Loneliness can be experienced by anyone, regardless of their circumstance or relationship status. But feeling lonely while in a relationship can sometimes feel particularly isolating; We don’t often expect to feel lonely when we’re not literally alone. To combat feelings of loneliness while in a relationship, it can be helpful to first identify the root of the issue and then communicate about it with your partner. Here are a few suggestions on how to cope with feeling lonely while in a relationship.
Identify why you’re feeling lonely in a relationship
Sometimes, it can be hard to know if your feelings are due to internal issues, or if the loneliness is a symptom of a relationship issue — or both. “In my work as a couples therapist, loneliness is one of the main reasons couples seek counseling,” Dr. Jennifer Chain, PhD., tells O.school. Feeling lonely while in a relationship is common, and Dr. Chain says, “loneliness is a sign of distress that needs to be identified, validated, and addressed.” Here are a few relationship issues that might be causing you to feel lonely.
- You aren’t seeing eye to eye. Feeling seen and understood is one of the foundations of any healthy, secure attachment. If you have a busy schedule, or have simply grown apart, you might have lost touch with things like your partner’s needs, desires, and goals.
- You can’t see one another’s good intentions. “Loneliness can arise when you and your partner have become stuck in a negative cycle of blame, criticism, and withdrawal where you can no longer see each other's intentions from a positive light,” explains Dr. Chain.
- You struggle with healthy conflict. Disagreements can be healthy for many relationships. But, if you or your partner are conflict-averse, you may struggle with hard conversations, communicating your needs, or resolving conflict in a harmonious way. This may lead to feelings of resentment, disconnection, and loneliness.
- You are no longer teammates. A solid relationship involves all parties working together to do their part — just like a team. “If you and your partner both hold a zero-sum, competitive, ‘if-you-win-I-lose’ attitude about relationships, you may feel lonely because you are independently striving for different goals,” explains Dr. Chain.
- You compare your relationship to what it used to be. It’s natural for a relationship to ebb and flow over time. But during the ebbs it can be easy to compare your relationship to what it once was during better times. Los Angeles-based licensed family and marriage therapist Gary Brown tells The New York Times, “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.”
- You compare your relationship to other people’s relationships. When we spend time comparing ourselves to others, we tend to notice the ways we don’t measure up. This applies to our relationships, too. According to a 2017 study, people who reported spending over two hours a day on social media were twice as likely to feel lonely than people who reported spending a half an hour on social media. People often paint a rosy picture of their relationship on social media and leave the negatives out.
Talk to your partner about your loneliness and how to address it
If you’re experiencing loneliness in your relationship, it might be time to reinvest in your partner and put energy towards rebuilding trust, support, or alignment. A knowledgeable couples counselor can be helpful in navigating conflict and reestablishing trust. You can also begin by opening the dialogue yourself. When you’re ready to communicate about your feelings of distance or loneliness with your significant other, Dr. Chain suggests the following helpful tips.
- Assume good intentions. Start the conversation by assuming the best in your partner. Accept that they love you, and are trying their best to care for you. With that at the top of mind, Dr. Chain recommends “beginning with a soft start such as: ‘Honey, I have been feeling lonely lately. I know you care deeply about me. I would like to work together to find ways to feel more connected.’”
- Talk about what’s causing your lonely feelings. Even if you think you know the root of your own loneliness, it’s valuable to ask your partner what they think might be causing it. For example, maybe you’re feeling lonely because you’ve been too focused on work to foster the relationship. Create the space for your partner to say, “I’ve noticed you’ve been heads down at work lately, and that hasn’t left a lot of time for us. Maybe that’s why you’re feeling lonely in our relationship. How can we fix this?” Once you can find a shared definition of what’s been causing the distance, you can convey your feelings around it, and come up with more targeted solutions.
- Share honestly. You are valid in feeling frustrated or rejected, anxious or desperate, or a multitude of layered emotions towards the situation. You’ll want to share these feelings in a way that is not blaming, guilt-inducing, or critical. For example, says Dr. Chain: “Babe, I am feeling confused and scared about why I am lonely in our relationship. I am scared that maybe you are not interested in me anymore and I am not sure how to fix this. Sometimes I may get frustrated or irritated with you but underneath that, I am lost.”
- Ask directly for what you need. If you’ve already pinpointed the missing piece of your relationship or the root cause of your loneliness, express this need directly. “You can ask for more frequent date nights where you are not distracted or disrupted by children, work, or other people,” explains Dr. Chain. “You can set clear guidelines for conflict so that you have more productive and healthy conversations. Or, you can ask your partner to learn about healthy relationships with you by reading books together or going to couples’ therapy.” She asserts that Klemp and Klemp’s The 80/80 Marriage is a great choice for couples who are working on team unity or generosity in the relationship.
Know when to walk from an emotionally unavailable partner
If you feel unable to facilitate a conversation about your feelings, or are afraid your significant other will be defensive or unable to help, your partner may be emotionally unavailable. This can stir up feelings of loneliness and cause you to feel confused, frustrated, or isolated. You might offer to support your partner as they try various ways to work on themselves and the relationship. But if your partner is unwilling to make changes, either by going to therapy or trying other tactics to help them practice vulnerability and emotional openness, it’s important to know your own limits. You can’t force a person to change or grow if they don’t want to.
If you find that you’ve tried to communicate about your loneliness to your partner, you’ve told them what you need to feel better, but they are unwilling to work with you on the issue, it might be time to weigh the pros and cons of the relationship itself. Has your partner always been emotionally unavailable or is this a new thing caused by specific circumstances that can change? How long has your partner been unwilling to communicate with you and how long have you felt lonely? Ultimately, feeling alone is not sustainable in a long-term relationship since it speaks to something amiss that couples need to work through. If you feel you’re the only one fighting for the relationship and your happiness in it, consider if the partnership is serving you and whether or not it might be time to walk away.
Consider if your loneliness is an internal issue
While loneliness can be a symptom of a relationship issue or the result of being with an emotionally unavailable partner, it’s possible to also be in a loving, supportive relationship with an emotionally available partner, and still feel secluded. Identifying if your loneliness is an internal issue, rather than something caused by your relationship, will help inform the way you approach the situation and solutions. To help you determine if your loneliness is an internal issue, consider these signs.
- You don’t treat yourself well. If you are critical, harsh, or intent on perfection as a means of motivation, you may be in an abusive relationship with yourself. Toxic self-talk can lead to a painful cycle that leaves you dissatisfied, quick to blame yourself, or wondering if you’ll ever measure up. “As a result, it’s very hard to feel validated by or intimately connected with others,” Dr. Chain explains.
- You feel guarded. A background of trauma, betrayal, or loss can contribute to anyone putting up walls, leaving even a trusted romantic partner to feel like they’re on the outside. “You may believe that if you let people in, they will hurt you or leave you,” Dr. Chain suggests. “You have put up defense mechanisms, meaning that even when people try to connect with you and love you, you might not be able to feel it.”
- You are disconnected from your emotions. You may come from an environment where emotions were dismissed, shoved under the rug, or regarded as weak. This can lead anyone to struggle with identifying what they really feel or need. “Without the ability to understand, feel, and express your emotions, you may be unable to experience deep intimacy, love, and connectedness with others,” says Dr. Chain.
- You felt lonely before the relationship. A good indicator that your loneliness may be an internal issue, separate from your relationship, is how you felt before you were partnered. Have you experienced feelings of isolation previously? How intense were those feelings? What were the circumstances surrounding them? Sometimes, if we can identify feeling lonely under completely different circumstances, it can help us come to the realization that the issue may be internal.
Seek support and resources to resolve your feelings of loneliness
While overcoming loneliness can be a long journey, there are plenty of simple steps you can take towards remedying internal struggles. Seeking therapy, support and resources, practicing patience with yourself and your emotions, and leaning on people you trust, are just a few.
While asking your partner for support will be key in correcting any loneliness in the relationship, confiding in friends and family about what’s going on can make you feel more connected to your community. Identifying what’s causing the loneliness is a good way to determine what you might need more or less of in your life. For example, if social media is causing you to feel inadequate, it might be time to limit your use. If you feel you’re lacking community outside your relationship, it might be time to look into volunteer opportunities or ways to engage in hobbies where you can meet others. Overcoming loneliness might also mean incorporating more self-care, such as incorporating a healthy diet, exercise, a better sleep schedule, more sunshine, a home spa day, or a new meditation practice. By strengthening your relationship with yourself first, you’ll start to project loneliness, insecurities, and distrust onto your relationship less.
The bottom line
Whatever the culprit of your loneliness, there’s no need to suffer in silence, especially if you’re with a stable partner who can collaborate with you on healthy solutions. Identifying the root cause of the loneliness and coming up with targeted solutions together is a great first step toward resolving feelings of isolation.