"The Bottom Line Is: I Am Lonely for a Relationship"
I am 45 year-old, heterosexual female, single with no children and a former drug user. Five years ago, I found out I was HIV-positive. Since then I have stopped going out to the bars and dance clubs, which was difficult because they were my only source of romantic social life. Now I find them dark, noisy, smoke-filled and just plain boring. I can't believe I spent 25 years of my life going out to them! I guess being stoned or high made them tolerable.
Currently I stay home at night reading books, watching TV and eating. Mentally and so far health-wise I'm OK, aside from feeling unattractive due to my HIV. The bottom line is: I am lonely for a relationship.
My best friend is a 45 year-old gay male. We have been friends since high school and have always been close. He used to be quiet, shy and never went out to bars or even dated much. However, once he tested HIV-positive three years ago he began going out every night to sex clubs and bath houses.
Although he has sex with many men, he admits he too is lonely. Can you give us both any insight as to why our behaviors and interest may have changed so dramatically due to our HIV status? We can't change our HIV but is there anything we can do to change our habits and meet someone?
A Response to This Case Study
I can understand your concern about being lonely and lacking a clear direction on how to meet and form new relationships. Companionship is a natural desire that never leaves us during our lifetime. Our loneliness reminds us that we are human beings with a great capacity to search for emotional interactions.
However, the fear of rejection can become a combative enemy in this process and a strong motivator in selecting ways to avoid human contact. With the acknowledgement of your HIV status, coupled with your 45 years of emotional growth, it is possible that both of you had evaluated your past situations, and have come up with completely different coping methods to meet your individual needs.
The question to ask yourselves is whether this new behavior can actually be due to your age and social maturity? Or is it a quick simple solution to fear of rejection based on your HIV status? Both responses would be a normal reaction to your current situation.
Research and medical discovery continues to inform us that life with HIV is no longer a shortened life. However, the possibility of having limited time should motivate the individual to assess his or her prior behavior and create planned goals and strategies for the near future.
It sounds like you have evaluated an aspect of your past and rejected it as a future resource. Your reaction could be a normal process considering that you have been attending bars and dance clubs for half your life. These establishments can be troublesome if you are substance-free and attempting to engage in a realistic, non-fantasy based long-term encounter. Your HIV status may have pushed you to evaluate past behavior causing you to then reject the bar and dance club scene as "pointless" as a venue for meeting long term relationships. However when you stopped one avenue of socializing, you did not redirect yourself to any other social outlet. Thus you have retreated and placed yourself out of the arena for any possible social contact.
Both you and your friend seem to be stating, "who wants me now that I am HIV-positive?," since both of you seem to have rejected the social world before it can possibly reject you. I would encourage both of you to develop other social circles where possible relationships may be built.
It is sad that in our current world bars and clubs are for many people their only meeting place. Research indicates they aren't actually a good foundation from which to meet people for forming relationships.
It is important to remember that these clubs are not community or spiritual centers run to help the betterment of mankind. The point of the establishment is not to encourage socializing but to lure people in and encourage alcohol consumption. They are places of business. The fact that they are dark and with generally loud music makes all forms of communications problematic. These can place social development at the low end of the totem pole whereas physical attributes and other superficial qualities are then naturally placed at the top. Provided, of course, that you can actually see who you are looking at within the smoky darkness!
For your friend who is lonely but who frequents bath houses and sex clubs, there may be little pervasive redirection away from these establishments. Where should he go to meet large groups of presumed single gay men? In addition, he may have limited social experience in dating and feel abused by the sting of past rejection.
Although your friend does have multiple sexual encounters, these likely involve little if any verbal communication and are based on interactions with other males as sexual and fantasy objects, rather than realistic human companions. Psychologically speaking it's no wonder he is lonely.
There is direct pay-off for his behavior; he gets basic attention, it's mindless and hopefully he gains a sense of primitive sexual satisfaction. However, over time the individual may become more rote in sexual style, developing less caring intimate interactions and social skills along with emotional growth stunted due to disuse.
If your friend states that he is lonely, he may want to listen to what his emotions are telling him and develop some new social outlets. To find a realistic relationship, one has to develop social skills and seek out others who have similar interests. There is nothing new to this concept, and it doesn't take a psychologist to figure it out. However, it does take a lot more courage, creativity and determination when dealing with personal rejection, and double that when placing HIV into the mix.
Rejection is a part of the total package and one must come to terms with the fact that they will be rejected. Having a healthy belief that you may come into contact with people who don't want you due to your HIV status is very realistic. It does and will make a difference for many people. Rejection and desire go hand and hand just as skin color, religion, family background, type of employment, education, height, weight, body parts and your breath may all be considered when assessing a possible long term love interest.
I'm not going to tell you it's not rough out there -- it is! Nevertheless, one still has to place oneself "out there" to search out others who have common interests coupled with a sexual attraction. Both of you are clearly not doing this. You both have taken yourselves out of the courtship of dating and forming new social ties.
In order to have successful encounters in life you do generally have to take social risks. Dealing with people or choosing not to deal with people or only having sex with strangers may be a choice or reaction to the fear of HIV rejection. The first step is to allow people to get to know the real you slowly, over time. Listen to what your emotions are telling you and let them guide you.
Your HIV status coupled with your age is telling you, "I need more from life, I need more in human interactions, I AM LONELY." You and your friend can develop and work together at uncovering alternatives to your current situations in seeking relationships. Make a list together or separately on the social interactions that you will attempt to do in the next three months. Have fun with it and try to be inventive, even if you don't think they are possible, let your mind go wild with activities that you would like to do with another person or a group. (See examples below.)
Let your mind go wild with activities that you would like to do with another person or a group. Here are some examples:
- Scuba diving for sunken ships in the Bermuda Triangle.
- Mountain climbing in Washington state searching for Bigfoot.
- Swimming with dolphins in the Atlantic Ocean.
- Riding the roller coaster at the Coney Island amusement park.
- Asking one person out for coffee once a week.
- Attending one group meeting once a week.
- Creating a "solve a mystery" party and inviting as many new people as possible.
- Taking a break one day of the week from your usual structure to explore your city.
- Taking out a personal ad and inform readers about yourself -- all of you, not just what you are seeking in another person.
- Pushing yourself one day of the week to be friendly and make conversation with a total stranger within a public space.
Lastly attempt to pull back from viewing everything about dating from a negative standpoint when you think of meeting new people and discussing your HIV status. Let go for the moment of the idea that attaining a relationship when you have an HIV-positive status is doomed from the start. You are actually rejecting unknown countless persons before an interaction can even happen!
Don't presume that people are going to reject you for having a positive HIV status. Allow them to get to know you and allow time for both of you to reach a clear understanding of each other's qualities. The best indicator for a good relationship is the element of time. Be patient with yourself and others. Take the first steps now to at least improve your own social skills. Continue to challenge yourself daily in taking the steps to slowly enter back into the social arena of life. Good Luck!
"Psychologically Speaking" columnist J. Buzz von Ornsteiner, Ph.D. is a New York State-licensed psychologist. He currently works at a New York State correctional facility as a psychotherapist, educator, and behavioral consultant.