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Harry K Wexler

Harry K Wexler Ph.D.

Loneliness

Facing Loneliness on Valentine's Day

Should we settle just to avoid loneliness on Valentine's Day?

Well, another Valentine's Day is upon us and those of us in our 50s and 60s have seen many come and go. Hopefully, we can all recall at least one February 14th full of young sweet feelings of discovery of another sweet soul who we wanted so much to connect to and say "I love you" with a mix of hope for acceptance and dread of possible rejection. Though many in our generation may be spending this February 14th with a special someone, a good proportion of readers will be alone on Valentine's Day and this blog is for you.

As a species, we need connection to others in order to thrive. Research shows that people with a stronger social support network are happier, recover more quickly from surgery and disease, and are at lower risk for depression. (Cacioppo, J. T.) When we are younger, this need for connection usually translates to a desire for a single, monogamous romantic partner. This urge, in part biologically driven, is useful for procreation and for facing many of life's day-to-day challenges in early and mid-adulthood. During this phase, there is not much threat of loneliness. Those of us who get married and have children engage in a lot of people-oriented activities, and are often surrounded by family and friends.

It is in later adulthood that loneliness becomes a bigger concern and often leads to depression. Children have grown up and moved out on their own, retirement can mean less time socializing with colleagues, and more time on our own, and if we are still with our partners, we will eventually face life's inevitable realities of health decline and death. So how do those of us who have never had a significant other, are divorced, or who have lost our life partner handle the loneliness?

One impact of loneliness, or the fear of it, is that it can compel us to make poor relationship choices. In desperation to be with someone, we often choose the wrong people... there is a reason that Mr. or Miss "right" turns out wrong, often in an eerily similar way to past failed relationships. It sometimes seems that relationship demons haunt us from the past, especially on this day each year when we feel even more pressure to be with a partner rather than be alone.

Why do we choose the wrong people? Go through the same patterns? Perhaps we haven't come to terms with our own selves, so we act out our discomforts with new partners and this can actually recreate the same problems we had in past relationships. For example, someone who feels not acceptable at a deep level, might accuse a partner of not accepting them and drive them away, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy; its a painful and difficult process to face one's own feelings of inadequacy.

Repeating bad relationship choices raises the question of whom we are choosing: what is it about a new potential relationship that is both attractive and unhealthy? Perhaps the things that we seek in others are the aspect(s) of ourselves that we find disappointing or underdeveloped and subconsciously we feel that achieving a successful relationship with a person with these qualities, our inadequate self will be healed. For example, if I can pair with an especially attractive, bright, or self-confident partner, doesn't that prove that I now have that missing piece? Unresolved inadequacies keep us highly vulnerable to poor choices since the rest of the other is often not seen until later.

At a deeper level, as in all questions of the spirit including love and meaning, we must at some point face ourselves, and being alone, although undesirable, provides that important opportunity. At the end of the day, we have to face our demons to be more available for a fresh relationship, less dependent on old hurts and troubles, and more open to what is possible for here and now. Examining whatever is unsatisfying in the self and taking responsibility for changing/improving or letting go can take us a long way toward the clearer perception necessary for more appropriate choices. If I can be a good companion to myself this Valentine's Day, perhaps my chances for being a good companion to another will be markedly improved next year!

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