A client was talking about a man she’d been dating for almost a year. She liked him, they went out regularly, but the relationship wasn’t moving forward. “I find it difficult to open up,” she said. “And I’m afraid he’ll leave because he wants a committed relationship.”
I’m not a relationships coach. But relationships invariably come up in almost every coaching engagement I’ve had over the years. Of all the relational challenges clients talk about, the most painful, perhaps, is that of feeling lonely despite being in a romantic relationship or having a vibrant social circle.
Being in a relationship isn’t enough to make us feel connected. It’s being loved and seen in the relationship that matters, because these are the two needs of the human psyche.
But here’s the challenge: We cannot—will not—allow ourselves to be loved or seen if we carry fears or feelings of inadequacy or shame. Most of us carry them to varying degrees, even if we aren’t consciously aware of them. And as psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, it’s our deeply held beliefs, rather than our rational wishes, that drive our behavior.
Even though we may long for deep and open relationships, we react in ways that create loops and end up confirming our beliefs.
To make matters even worse, our rational brains usually justify our reactions (“it was their fault”; “the timing wasn’t right”; “that’s just who I am”; “I need to first settle down / lose that weight / send my kid off to college”) because it’s very hard to live with the dissonance between our wants and our actions. And so we stay stuck in this cycle of loneliness without knowing what to do about it.
The good news is that we can create vibrant and meaningful connections if we recognize the fact that our relationships with other people are a reflection of our relationship with our deepest selves. To be vulnerable, to have open and honest conversations, to be willing to be who we are despite our flaws and weaknesses, we need to first connect with this deeper self and then engage it in the process of growth. Here are three steps to do so and feel less lonely in your relationship.
1. Use Your Head
Notice patterns that keep showing up again and again, and get curious about it. Ask yourself, What am I trying to protect here? Researchers Tamara Ferguson, Heidi L. Eyre, and Michael Ashbaker call the parts of us that we’re trying to protect our unwanted identities because they elicit shame in us.
My client had a pattern of changing the topic or coming up with an excuse to leave every time the conversation with her date got a little intimate because she didn’t want to be emotionally vulnerable. She recalled specific moments from when she was really young of being ignored, misunderstood, and even ridiculed for expressing her emotions.
As she recounted to me, “I felt my emotions were wrong or too much, and so I totally numbed that part of my life and became very independent.”
2. Engage Your Heart
We all have a little child inside us that made sense of past experiences in whichever way they could with the limited capacities they had at the time. Now that we’re older and wiser, we need to revisit the hurt of that child so we can help them heal the wounds that keep driving the show.
This isn’t easy. We are, after all, wired to run away from pain, fear, and discomfort. However, self-compassion gives us the courage to be with our emotions, regardless of how painful they may be.
Once you’ve touched on the earlier wounds and identified a belief about yourself or others that you carry, give yourself the unconditional love, refraining from judgment, that can help heal emotional pain. Instead of trying to fix things or do away with the pain, reassure yourself that it’s okay. You will get through this—your life is a testimony to your strengths and resilience.
3. Change Your Habits
It’s now time to create a path to growth. That little child needs to learn certain behaviors that they weren’t aware existed when they were so focused on self-protection. Ask yourself, What will help me have the relationship I want? You’ll be surprised how easy it is to access your wisdom once you’ve given yourself the compassion you need.
My client knew she needed to learn to be comfortable with emotional connection. This became her path to growth. She began small—like extending her arm out across the table and letting his touch feed the sense of being loved.
She also saw that the structures she had in place in her life were geared toward self-sufficiency, so she realized that she needed to create physical space in her life for a partner. She began inviting him over on weekend mornings to cook and eat breakfast together, rather than grabbing something from the fridge and eating alone while working on her laptop.
If you feel lonely in a relationship, or in relationships in general, identify the patterns that keep repeating themselves and use this three-step process to develop your own path of growth. Maybe you need to learn to set boundaries, or connect with your needs because you’ve been a chronic giver all your life. Maybe you need to learn to take it slow and build trust because you tend to share too much too soon, which scares people away and leaves you feeling alone.
Or maybe, like my client, you need to get comfortable with vulnerability and take in the joys of connection because being alone, comfortable as it may sometimes be, goes against every grain of who we are as human beings.
At the end of the day, it’s all about the right balance; as developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., says, the central task of growing up is learning to be independent and connected at the same time. I like to think of it as riding a bike. When either pedal has greater force, we tend to lose our balance. But when both are in beautiful synchrony, we can enjoy the ride of our lives.