Being lonely is not just an emotion reserved for those who are single or alone. But there are ways to work through it.
“It’s very common that people find themselves in long-term relationships feeling lonely,” says Niloo Dardashti, a New York-based psychologist and relationship expert.
People in a relationship can be lonely because something isn’t working in the relationship itself or because they look to their partner to fill a void that they’ve been carrying within themselves, according to Dardashti.
Whatever the culprit, here, a few experts explain why you might be feeling this way and provide ways to address the root of the loneliness you may be experiencing.
Why do some people feel lonely in their relationship?
One reason for feeling lonely could be that your relationship is not working as well as it once did. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 28% of people who are dissatisfied with their family lives feel lonely all or most of the time. And the number of people who are unhappy at home is rising — the most recent General Social Survey conducted in 2016 by NORC at the University of Chicago recorded the highest number of unhappily married couples since 1974.
This sense of loneliness can often take place when a couple has lost their emotional connection, says Gary Brown, a licensed family and marriage therapist in Los Angeles. “Even in the very best of relationships, there are going to be those times when one or both partners may have drifted apart and feel somewhat distant and estranged from one another,” he says.
An unwillingness to be vulnerable can also contribute to feelings of loneliness within romantic relationships, according to Jenny Taitz, a clinical psychologist and author of How to Be Single and Happy. “One contributing factor to loneliness is not talking about your feelings or sharing things that are maybe a little less safe and risky to share,” she says. “You could be close to someone but they might not know the more personal things about you.”
Social media could also play a role. According to Taitz, comparing your relationship to ones you see on social media can generate a sense of loneliness. “Let’s say it’s Valentine’s Day, for instance, and you had a nice dinner. But then you go on social media and other people got really beautiful jewelry or flowers,” she says. “That will automatically make you feel lonely.” When you compare your relationship to those on your social media, she says, you wind up creating an “unpleasant distance” between you and your partner. It’s through this distance that feelings of loneliness start to arise. And the more time you spend on social media, the more lonely you can feel. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that people who reported spending more than two hours a day on social media were twice as likely to feel lonely than those who spent half an hour on those sites.
But sometimes, feeling lonely could predate the actual relationship. A 2016 study published in Nature found that loneliness can be a heritable trait and that there are certain people who may be genetically predisposed to feel greater pangs of loneliness throughout their lives. And Dardashti warns that getting into a relationship as a means of curing pre-existing feelings of loneliness will never truly work. “People hope for this other person to be the solution to their existential aloneness in the world, but normally that’s not [the case],” she says. “There’s not this person who’s going to take [away] that alone-ness.”
How do you know if the loneliness stems from you or your relationship?
It can be difficult to determine the root of your lonesomeness. But the first step should be to talk to your partner about how you feel, says Joshua Rosenthal, a clinical psychologist and director of child and adolescent treatment at Manhattan Psychology Group. If, during the conversation, your partner is able to point to concrete examples of ways they regularly try to make you feel emotionally fulfilled and yet you still can’t shake feeling lonely, “it’s probably more something within, rather than coming from the other person,” he says.
If that is the case, take a closer look at your past relationships to determine if the feelings you are experiencing are a pattern rather than isolated to this particular relationship, Rosenthal says. Do you typically feel lonely as soon as the novelty of a new relationship wears off? “Maybe it’s how you would feel in any relationship [after] the beginning stages,” Dardashti suggests. “That’s a question to come back to. What is it in yourself that’s creating this dynamic?”
According to both Rosenthal and Dardashti, If you talk to your partner and they’re also experiencing feelings of loneliness, it’s likely that the relationship is the culprit. “Chances are, if you’re feeling lonely, the other person is feeling lonely too,” says Dardashti. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology even found that loneliness can be contagious.
If you and your partner both feel lonely, Dardashti says it’s important to look at these feelings within the context of your relationship. Do you find that the feelings of loneliness are more common when you’re with each other? Do you find that you’re lonelier now than you were before entering this relationship? Do you find that there was a time when you were more fulfilled by your partner than you are now? If the answer to these questions is a resounding yes, then this could be a sign that something isn’t working within your relationship, according to Dardashti. Often, it could just be that the two of you have grown apart, she says. “If you used to feel like there was more of a connection there and therefore less loneliness, then that’s a sign that maybe you guys are sort of drifting in different directions.”
How do you overcome feeling lonely in a relationship?
If the loneliness stems from your relationship and you’re hoping to get back on track, it’s time to have another talk with your partner. “The very first thing to do is to become self-aware of what you are feeling and then to approach your partner and begin what will probably be a series of conversations,” Brown says. “This needs to happen in a way that your partner doesn’t feel judged; [it’s] more to simply let them know what your experience is.”
So, how do you make sure your partner doesn’t feel judged or defensive? It’s important to come from a place of vulnerability when you’re explaining how you feel and to use a non-accusatory tone and language, according to Brown. For example, you can say something like, “I want to trust you with what’s happening in my inner world — I’ve been feeling somewhat neglected recently, and I don’t want you to hear it so much as blame, as just more my experience,” he says. Consider also acknowledging any stressors your partner may have in their life that could be keeping them from fully being there for you, Brown adds.
Then, listen to your partner’s point of view. If they are on the same page about wanting to mend the relationship, you can have a series of conversations geared towards figuring out what may be damaged in your relationship and how to fix it, Brown says. And if you need a little extra help with communication or coming up with solutions, Taitz recommends heading to a couples therapist and not waiting until things really deteriorate to do so. “If you feel stuck around certain issues or have a hard time communicating effectively with your partner and [you] value your relationship, there are evidence-based couples therapies that can help you increase closeness in a set number of sessions by teaching you skills,” Taitz says. These skills can include communicating in ways that defuse rather than escalate tension and regulating your emotions before talking to your partner.
If however, your partner really is doing everything to make you feel fulfilled and the loneliness is something that exists within yourself, you might be someone who tends to look for external ways to quell your loneliness, Dardashti says. She suggests confronting these feelings on your own by seeking help from a therapist “where you’re pushed to look at yourself and reflect on your stuff, your issues, and patterns.” There, you can work on your own internal issues that could affect how you feel in your relationship.
While it may seem counterintuitive, the solution for loneliness is not necessarily to surround yourself with people. Dardashti suggests partaking in activities like meditation that force you to be introspective. “The key is that if you do want to be more comfortable with your alone-ness that you don’t avoid being alone,” she says. “Confront it and try to build some awareness around what it is that comes up for you when you are alone. That’s when you can figure out what to do to address it.”