After summer, fall often feels like a time for growth, for change – a time to reconnect with work, start new projects, and maybe even get serious about making a relationship happen. There are countless reasons why, despite your readiness, a relationship may elude you. In my practice I have seen many themes emerge that can explain why people are single when they don’t want to be. Working to find self-compassion and patience for the reasons you got to this dissatisfying and frustrating place can help you begin to feel less stuck. While of course there are many, many reasons why you might not be in a relationship right now, we will look at some of the most common themes that contribute to the pain and, at times, shame of being single when you so don’t want to be.
Here are 8 (out of infinity) of the main reasons why people have trouble finding or sustaining a romantic relationship:
1. Feeling Undeserving
How do you understand who you are, your self-worth and self-esteem? Even extensive studies of online dating show that we tend to date people who are very near our own perceived level of attractiveness, income, and education—we tend to choose mates who we think are very near how we think about ourselves. So how do you think about yourself? If you feel great shame about the way you look or about things that have happened to you in your life, or feel you are painfully flawed in who you are, then this shame can overpower your ability to initiate contact, or can draw you to people who are unable to commit for similar or even for very different reasons that still somehow feel familiar. You might feel as if your shame, your self-perceived "ugliness" or your painful shyness make it virtually impossible to find a mate, so why try? Or you may feel like anyone you could get, you wouldn’t want anyway. Maybe you were so badly hurt in a previous relationship that you are still stinging and full of shame at having been rejected, and you feel undeserving and fearful of the vulnerability required to find love again or for the first time. Despite all these obstacles, you have an intense longing for connection. Feeling undeserving of romantic intimacy can at times contribute to participating in activities you feel shameful about, which can in turn increase your shame and make you feel less deserving—a vicious cycle. There are some people who feel so profoundly undeserving of an intimate, connected, reciprocal relationship that they may seek out other ways to approximate intimacy that may ultimately feel even more demeaning to them. They may “pay” for intimacy rather than cultivating it on their own merits, because they experience themselves as unlovable, so they instead go for a quick fix and then leave.
2. Intense, Insatiable Neediness
However you arrived at this place of intense need, it drives you to overwhelm your prospective partners. You have a constant, insatiable need for reassurance. Nothing is enough. Nothing feels good enough. You ask for praise, even beg for it, but then can't accept when it's given to you. The level of insecurity you feel leaves little if any room to establish a healthy reciprocal relationship, because conversations with prospective partners must involve reasons why you are loveable, and without that reassurance, you feel unloveable. As you have painfully discovered, it is often just too much to ask for, and you end up alone, which in turn creates even more insecurity, shame and despair. Working on understanding how your need for reassurance reached this insatiable point may help you feel compassion for yourself, because chances are something was terribly awry in your past. Recognizing how much your neediness is interfering with finding and sustaining a relationship are the first steps to developing healthier ways to seek the reassurance you long for from yourself first and foremost, which will make it far easier for prospective partners.
3. Being Unrealistically Discriminating
Maybe your parents had a hard time giving you praise or weren’t satisfied with your achievements as a child. Maybe the opposite was true: you received immense amounts of praise and learned to expect perfection as the norm, or maybe it's both. Regardless, over time these experiences created a loud voice in your head that tells you your prospective mates aren’t good enough. This opinion is so dominant that you don't give partners a chance. You may even have retrospective regret about ending past relationships because you recognize you were too picky—if it weren’t for your need for perfection, oh what could have been with various partners in your past? Or, you may feel that there just isn’t anyone you have come across that you like enough to partner with. You might believe perspective partners out there are as picky as you have been, and therefore wouldn’t find you appealing, so again, why not cut it off before it begins?
Another scenario: you may feel like you have already gone through the pack of prospects, none of them worked out and so based on this limited group you are convinced that there is no one right for you out there, therefore, the right person simply doesn't exist.
In these cases, it’s important to recognize that regardless of how expansive you think the pond that you've fished in is, there is still a whole ocean out there you haven’t yet discovered. Maybe in addition to reevaluating your requirements for a partner, you can work on recognizing that you are unfairly limiting your options. It might be time to work on taking a step back, expanding your belief system, reinvigorating your hopefulness, and even opening up the pool in which you’re searching. Even if you’re not interested in a long distance relationship, options exist now that never did before (the internet) that at the very least allow you to look out into the world at other people in other places to remind you that there are, in fact, great people out there—you just haven’t met them yet. Knowing people exist outside your limited pool can be inspiring in its own right, and can create an experience of hopefulness, which is a powerful and motivating feeling to have in any circumstance.
You are painfully aware of how badly your family wants you to couple. All your friends are in relationships. Now this external pressure has intensified your own need and your own fears about remaining single. Pressure can also promote a feeling of shame, hopelessness, and despair, and can compel you to choose indiscriminately at times. Because these reactions belong to the pressure and not to you, they are more likely to add to your frustration than to assuage the pressure. If not identified, the pressure can start to pervade every part of your being – even when no one says a word to you, you still feel it. It can be paralyzing. Understanding the overwhelming nature of this pressure is the first step toward diluting its power.
5. Burned Badly
If you’ve been devastated in past relationships, it can make it hard to trust in new ones. Despite wanting a relationship, you can have a tough time entering or maintaining a new relationship. Think about it: of course, if every time you did something it resulted in being slapped in the face, you start to expect you’ll be slapped in the face and therefore you try to avoid those situations or assume everyone is out to get you. Furthermore, in your shame, frustration, anger, and despair at having been so badly hurt, you may have lost the incentive (for the time being) to take care of yourself physically, which most certainly makes it more difficult to feel confident in getting out there and meeting someone new. No matter what, it doesn’t take away from the solid, kind, loving person that you are, and those qualities, whether they are recognized right now by a prospective partner or not are the foundation that will ultimately lead you to a meaningful relationship. But for now, your pattern of negative beliefs about yourself, physically and emotionally is unfortunately reinforcing. Your inability to trust may even compel you to see everyone who comes your way as potentially predatory – wanting something from you before they abandon you. This conditioned belief system can make you wary, angry, defensive, fearful and suspicious about entering a new relationship despite your intense longing for connection.
6. Driving Past Partners Away
Perhaps you see yourself as having sabotaged a previous relationship? Deep down, this experience can make you feel undeserving of a new one (see #1). Or you may just feel like you’re bound to mess things up so why try? Why not just beat your prospective partner to the punch, mess things up first, and get it over with? Sabotaging the relationship allows you to be able to say, “See I told you so. I’m undeserving of a relationship.” But, in actuality, you may have purposefully and excessively tested the relationship to try to make yourself feel confident in its strength (see #2). Either way, it’s a mess – these dynamics do not encourage a healthy relationship. When your past experiences interfere with and pollute your current prospects, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Think about your past relationships: were you abandoned or did you sabotage? Was it a combination of both? If you’ve intentionally or unintentionally driven people away in the past, it can feel insurmountably difficult to avoid this pattern in future relationships. But, it’s not impossible. The most important part is to work hard on viewing each prospective partner as different than the previous one who hurt you, even if you can find tons of similarities. They are still different people with different histories and different life experiences. It is much easier to lump your previous partners together with current and future prospects, but then you end up missing valuable, unique qualities and differences that can help you see new potential in new mates that help you to be open to possibilities.
Trauma comes in many insidious forms. If not addressed and managed in a nurturing and supportive setting, it can mess up your perspective and your capacity to love and trust. If you were traumatized at any time in your life or in earlier relationships, you can be left feeling untrusting and suspicious. If you do happen to accidentally or even somehow purposely repeat patterns that were traumatic, the experience can be disorganizing, disconcerting and alarming. It can make you feel as if you are destined to repeat the dysfunction, as if you have no hope for a rewarding, reciprocal, mutually supportive and trusting relationship yourself. When trauma occurs, it is crucial to find a safe person and a safe space to process the trauma, to understand it's impact on you, and to begin the work of disentangling yourself from its ugly hold. Doing so begins to dilute its power, which in turn can help you work toward not continuing to repeat damaging patterns in your relationships.
8. The Timing Has Just Been Off
You may know you are an amazing, wonderful, attractive person. You may have grown up in a way that lets you remain confident in how amazing and wonderful you are. You may have little if any significant negative relationship history. You may identify somewhat with some of the reasons in this article, but nothing extreme enough that you wouldn’t be able to overcome these challenges if and when the opportunity presents. The problem is, the opportunity hasn’t presented. You know you’re not defective. But still, things just don’t align. You find yourself without a partner, no matter how badly you want one. That’s likely due to difficult, unfortunate timing. It can become so frustrating that you end up feeling intensely pressured (see #4).
There are a number of ways to understand this experience. It’s entirely possible that despite difficult, challenging timing, deep down you continue to long for a relationship. In this situation, patience is a virtue. But patience doesn’t mean sitting around! You don’t need to throw yourself at the singles bars like a ball in pinball machine, but rather, work on being okay with being single for now while continuing to be in the world. Patience means doing the things you enjoy. It means hanging out with your married friends. It means continuing to experience new things while remaining open to the possibility that eventually a light bulb will go off above some potentially interested mate’s head. Until then, there may just be circumstances that make a relationship unrealistic right now, and that's okay.
When you think about it, what’s the point of not remaining hopeful in the world? Continuing to push yourself into interesting, new experiences and working on enjoying your everyday experiences allows you to find fulfillment in life without a partner, while continuing to remain open to the possibility that your timing will change and that you’ll eventually find someone.
Another possibility is that it may be less complicated to make peace with your misaligned timing and learn to be okay single (for now), rather than continuing to hope for a relationship. There are some people that may feel confused by societal or familial pressure, but really are more comfortable on their own (see my previous post). Maybe your unfortunate timing isn’t exactly that – maybe you’re more comfortable being single than you have given yourself credit for, and that's okay too.
What holds you back in your quest for a relationship? Is it one of the 8 reasons I listed above? Are you a combination of more than one? For you, what are some of the reasons that I didn't get into in this post that you help you understand why you are single when you don't want to be? By doing some self-exploration and working on identifying how aspects of your previous experiences and sense of self interfere with being in a relationship, you can begin to sort through the obstacles in your path. Or, if part of the reason you aren’t in a relationship is that you are just not ready, or maybe just not interested, you can work on honoring your own timeline, and revisit the idea of a relationship in another season.
There are so many reasons that people find themselves single when they don’t want to be. This is only a quick sampling – a preview that can help you start to look inside yourself for the real reasons that hold you back. By deepening your compassion for yourself and your understanding of your own contributions to how and why you’re single, you begin to make room for self-acceptance as a single person, which in turn can potentially create new relationship possibilities. All the possibilities you can think of are reasonable. Find your reasons. Embrace them. Process them. This process may allow you to be surprised in a positive way this fall.