For growing numbers of people the weekend is an emotional wilderness where interaction is minimal and social life non-existent. What can be done to break this toxic cycle?
On Saturday morning, Peter get up and went to the supermarket. He carried his shopping home, and took care of his laundry and ironing. In the afternoon, he browsed a few record stores and later he cooked himself dinner; always something adventurous on a Saturday night. Afterwards, he reached Netflix. And in all those hours, in common with many of Peter’s Saturdays , not to mention his Sundays, he had no meaningful interaction with another human being.” The only person I spoke to ,” he says,” was the lady who came over to verify my bottles of beer at the supermarket self-checkout .”
During the week, Peter, 62, is too busy to be lonely. His commute from Brighton to London means that his working life is” a tunnel” he enters on a Monday and from which no daylight is glimpsed until Friday. But just when Peter re-emerges, he is stymied by an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Instead of respite from the stress of office life, a chance to reconnect with family and friends, the weekend looms as a vast emotional and social wilderness that must be traversed before run takes hold again.
Peter dreads the weekend. But he is far from alone in this. He is one of virtually 200 respondents, from Falmouth to Jakarta, who replied to a request on the Guardian’s website for readers to share their experience of weekend loneliness. The youngest respondent was 16; the eldest in her 70 s, and between them, the pain and isolation recurred in countless iterations.
Despite all this, the phenomenon of weekend loneliness has scarcely been studied.” It’s not something that’s been researched at all ,” says Pamela Qualter, prof of psychology for education at the University of Manchester. She led the BBC’s Loneliness Experiment last year, and” found that there didn’t seem to be a time of day[ nor] a season when people felt especially lonely. But we didn’t ask about the weekend .” So what does weekend loneliness look like, who experiences it- and what might be done to alleviate it?
” We define loneliness as the difference between the desire or expectation of what life should be like, and the reality ,” says Kellie Payne, research and policy manager at the Campaign to End Loneliness. For those who experience loneliness chiefly- or only- at the weekend, this painful discrepancy is intensified by the sense of being at odds not only with the world countries outside the door, but with one’s capable, sociable weekday self.
A personal, internal division emerges. Liz is 41, with a rewarding task and family nearby- but she is living two lives.” In the week, I am a contented, fulfilled person. At the weekend, I feel like a lonely outcast ,” she says. Increasingly, she discovers herself out of step with her social group where she lives in Somerset. She runs her own train business from home, so weekdays are busy. But this is exactly when her married friends want to meet for coffee” and a moan about their husbands “.
Liz would like to see these friends at the weekend, too, but when Saturday comes,” it’s unsaid- but it’s like they’ve closed the doors to me. Weekends are for couples. It would be unheard of to invite me to a dinner party, because I’m single ,” she says.” I wake up on a Saturday and feel down. It’s a struggle to pull myself out of bed if I have nothing planned .” When Monday dawns,” it is always a relief “.
For Liz, the loneliness of the weekend is exacerbated by an additional, painful sense that she is not only alone but locked out-” banned from the weekend”, as she sets it. Between Monday and Friday, she enjoys her neighbourhood, but at the weekend, the street and parks seem to transform. They become questioning, forbidding, to the extent that Liz wonders if she has ” absorbed” her loneliness from her environment , now full of couples, households, groups.
” What’s interesting to me is that I’ll sit on my own in a cafe easily in the week ,” she says. But the same cafe at the weekend is a space she cannot enter. Even strolling the dog takes on a different casting.” I don’t feel conscious at all during the week”- but on a Sunday morning, the same walk feels acutely sad.
” As psychologists we talk about the looking-glass self ,” Qualter says.” How your feelings about yourself are influenced by how you think others see you. The populace space alterations, becomes occupied by other people … It’s no longer your space. You feel uncomfortable because you don’t accommodate .”
” I hear this a lot ,” says Sally Brown, a life coach and counsellor.” It’s like people have two personas. The weekday persona is busy and confident. But the weekend persona is lost and vulnerable .”
But is Liz actually projecting her loneliness on to others, and imagining the style they ensure her- or does society read people who are alone in too predictable a manner? Peter believes he passes through his Brighton weekends undisturbed because he is regarded as a harmless eccentric.” The bachelor is something of a social misfit, but an acceptable one ,” he remarks.
A person who enters a public space alone will often be read as best be alone. Mark is 32 and recently returned to London after a couple of years travelling. Going to the pub to watch football one weekend, he took a seat at an empty table for six. Quickly the tavern filled. But Mark sat alone and undisturbed for 20 minutes before anyone asked if they could take one of the five free seats around him.” I guess they think you are going to be bringing extra people, or you’re weird ,” he says wryly.
Brown, who finds many clients in their 30 s and 40 s, thinks this disconnect is” related to those transitional periods when your peer group may have moved on to a stage you haven’t yet reached “. And, of course, may not wish to reach. Mark’s friends, like Liz’s, are mostly in relationships.” It can happen really fast. All of a sudden, your group isn’t there any more. You are second-tier friendship, relegated to week nights. You’re not in the couples’ dinner party or playdate scene. You start to lack confidence in connecting, so hesitate to suggest things. You assume you are not welcome at the weekend and withdraw … It becomes a toxic circle .”
Brown’s belief that loneliness at the weekend arises out of life’s transitions resonates with Kate. At 61, hers is a different kind of shift to Mark’s or Liz’s. Kate insures herself moving” from motherhood to single life again “. She uses the word ” transition”, especially when she reminds herself, while she sits alone on Saturday nights, that she has raised her daughters well, that the loneliness is just another challenge to overcome.
Kate, who lives in Cardiff, has two grown daughters whom she created alone. Her weeks are busy with run and friends, and sometimes her children, if they happen to be nearby. But her weekends, like Peter’s, are” very long and quiet … I will not use my voice or was talking about another human until Monday .”
For Kate, the stillnes of the weekend is wrap in another sort of silence. She cannot speak of her loneliness to anyone, least of all her children.
” They would be devastated ,” she says.” In a style, promoting their education, encouraging them to be social and confident … That has been to the detriment of me. The more they achieve, the further from home they have moved. But I wouldn’t change it, because it was my duty as a mother .”
Seven times during the course of an hour-and-a-half’s conversation, Kate worries that sharing her loneliness with her children would “burden” them. The term feels heavier each time it lands.
While silence protects her daughters, and conserves their sense of Kate, and Kate’s sense of herself, as” strong and capable, someone they can talk to”, it compounds her remoteness. Although she exchanges WhatsApp messages with both children every weekend, these seem to make no impact on Kate’s underlying isolation.