Dilemmas: A network of friends can be a better prop than one single bloke

Sally's husband left her eight months ago and despite seeing lots of friends she feels unbearably lonely, unable even to buy food if it's not for two. She also longs for sexual physical contact. Will she have to wait till she finds another man, any man?

Feeling lonely is part of bereavement. It doesn't matter how many friends you have, you may still feel lonely. When my father died, I burst into tears and was comforted by my partner. "But I feel so lonely!" I wailed. He snatched his arms away. "But you've got me!" he replied, hurt. What he didn't understand is that the loneliness following a bereavement is something that stands on its own, unrelated to reality. And the break- up of a relationship is indeed a bereavement, made worse, in Sally's case, by the fact that she was the one who was actually left.

Some people argue that eventually the feelings of loneliness will go and Sally will find it great fun being on her own. She will go round supermarkets buying scrummy meals for one, tiny treats of minuscule pots of caviar which she will eat with a tiny spoon as she watches the video of her choice or channel-hops to her heart's content. She will go to exhibitions and museums by herself and at her own pace. She will be able to wake up at three in the morning and have a large glass of brandy and fall asleep over a book with the light on.

I've never reached this blissful state, and, like Sally, relieve feelings of loneliness by surrounding myself with gangs of people. But what Sally will find, after a long time, is that her friends turn into a net of security, and she will find that this giant network is just as much of a prop, if not more so, than one single bloke.

To build this network, however, she must relate to her friends on an emotional level as well as a social one. But there are plenty of people to help her sublimate her feelings of loneliness. Gays, girlfriends, children, lonely single or divorced men looking for a spot of mothering rather than sex - the world is bursting with them.

Sally misses sex, but the problem with sex is that the longing is never- ending, like cleaning your teeth. You can't just have a whole heap of sex and then not want it for a year. But the desire for sex is yet another symptom of bereavement, when sexual feelings can go haywire.

Some women who've been left simply cringe at the idea of being touched by a man; other women get obsessed by it, and can hardly go into the baker's without giving him the eye and wondering what he'd be like between the sheets or, indeed, in more interesting places.

It may be that Sally's right and she misses a man, "any man" as she puts it, for his sheer maleness around the house. A personality is not like a kettle - you can't go to the shop and buy another one - but the maleness of a man is rather like a kettle and in that way any man, as long as he is kind and attractive to her, will do. There's no shame in that. Many men primarily want a woman round the house, long before they want "this particular" woman or "that special" lady. This is why people get together via lonely hearts columns, which might well be an answer for Sally, though not so early on in the game.

Sally's real problem is that she is looking for relief from her pain so quickly. She doesn't say how long she was married, but seven months is no time at all. After a 16-year relationship it's been two years until I've felt remotely human again. Sally, too, will feel human again, but it will take far longer than she thinks.

what readers say

You will get through this in time

Having experienced Sally's feelings of loneliness I can understand how she feels. Waves of depression would engulf me, leaving me physically incapable of doing anything. Like her I led a full life socially. For a few years, though I admitted it to no one, I longed for a man, someone who would love me and whom I could love. But, having a fatalist side to my nature, I never actively looked for one. I learnt that one always came through the bleak periods supported by family and friends. I got to know myself well.

I brought the children up, made a new life for myself and was really enjoying my independence when, whoops, along came someone - totally unexpected! I've had to make further adjustments as I was becoming selfish!

My loneliness/adjustment to divorce took me seven years, but it's different for everyone so live a day at a time. I remarried 14 years later.

To Sally I say, lean on your friends but spread yourself or you risk the friendship; realise that life will get better even if you don't believe it, and take what there is to offer because there is a time and a season for everything - never lose hope.

Cleone Augur

Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire

One day you will fall in love again

My ex had an affair while I was working away, struggling to keep our home. I was overcome with hurt and bitterness. This was a woman whose father I had nursed and was with when he died.

I failed to find some meaning or reason. My feelings ranged from anger to loneliness to despair. I was ready to hit the next person who said: "Time is a great healer." But it is. Keep busy - let your friends comfort you - things will get better.

Two years on I had recovered my self-worth, was enjoying my freedom and looking forward to life on my own. I was at peace with myself, then I fell in love with the most wonderful woman. We are now married with a baby on the way.

The time was right. You'll know when it is for you.

John Harbourne

Crosby, Liverpool

Being married can be far lonelier

The loneliness will go, although you may hardly notice it happening. My husband left me five years ago and I too felt desolate, but it now seems like a distant memory.

You might find that braving more time on your own will help you to come to terms with your situation. I couldn't go out much when my husband first left because I had two small children. I spent a lot of time with friends or colleagues during the day, but I was usually on my own in the evenings. After a while, I found that I really appreciated this quiet time to myself - reading, pottering or just doing nothing. It seemed to help me regain my sense of self. Five years on I still have no man in my life, nice though that might be, but I am happier and less lonely than I now realise I was in my marriage.

Flora Jamieson

London SE24

Pain is part of the healing process

Having gone through the same experience as your reader - I've been in the situation where, yes, you can be in a crowded room and, yes, you can even appear to be the "life and soul" and then suddenly - wham, it hits you - there is this incredibly lonely feeling in the pit of your stomach which slowly spreads to every nerve in your body and you think nobody else can even begin to understand the desolation you are feeling. Sometimes this is where panic can set in. The only advice I can give is to try to accept this feeling when it sweeps over you - after all it is a vital part of the healing process. Once you realise these feelings are completely normal - you are after all grieving - you'll find that the feeling of utter desolation and despair lessens over a period of time and you will, I promise, come out of your experiences a much stronger person with the capacity to love and be loved again - happily this I also know from experience.

Liz McGeechan

Coatbridge

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