Many of us assume that we have to be alone to be lonely, but that’s not the case—a study among older adults showed that 1 in 6 married people “report moderate or intense feelings of loneliness.” But what exactly does it mean when you’re feeling lonely in a relationship, and does that mean you should call it quits? Not necessarily, says Alysha Jeney, a millennial relationship therapist and the owner of Modern Love Counseling. She says that loneliness is a state of being, and it’s not just boredom—it’s an inability to connect.
Meet the Expert
Alysha Jeney is a millennial relationship therapist and the owner of Modern Love Counseling in Denver. She also a co-founder and relationship expert at Modern Love Box, a subscription box meant to inspire the modern relationship.
Why We Feel Lonely in a Relationship
“People are lonely in relationships or in social groups because they can’t be themselves with the people and environment that they surround themselves with every day,” says Jeney. “Loneliness is emotional and mental isolation.” Some signs to look out for include feeling unable to be yourself with your partner, lacking genuine intimacy, and hiding your true feelings and likes. This state can stem from many different things, including depression, grief, and anxiety.
Jeney says that every relationship is different, but if you’re feeling lonely, it can be one of two things. The first is that you may be with the wrong person—even if you may match well on paper. Because of this, you may have been unable to let your partner connect with the authentic you, so you have nothing in common or don’t even have similar values or needs. The second situation is that you are actually with the “right” person, but have been too afraid to let them in. “You may be experiencing isolation because you haven’t taken risks at being vulnerable and shown them the real you, so you aren’t connecting deeply,” she says. The positive news is that if your relationship falls into the latter group, there are actually ways that you can combat these feelings.
With the help of Jeney and a few other experts, we rounded up six ways to stop feeling alone in a relationship.
Practicing mindfulness allows you to become attuned to whether you’re being yourself or playing a role in your relationship. It’s particularly effective because it helps you to connect authentically to others, says Jeney. “The more you can be yourself around others, the more opportunity to make genuine and fulfilling connections,” she explains. The act of making yourself vulnerable and letting someone in empowers you (this is why therapy can be helpful). Seeing the “real” you empowers you, comforts you, connects you, and even grounds you.
Take Vulnerable Risks
In order to show your true self, you have to take some risks. “It’s not comfortable, it’s not always safe, but this will help you determine who will support you and who will not,” Jeney says. You can do this by being emotional in front of your S.O., or it can be as simple as sharing a story with them. When you share a piece of yourself, it combats your loneliness since you are open to finding a true connection. This is why we feel close to pets on another level—it’s because when we do something silly or disgusting in front of them, we trust they will love us unconditionally. “This is what you are also needing from humans,” she says.
If you're feeling lonely in your relationship, take the time to go inward and be honest with yourself about why this may be. Some people are addicted to external stimulation, according to Andrea F. Polard, Psy.D. "We just feel bored and blame the other for not being more exciting," she explains in an article for Psychology Today. When this is the case, the best thing you can do is acknowledge that you may be feeling this way. Polard also suggests turning to meditation to help you be more mindful of the present. You can walk in nature, listen to a water fountain, or garden, for instance. "Become still in yourself and notice the ordinary gifts of life," the psychologist writes.
Don't Assume You're Understood
You’re probably not dating a mind reader, but many times, we make the assumption that people should know what we need or what hurts us—especially when it’s a partner we’ve been with for a long time or are married to. “Ask for what you need in a calm, gentle, and vulnerable way,” explains Jeney. “Once your person understands what you need, it is easier for them to comfort you, which in turn dissolves your emotional loneliness.”
Learning to ask for what you need is key. “If you spend a lot of time going with the flow and not putting your two cents in, it may be time to start piping up,” says Jeney. Expressing your feelings and thoughts will help you feel more valued in your relationship because this communication is how you achieve mutual respect. And guess what—you don’t even always have to agree with the other person’s opinion.
As important as speaking up and being honest with your partner is in a healthy relationship, it's equally important to listen to what your S.O. has to say and work to understand their perspective, according to Polard. She explains that "communicating well does not predict satisfaction in a couple, but that a satisfied couple communicates well." Because of this, even if you and your partner are able to improve your communication skills, you still might not feel less lonely in your relationship. However, Polard notes that if there is still love in your hearts for one another, you can work towards reconnecting.
Hsieh N, Hawkley L. Loneliness in the Older Adult Marriage: Associations with Dyadic Aversion, Indifference, and Ambivalence. J Soc Pers Relat. 2018;35(10):1319-1339. doi:10.1177/0265407517712480
Barnes S, Brown KW, Krusemark E, Campbell WK, Rogge RD. The Role of Mindfulness in Romantic Relationship Satisfaction and Responses to Relationship Stress. J Marital Fam Ther. 2007;33(4):482-500. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2007.00033.x