You might feel that if you’re in a relationship, you shouldn’t be lonely.
But being in a relationship can’t stop you from feeling lonely, particularly if you have unresolved issues from your past or things have happened in the relationship that mean you have drifted apart from each other.
Being in a relationship that has gone off track is often much lonelier than being single.
It can mean that you feel rejected or unloved, as you try to get back the relationship you used to have.
At the same time, you don’t have the freedom to date and have fun that you would if you were single. It can feel like the worst of both worlds.
Any long-term relationship will have times when things aren’t quite as good as they once were. It may be that these become relationship-breakers, or it may be that you can pull through them and come out stronger.
In this article, we’ll look more deeply at the causes of loneliness in a relationship and examine whether you can come out fighting or whether it’s time to move on and build a new life as a single person.
What loneliness is
Loneliness is about more than simply feeling a bit bored of your own company, or like you need to get out and socialize more often.
Everyone has days (or weeks, or even months), where they spend more time alone than they’d like to.
Real loneliness isn’t just about how often you see other people or how long you’re able to spend with them.
It’s about feeling disconnected from people, and that can include the person you’re in a relationship with.
You might spend most of your free time with your partner. That doesn’t mean you can’t feel lonely when you’re with them.
You might talk with them often, but feel that you never really connect.
Everyone has days when they get home from work exhausted and just don’t have the energy to talk about anything deeper than what movie to watch on Netflix that night.
But if that’s all you ever talk about, then you’re likely to start feeling pretty lonely.
If you used to have a good relationship with your partner, and now feel that you’ve drifted away from them, you’re probably missing what you used to have.
That feeling of there being a gap between where you were and where you are now can be particularly painful.
It can feel as if you’ll never be able to get back to where you were, because the space between you has grown so wide you just can’t get through it.
In some relationships, it can feel as if you never really did have the closeness that you want.
Maybe you started off with lots of exciting dates and good times, but that failed to translate into a really meaningful, powerful connection.
Once you’re in a long-term relationship, you don’t go out on a date every time you see each other, so if the connection’s missing, there’s nowhere to hide.
You feel lonely, but you stay because you still have hope in the early promise that the relationship seemed to offer.
How loneliness in affects you and your relationship
It can be really hard to know what to do about loneliness in a relationship.
Loneliness can affect both your mind and body. Though nearly all of us feel lonely at some time or another, long-term loneliness will have an impact on your physical and mental health.
- Depression and other mental health problems.
- Suicidal thoughts or actions.
- Increased stress and problems with decision-making.
- Problems focusing or learning new things.
- Alcohol and drug use.
- Increased likelihood of heart disease, stroke and dementia.
Even the most introverted of us have a need for human connection, and we usually expect to get that need met in our relationship.
If it’s not being met, you might feel worthless or unworthy of love, angry and unsettled much of the time.
Loneliness, naturally, doesn’t just affect you in an internal sense. It affects the way you behave and can weaken your already struggling relationship even further.
You might find that you don’t realise that you’re lonely at first. The first thing you might notice is that you’re not treating your partner as you usually word.
You might find that you snap that them, or that you feel negative towards them. You might start to avoid sex or close conversation.
You might start to daydream about what it would be like to be with someone else. You might start flirting with other people, or even start an affair.
The classic line that people are supposed to give to explain their affair is ‘she doesn’t understand me any more’.
Or ‘we’ve drifted apart’. What these statements are really saying is ‘I’m lonely and I need comfort’.
Causes of loneliness in a relationship
The reasons for loneliness developing in a relationship are often complex and varied. It might be one thing, or lots of things that lead to you feeling lonely.
Once the loneliness sets in, it often means that you drift apart even further, and you become more and more lonely as time goes on.
It can feel as if there’s little hope of getting back to where you used to be.
Lack of sex, or poor sex
Some relationships start with fantastic sex, but find that it’s hard to maintain once the shine wears off.
In relationships that last the distance, that initial fire turns into greater intimacy and a deeper sexual connection as time goes on.
In some relationships, that simply doesn’t happen and you begin to feel as if you’re having a sexual relationship with a good friend, rather than someone who you have a deep connection with.
Working hard at your career is a good thing, but there comes a point where it interferes significantly with your relationship.
If you’re on your laptop every evening, checking emails on your phone during dinner and never really talking to your partner other than behind a screen, it’s inevitable that your relationship will take a hit.
You’ll both begin to feel lonely, whichever side of the divide you’re on.
One of you being away
Sometimes, one person in a relationship might need to be physically separate for long periods of time.
Perhaps spending time caring for elderly relatives most days, perhaps being away for a few months travelling, perhaps taking a job that means being out of town Monday through Friday.
Whatever the circumstances or reasons, consistent physical separation can lead very quickly to loneliness.
The person at home feels disgruntled and like they’ve been left to hold the fort alone without help, day after day.
This is especially true for those with children: parenting alone can feel particularly lonely.
Whether physical or mental, chronic or serious illness can easily lead to loneliness.
If you’re the person who’s ill, you probably feel unhappy that you can’t do the things you used to do with your partner. You might feel guilty.
If your partner is ill, you probably feel torn between wanting to care for them and understanding that they’re struggling, and needing not to always be a carer.
It’s a difficult shift in dynamics that can lead to loneliness very quickly, as you’re just not in the same place any more.
A fundamental incompatibility
Sometimes, when you get into a relationship, you have a few nagging doubts. But none of them are anything big, and you’re generally happy and having fun.
So you keep on, but over time, it becomes clearer and clearer that those doubts aren’t going away. In fact, they’re getting bigger.
It might just be that it doesn’t feel ‘right’. It might be something much bigger, like not being on the same page about kids or marriage, or just having different ideas about how often the house needs to be cleaned.
You might be stuck in the ‘too good to leave, not good enough to stay’ paradox, and that can be a lonely place to be.
You know there are problems, but because you’re so unsure what to do, you don’t feel you can talk about them to anyone.
When one of you withdraws from the relationship, loneliness is sure to follow, for both of you. This can happen for several reasons.
It might be that the person withdrawing is thinking of ending the relationship.
Or it might just be that they’re focusing on something else, like work, or family, or hobbies, and struggling to give you relationship the priority it needs.
Whatever the cause of loneliness, you’ll know it when you feel it. It can be extremely difficult to work out what to do next when you realise that you’re not just having a down week, you’re lonely.
What to do when you first realise you’re feeling lonely
When you first realise that you’re feeling lonely, you need to be honest about it. Some of the reasons I’ve just gone through for loneliness in a relationship aren’t the fault of either person, and are things that can either be fixed or worked through.
Others are more worrying, and might mean that you need to accept the relationship has run its course.
It’s time to be honest with yourself about your relationship. And it’s time to be honest with the person you’re with. Reach out and tell them that you’re feeling lonely.
It might be that they haven’t realized, or that they’ve been feeling the same and want to change things.
Once you’ve started the conversation, there are two things you need to work out:
- Why you’ve become lonely.
- What you can do to change it.
What did you used to love to do together that you now don’t? How did you feel connected?
If you can figure out what’s missing from your relationship that you used to have, then you’ll have come a long way to coming back together.
It might be hard to do this, if you’ve drifted a long way apart.
But identify the good times. Talk about the places you’ve been, the jokes you’ve shared, the sex you’ve had…whatever it is that means something to you from the time you’ve had together, talk about it.
Just the act of talking together about better times will start to bring you together. It won’t be enough on its own, but it’s a vital first step.
What if you can’t tell them you’re feeling lonely?
If you feel that you really can’t tell them that you’re lonely, ask yourself why that is.
Do you still feel love for them? Or are you lonely because the love has gone and you’ve moved on in your mind, just not yet in your body?
If you’ve already reached the point where your love has gone, and where you think you are simply incompatible, then it’s time to start thinking about how to leave.
Try and get some space, go away alone or with a couple of close friends for a weekend and give yourself some thinking time.
It’s often much easier to analyse your feelings when you’re not physically close to the person you’re thinking about.
If you don’t want to tell them, you should anyway. Even if you think you’re likely to split, it’s good to talk through what got you there.
You might just be surprised that it’s fixable after all, and if it’s not, you won’t be leaving with unsolved problems rattling round your mind.
The exception, and this is important, is if they’re abusive. Abusive relationships are always lonely, and if you think you might be in one, you should seek professional support to leave.
Taking action: how to manage loneliness in a relationship
If you’ve talked through your loneliness and you know you want to make things work, then it’s time to take action.
Here are some key things you can do to overcome and manage loneliness.
If there is a specific cause of your loneliness, work together to find ways for that to have less impact.
You might not be able to change things straight away, but you will be able to find ways to make them easier to deal with.
So, if you’re lonely because your partner is working away all the time, try and work towards changing that and see if they can plan to get a new job.
Or, if they’re working somewhere you’d like to live, could you think about moving, even if just for a year?
Until it does change, what could you do to make it better?
Perhaps agreeing to be honest if you’re feeling lonely, making sure you always make time to do something special together (with phones banned) when they’re home.
Some things are harder to get around. If you’re lonely because you’re suffering from a chronic illness, that’s going to make it difficult to commit to doing things together at particular times.
You don’t know when you’ll feel well and when you won’t. What is important is your intention.
Commit to making time to spend together and talking together, even if you can’t commit to when that will be.
It’s also vital that you don’t get caught in the trap of constantly doing things, rather than just being.
Many people are capable of having fun on a night out, but still feeling lonely.
Make time to be still and calm together. Enjoy sitting on the sofa while you both flick through the papers or a book. Cook a meal together. Go for a walk and grab a coffee while you watch the world go by.
You don’t have to be constantly talking or doing. The best way to not feel lonely is often just to be calm.
Loneliness in a relationship is very common and it can creep up without you knowing what’s happening.
At best it might make you feel unwanted and angry. At worst, it can contribute to mental health problems or even dementia.
Humans need to feel connected to other humans. And most of us expect to get a lot of that need met by our partners.
Lots of things can lead to being lonely. It usually comes down to not doing the things you used to do to feel connected, whether that was sex or a hobby or watching movies on a Sunday afternoon.
Sometimes, loneliness can develop because the relationship’s just not right. If that’s the case, it’s time to think about leaving.
But if the love is still there, just a little lost, you can reconnect and find it again by talking and starting to do things together that mean something to you.
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