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Loneliness

How to Combat Loneliness Within Relationships

Loneliness creates relational distance, but mindfulness may alleviate the gap.

Key points

  • When a person is lonely, they may think negatively about their loved one, which often leads to conflict, disharmony, and a lack of connection.
  • Focusing on the breath calms the mind and body, allowing one to see more options and nuance, as well as gain a sense of empowerment.
  • Addressing problems along with gratitude for good things may help each person better tolerate hard conversations and prevent loneliness.

"We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness."—Albert Schweitzer

When we think of loneliness, we might picture a person all by themselves with nothing to do, but research tells us that even those in a relationship and those with busy lives can feel profound loneliness.[i] Loneliness is on the rise.[ii] and touches nearly all of us at some point, so if you’ve felt lonely, know that there are many who also feel this way. Loneliness occurs when we feel a lack of connection with others.[iii] This lack of connection stems from a shortage of either quality or quantity of emotional and social connection, like when we are too absorbed in our cell phones or we isolate ourselves due to illness or a pandemic.[iv]

Feeling lonely can have several concerning effects. Loneliness hinders how people think about their partners.[v] Unfortunately, when we’re lonely, we’re less likely to think positively about our loved one, which often leads to conflict,[vi] a sense of disharmony, and a lack of belonging.[vii] The lonely may be looking for sources of threats.[viii] When lonely people are constantly “on guard” and feeling heightened sensitivity, they may feel deprived, distressed, and distanced within their romantic relationships.[ix]

In my research lab, we’ve been examining which factors may empower the individual to experience fewer negative effects from loneliness. A few studies help us see potential ways to alleviate the negative outcomes associated with isolation.

Mindfulness and Sexual Mindfulness

The simple practice of focusing on your breath calms your mind and body, allowing you to see more options and nuance, and gain a sense of empowerment within your environment.[x] During sex, being more aware and non-judgmental changes the internal and external environment. When we are sexually mindful, we can notice the details of how touch, smell, or sight influences our arousal, our sense of connectedness to our partner, and even whether we are distracted by other thoughts. We are less generally likely to wander into judgmental thoughts that criticize our body or our partner’s body or performance.[xi]

In our early research findings, we saw that daily mindfulness was particularly important for men’s relational well-being. When men felt lonely, daily mindfulness buffered the negative effects on their relationship.[xii] Additionally, as both men and women used more sexually mindful awareness and non-judgment they reported a negative association between loneliness and relational and sexual satisfaction.

Using a more mindful approach to your relationship just makes sense. Mindfulness helps us make less hasty decisions and tempers our desire to pull away from our beloved. Instead, we can use more grounded reasoning that allows us to give some leeway to our partner’s motives and intentions.

Gratitude

The process of noticing and feeling appreciation for our partner or our surroundings, shifts our attention away from concerns and disappointments, particularly within our relationship.[xiii] Previous research has shown that gratitude and forgiveness have positive effects on romantic and sexual relationships.[xiv]

Gratitude changes the environment of the relationship to reflect more positive attitudes instead of picking only at the problems. This is not to say that couples should ignore problems. But addressing problems along with feelings of gratitude for good things will help each person better tolerate the hard conversations. Our early research findings showed that both the husband’s and wife’s gratitude helped alleviate the negative effects of loneliness on their relational and sexual well-being.

Forgiveness

Extending mercy when our partner has been clumsy or neglectful is essential in romantic relationships.[xv] We also found in our early research that forgiveness is quite powerful. Whether the husband or wife was experiencing loneliness, extending forgiveness helped alleviate the negative associations between loneliness and relational and sexual well-being.[xvi] Without exception, forgiveness is a potent antidote for feelings of loneliness. A lack of forgiveness creates distance and isolation but forgiving draws us together and mends the wounds that separate people.

Practical Tips to Implement These Ideas

Mindfulness and Sexual Mindfulness:

  • Take time each day to quietly be with yourself and let your mind relax.
  • When you feel stressed or anxious, take time to breathe and be present in your body.
  • Slow the pace of sex to allow yourself time to connect with your body.
  • Be gentle in your judgment. Use curiosity instead. Ponder why you might think or feel a certain way.

Gratitude:

  • Send a thank-you note.
  • Tell your partner what you appreciate.
  • Take a moment to reflect on your blessings.
  • Keep a gratitude journal.
  • Meditate on meaningful ideas.
  • Pray.

Forgiveness:

  • Acknowledge the reality of your hurt.
  • Recognize that forgiveness is a gift and not a forced requirement.
  • Acknowledge that we all need forgiveness.
  • Remember that forgiveness is a process of healing, not a one-time event.

References

[i] Morris, K. L., Kimmes, J. G., & Marroquin, C. G. (2022). Changing the blame game: Associations between relationship mindfulness, loneliness, negative partner attributions, and subsequent conflict. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 026540752211285. https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075221128502

[ii] Snell, K. D. M. (2017). The rise of living alone and loneliness in history. Social History, 42(1), 2-28.

[iii] Sha'ked, A., & Rokach, A. (Eds.). (2015). Addressing Loneliness: Coping, Prevention and Clinical Interventions (1st ed.). Psychology Press. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315774374

[iv] Mund, M., Weidmann, R., Wrzus, C., Johnson, M. D., Bühler, J. L., Burriss, R. P., Wünsche, J., & Grob, A. (2022). Loneliness is associated with the subjective evaluation of but not daily dynamics in partner relationships. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 46(1), 28-38. https://doi.org/10.1177/0165025420951246

[v] Morris, K. L., Kimmes, J. G., & Marroquin, C. G. (2022). Changing the blame game: Associations between relationship mindfulness, loneliness, negative partner attributions, and subsequent conflict. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 026540752211285. https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075221128502

[6] ibid

[vii] Mund, M., Weidmann, R., Wrzus, C., Johnson, M. D., Bühler, J. L., Burriss, R. P., Wünsche, J., & Grob, A. (2022). Loneliness is associated with the subjective evaluation of but not daily dynamics in partner relationships. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 46(1), 28-38. https://doi.org/10.1177/0165025420951246

[viii] .Rokach, A. (2018b). Effective coping with loneliness: A review. Open Journal of Depression, 7(4), 61-72. https://doi.org/10.4236/ojd.2018.74005

[ix] Sha'ked, A., & Rokach, A. (Eds.). (2015). Addressing Loneliness: Coping, Prevention and Clinical Interventions (1st ed.). Psychology Press. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315774374

[x] Kabat-Zinn, J. (2012). Mindfulness for beginners: Reclaiming the present moment—and your life. Sounds True.

Karremans, J. C., Schellekens, M. P. J., & Kappen, G. (2017). Bridging the Sciences of Mindfulness and Romantic Relationships: A Theoretical Model and Research Agenda. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21(1), 29– 49. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868315615450

[xii] Leavitt, C. E., Price, A. A., Dutson, H., Johnson A., Scott, E. R., Butikofer, S., McEwan-Llarenas, W., Yorgason, J. B., Holmes, E. K. (in progress). Alone together: The associations of loneliness, mindfulness, and relational and sexual wellbeing.

[xiii] Leavitt, C. E., Price, A. A., Inman, N., Brown, A., Sandridge, A., McKay, M., Harrison, Z., Yorgason, J. B., Holmes, E. K. (in progress). The Power of “I’m sorry” and “Thank you”: The associations of loneliness, gratitude and forgiveness, and relational and sexual wellbeing.

[xiv] Eyring*, J. B., Leavitt, C. E., Allsop*, D. B., & Clancy*, T. J. (2021). Forgiveness and gratitude: Links between couples’ mindfulness and sexual and relational satisfaction in new cisgender heterosexual marriages. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 47(2), 147-161. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2020.184257

[xv] Fincham, F. D., Paleari, F. G., & Regalia, C. (2002). Forgiveness in marriage: The role of relationship quality, attributions, and empathy. Personal relationships, 9(1), 27-37.

[xvi] Leavitt, C. E., Price, A. A., Inman, N., Brown, A., Sandridge, A., McKay, M., Harrison, Z., Yorgason, J. B., Holmes, E. K. (in progress). The Power of “I’m sorry” and “Thank you”: The associations of loneliness, gratitude and forgiveness, and relational and sexual wellbeing.

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