constraints. A pattern that offers security and thus the security that every person is looking for in life will at leat not add to existing loneliness.

Does this have practical consequences?

What patterns does a person actually need? And are they fixed or are they also subject to change? That question should actually precede any intervention. Fortunately, there is a load of psychological and sociological research that we can draw on. 

Every professional will undoubtedly have their own vision of what makes sense in providing care. It can be smart to bring in extra expertise.

Incidentally, the Creative Living course was created to do just that: to teach people to realize new patterns.

[1] van Tilburg, T., & de Jong Gierveld, J. (2007). View of loneliness: Background, causes and approach.

[1]Cacioppo, JT, & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. WW Norton & Company.

Picture of Jeannette Rijks

Jeannette Rijks

Jeannette Rijks is pionier in de aanpak van eenzaamheid. Zij ontwikkelde een zeer succesvolle methodiek voor de aanpak van langdurige eenzaamheid, die op TV te zien is geweest. Ook schreef zij boeken over eenzaamheid en maakte zij de online eenzaamheidstest waarmee iedereen anoniem de eigen eenzaamheid kan meten. Met haar trainingsbedrijf, Faktor5, verzorgt zij deskundigheidsbevordering voor professionals. Want, zoals ze zelf zegt:’het kan wél!’.

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