How to Cope with Loneliness and Longing to Have a Partner

There is a great loneliness at the heart of postmodern society. To give a brief history of loneliness, we would do well to remember that from the times of the earliest members of the species Homo sapiens, we have rarely hunted or homesteaded alone. In fact, it is likely the case that we developed larger, more complex brains (more neurons and connections) than other primates in order to be able to socially interact within relatively larger groups of up to 150 individuals. The larger the group, the more safety and protection, and the greater the odds of survival. But that’s a lot of names to remember, politics to track, and implicit and explicit rules on which to stay versed. Hence the evolutionary need for a larger, more complex brain. Language, also, emerges from and as the result of social interaction. In other words, human beings are a deeply social species. The brain centers that light up when our brains are in unstimulated default mode are the ones most heavily implicated in social intelligence and social interactions. Many humans still live in villages, pods and collectives that resemble much more closely the kind of social configuration that would feel most natural to a member of our species. However, due to a myriad of factors, humans in most postindustrial societies have been finding themselves in increasingly isolated worlds. Add COVID (and the increasingly remote post-COVID world) to that, and you’ve got a potent cocktail of loneliness for a staggering number of people, especially single adults in urban areas. Put simply, it’s easy to forget, but the COVID life of a single adult in a postmodern urban area is miles away from what would feel like a natural social situation to any member of our species. This is an important context to hold in mind when considering your own loneliness or the loneliness of any other human being. It makes sense that we are lonely. Most of us are starved for the level of connection that would be natural and healthy for a member of our species. I sometimes tell my clients, “Imagine pulling a wolf out of its pack or a deer out of its herd, or an orca out of its pod and telling it, ‘All the answers are within you and you just need to figure things out for yourself now.” That would be cruel, right? So why do we do it to ourselves? It is for these reasons that, over the course of my career in the mental health field, I have had countless conversations with people about how to build more connections, nurture the ones they have, and overall spend less time alone. Now, in the realm of connecting deeply and spending time with other humans, (generally speaking) no type of human connection seems more highly prized or sought after than the intimate partner connection. There are very good reasons for this. Why wouldn’t you want some attractive and wonderful person to know the deepest depths of your soul, be with you day and night, and also be available for regular sex? Sounds like a dream (especially when you’re single). Also, ever since the Romantic era, Western cultures have glorified the romantic relationship as one of life’s ultimate treasures. The primacy of the life partner increased with the rise of the idyllic nuclear family image of the 1950s. (I.e., If the only other adult you ever interact with at home is your partner, rather than other adults in a more communal situation, then that person is pretty darn important.) And the reality is that, in our current COVID-shaped world, the primary partner has become an even more incredibly important social pillar for many adults. And for those who are single, the primary partner seems to have become an even more incredibly important dream. Believe it or not, all of that context has been necessary to the suggestions I am about to offer. There is often something strangely salvific about tracing our current personal hell through broader social and historical contexts. Also, I want you to really understand and buy into where these suggestions are coming from. So here we go, your personal formula for reducing the pain of loneliness and longing for a partner right now, today: 1) Contemplate the natural, healthy level of ongoing social interacting and connecting in which the vast majority of your ancestors would have been engaged, and compare that to your current reality. How large is the chasm? Now take steps to increase the interacting and connecting you are doing on a daily and weekly basis right now. Face-to-face is ideal but Zoom, calling and even texting are better than nothing. I know it sounds like lentil soup compared to the five course meal of a romantic connection, but lentil soup still fills you up when you’re hungry and it’s good for you besides. It does the trick. I know you don’t believe me now, but you’ll be surprised. 2) Oftentimes, longing to have a partner is made more unbearable by a stream of limiting beliefs and cognitive errors about what will happen and what won’t ever happen. For example, “I am going to be lonely forever. No one will ever want to be with me.” Bullshit. There are a lot of other people out there in the world, and a lot of them are lonely, too. I would consider it to be highly strange, maybe even a little miraculous, if someone was actively desiring a partner, actively hanging out with their friends and family and maybe also making a little use of dating apps (to taste) and still spent the rest of their lives single. Get real. If you keep doing those three things, it will eventually happen, most likely over the course of a year, or maybe two years. So whenever you are starting to feel really down about being single, stop yourself and check in about the thoughts going through your head. Are those thoughts necessarily true in all cases? Would you say those things to someone you love? This practice won’t extinguish negative self-talk forever, but it will make you more of a pro at noticing it when it starts to happen, and making a different choice. 3) Since you’re going to commit to doing those three things over the next two years, you may as well use them to really live it up and do things that are much, much easier to do while you are single. Things like exploring all the potentialities of your full sexual expression and liberation, writing your novel, or really getting to the bottom of who you are at a deep level. Periods of singleness are often the greatest times of true soul-making in our adult lives. No partner is there to influence our taste in music, the way we like to dress, or our unique, unrepeatable perspective on life. Make a commitment to cultivating a deep sense of who you are with or without a partner. Be indulgent. Go on a retreat, if you can. See if you can get to the point of actually feeling grateful for this precious time when you get to focus on yourself and finding out who you are. 4) In that vein, your relationship with yourself is the single most important relationship of your life, so you may as well use this time to make sure it’s a beautiful one. You could read a book like How to Love Yourself (and Sometimes Other People) by Lodro Rinzler and Meggan Watterson. This ‘love yourself’ suggestion is not meant to bypass your very real need for social connection (see suggestion 1). Still, genuine self-love and self-compassion will truly change the overall quality and tone of your life. Don’t believe me now? Try suggestion 5. 5) Look at today’s date on the calendar. Then look ahead 365 days into the future. Decide that, starting today and for the next 365 days, you are going to ask yourself with every little decision, even seemingly insignificant or trivial ones, ‘What would someone who loved themselves do?’ Sounds simple, I know. But I’ve seen this powerful practice change the overall quality and tone of people’s lives over and over again. It will probably change your life course in a more loving direction, and who wouldn’t want that? Oftentimes these practices can bring things up for people, depending on their unique perspectives and life experiences. Working with a therapist or coach can really help you to knock this kind of thing out of the park. Click the link below to schedule a free 20-minute consultation call if you’re curious about how this might be helpful for you.