“I knew it,” said Amalia*, starting her session as she walked in the door and angrily plopped down on the couch across from my chair. “That guy I was telling you about? The one I said I thought wasn’t going to work out?” I nodded. “He ghosted me. Just stopped calling. Didn’t answer the text I sent him asking if he was OK. How is it alright to do that?”
“I’m going to stop dating,” said Art*, staring at his hands. “I’ve closed down all of my profiles on dating sites. It’s just too crazy out there. Women expect you to know after the first date if you’re going to marry them. How can I decide that after meeting them once?”
“I’m finished,” said Alice*. “Women just can’t make up their minds. This last woman I was dating? The one I’ve been talking about for weeks? She’s decided to start dating men. What the hell? Was it something about me? Or was she lying to me all along? I give up. I’d rather be alone than to keep going through this emotional roller coaster ride.”
I was thinking about what makes it so hard to find an intimate partner these days—because, although it’s always been complicated, it does seem harder to me than at any other time while I have been in practice—when I came across an article about loneliness. Stephanie Fairyington writes in Thrive Global,
The loneliness epidemic in the United States is real. A Cigna study of 20,000 Americans from across the country sounded the alarm in a big way earlier this year: Nearly half of the participants reported sometimes or always feeling alone or left out, and members of Generation Z—young adults between the ages of 18 and 22—are the loneliest among us.
Fairyington was focusing on what you can do to deal with loneliness during the holidays—something I’d been talking about with a lot of clients (as well as friends and colleagues) during the weeks leading up to and during the holidays. And not only does loneliness get worse during this time of year, but your misery isn’t helped by all of the social media postings of your friends who got engaged on Christmas or the first day of Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or on New Year’s Eve. But I realized that what she was saying could apply to almost all of my clients who were struggling with finding a life partner.
Many of us see a connection to a special someone as the solution to loneliness. But often, as with my clients Amalia, Art, and Alice, the search for that special person leads to more loneliness—accompanied by frustration, irritation, and/or sadness. It might be helpful to know that you’re not alone with this struggle.
A study by Matthew Wright and Susan Brown of Bowling Green University, in the Journal of Marriage and Family, found that there are few differences between married, partnered, and single women in terms of contentment and satisfaction. For both men and women, it seems, marriage is no guarantee of happiness, contentment, or lack of loneliness.
On the other hand, many forms of social contact are crucial to staving off loneliness. Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a PT colleague and the author of the book Alone, researches, writes, and speaks about the social stigmatization of people who are single. She tells us that, according to a wide range of research, non-romantic connections provide all-important protection from the ills often associated with isolation and alienation, which can occur even when a person is in a long-term, intimate relationship. In one of her blog posts, she offers links to research about many of the ways that non-cohabiting adults make significant social connections—often better than their married or cohabiting peers.
For instance, DePaulo cites research that shows that when people get married, they often have less contact with their families than when they remain single. Singles tend to be more engaged with neighbors and friends than married people are. And all of these connections, DePaulo tells us, are extremely important weapons in the battle against loneliness.
You might be wondering why a psychotherapist would encourage you to be more engaged with your family. The reality is that a healthy—meaning adult—connection to your family can not only make you less lonely but can also promote healthy relationships with your friends and potential partners.
I have seen far too many people in therapy who look to marriage and building a family of their own as a way of separating from parents. But in the end, learning to be separate from and also connected to your parents and siblings—again as adults, not as the child you once were—can make you feel better about yourself and can also lead to better relationships with other people outside your family.
So what are some of the ways that you can shift away from a search for a romantic partner that is making you feel frustrated, sad, and lonelier?
1. Turn off your social media and go out to see people in the physical world. While I firmly believe, and have written about, some of the wonderful ways that social media keeps us connected to people we might otherwise not see on a regular basis, there is a fair amount of evidence that electronic connections can create what Kory Floyd, author of The Loneliness Cure, calls “pseudo-intimacy.”
We all need, according to John Bowlby, the founding father of attachment theory, actual contact with others the way we need oxygen to breathe. So even if it’s just taking a walk around your neighborhood and talking to some of your neighbors, get out of the house and make contact.
2. Call a friend. No, talking on the phone isn’t the same as making physical contact, but the voice-to-voice connection is more likely to break your loneliness cycle than emailing, texting, or instant messaging.
3. Call a family member. Ask them what they’re doing, what’s happening in their life.
Tell them a little bit about what’s going on with you. And talk to them as though you were talking to a friend, not a parent, older or younger sibling, or someone with whom you have a specific childhood role to play. Breaking out of those old patterns can bring you new and meaningful connections with important people in your life.
4. Following #2 and #3, make plans to see any of these people. Yes, making plans in today’s crazy world can be difficult. But any relationship takes work.
Put some effort into finding a time to get together, to do something pleasurable—take a walk, go to a yoga class, have a glass of wine, have a meal, go to a movie—and your efforts will be repaid. Your loneliness will very likely diminish even before you actually get together.
5. Do something you really enjoy on your own. Social neuroscientist and researcher John Cacioppo, Ph.D., who wrote the book Loneliness, agrees with DePaulo that the problem of loneliness has little to do with being alone. It often has to do with feelings of alienation, self-doubt, and shame.
If you are doing something that you enjoy, on your own, you are less likely to feel the emotions that lead to loneliness than if you are doing something with others but feeling resentful, unhappy, or that you don’t want to be there or doing that.
6. Go for a long, quiet walk. Write in your journal. Listen to a podcast or watch a favorite movie.
Being alone doesn’t have to mean feeling lonely or isolated. But doing something by yourself can also mean being in a more social setting. I love going to dance concerts on my own, but I frequently end up talking to someone sitting next to me and having a lovely social evening.
7. Do something for someone else. This can mean volunteering for an organization that is providing an important service that you believe in, or it can mean offering to take your mother’s cat to the vet.
The key is that it needs to be something that you can do without feeling resentful or taken advantage of. Something that you feel good about doing. Because feeling good about what you’re doing is one of the best antidotes to feeling lonely.
8. And finally, none of this means that you have to give up the search for a long-term partner. Paradoxically, feeling less lonely might make it easier for you to meet new people. And connecting to people in these other ways can sometimes lead to new and interesting romantic connections. Your friend network, or your volunteer work, or even your Great Aunt Sybil (or some other family member) might turn out to be a great source for meeting a person you connect to romantically.
Over the course of our work together, I shared some of these ideas with Amalia, Art, and Alice, as I do with many of my clients who are frustrated by and unhappy during the search for a life partner. I suggested that while they continue to remain open to the possibility of finding someone with whom they could have a long-term, intimate relationship, they might find it useful to focus more on the important non-romantic relationships in their lives right now. And on what they were doing to make their lives meaningful on a daily basis.
Over time, as they incorporated some of these ideas into their lives, each of them became happier with the life they were currently leading, whether or not there was a romantic partner involved. Alice and Art eventually did find someone with whom they lived on a long-term basis. Amalia, on the other hand, realized that marriage or cohabiting was not something she wanted to do after all. All three found that the path to happiness was far more complex than “meeting the right person and settling down.”
It seems to me that understanding this—that happiness is more complex than meeting someone to spend the rest of your life with—and acting accordingly, is a really good way to keep from being lonely.
*Names and identifying information changed for privacy
John T. Cacioppo (2009) Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection
Bella DePaolo (2017) ALONE:The Badass Psychology of People Who Like Being Alone