You may assume that only single people feel lonely. But that isn’t the case. You can be in a romantic relationship and still feel tragically, sadly alone.
While research shows marriage itself can protect against loneliness, not all partnerships do, says Jane Greer, PhD, a marriage and family therapist in New York City and author of What About Me: Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship. “It can be because something is not right with your relationship, or it can be due to a void you have encountered in your own life that you expect your partner to fill,” she says.
Whatever the cause, loneliness in a relationship is common. A Pew Research Center survey found that almost 30% of those dissatisfied with their family life feel lonely all or most of the time, compared to just 7% of those who are happy with their family relationships.
Another 2018 survey by health insurer Cigna found that 2 out of 5 Americans report that their relationships (including romantic ones) aren’t meaningful. The pandemic itself may have worsened these feelings. “Now, more than ever, we’re dependent on our inner circle since we’ve been less able to get out and fill our lives with activity,” Greer says. “We don’t have that casual chitchat in stories, or the ability to easily meet friends for coffee. As a result, if you already feel lonely in a relationship, it can become even more pronounced.”
It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between feeling lonely and being alone. “Healthy solitude -- where you carve out time for yourself away from others, including your partner -- is a form of self-care, and it’s really important,” says Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. “Loneliness itself is different. You feel disconnected and isolated from others, even when you’re physically with them.” It’s this sort of emotion, he says, that is linked to depression, anxiety, even heart disease and premature death.
How to Tell If You’re Lonely in a Relationship
The biggest sign of loneliness is that you feel worse, not better, when you’re with your partner, Greer says. “You feel completely alone, unsupported, insecure, and vulnerable.”
Be on the lookout for these red flags:
- You no longer share details about your day. “In a healthy relationship, you can’t wait to tell your partner all the ingredients of every day, the good, the bad and even the silly,” Greer says. “But when you don’t have a desire to, or you do try to tell your partner, and they do not seem to listen, then you realize that you are navigating all the nuances of daily life by yourself.”
- Your sex life has ground to a standstill. Intimacy plays a big part in getting and staying connected, says Sheenah Hankin, PhD, a psychotherapist in New York City. It becomes a vicious cycle. “You don’t feel close to your partner, so you don’t want to have sex, but then when you’re not physical together, it reinforces your feelings of isolation.”
- You try not to spend time with your partner. If you find that you’re constantly on social media, or you use kids or even work as an excuse not to be with your significant other, it may be a way to avoid problems, including loneliness, in your relationship, says Tina Tessina, PhD, a psychotherapist in Long Beach, CA and author of Money, Sex and Kids. You may also adopt unhealthy habits, like drinking more or overeating, when you’re around one another.
- You feel lonely even if you’re in the same room with them. If you sit together at the dinner table and have nothing to say to one another, it’s a sign that you truly feel alone, Greer says. You also may be reluctant to share thoughts and feelings with your partner for fear of being dismissed or judged.
What to Do if You Feel Lonely in Your Relationship
If you feel like you’re going through life alone, take these steps:
Talk to your significant other. It’s important to let them know how you feel. “The key is to start the conversation on a positive note, so your partner doesn’t feel attacked,” Greer says. Say something like, “I would like to spend more time together, and to share more things with you than what we’ve been doing.” From there, you can come up with ideas: an at-home date night or even a weekly walk. “The key is to carve out a small chunk of time on a consistent basis without distraction so you can focus on one another.”
Touch one another. When you physically touch your partner -- whether it’s a caress as you walk by or a full cuddle -- you release a hormone called oxytocin, which promotes bonding, Greer says. That’s one reason you may feel close to your partner after you have sex.
Practice mindfulness. “It helps you get in touch with yourself, which is important,” Tessina says. If you’re disconnected from yourself, it can make loneliness worse. Try deep breathing, a walking meditation, or simply stopping what you do every so often to take a few breaths and check in with yourself.
Try a gratitude exercise together. Each night, sit down together for 10 minutes and each say one positive thing to the other. “It can be something as small as the fact that your partner took out the garbage,” Henkin says. “The key is to find things that you appreciate about one another. This can help build connection.” At the end of each session, address anything that bothers you about your partner and discuss ways to make changes.
Revisit expectations. “Many of us still work from home and expect our partners to be more available to us than they realistically are,” Greer says. “They may be in the middle of a work project, or have to deal with small children, and can’t be physically and emotionally present at that moment.” If you both are stuck in the house together, she suggests scheduling time together, like lunch or a midafternoon coffee break, where you can reconnect.
See a couples counselor. If you’ve tried all the above steps and you still feel lonely, Tessina suggests visiting a therapist together. “Sometimes, you need a set of outside eyes to help you both figure out why one or both of you may feel so lonely,” she says. Your doctor may be able to suggest someone. You can also find a therapist on the American Psychological Association’s website.