Is there really more to life than this?
July 11, 2012 7:14 AM   Subscribe

How do I stop feeling so lonely, and be excited again about the rest of life?

On one level, my life is pretty great.. I have a good job in a career I'm happy with, am financially secure, healthy, have a solid group of friends, hobbies and the means/time to pursue them, etc. On another level.. I feel so desperately lonely, and am having a really hard time getting past that feeling.

When I was younger I seemed to care a lot less about this. I just figured it would take care of itself.. I was always on the shy and introverted side, though not cripplingly so, and was relatively happy to focus on academic and then eventually professional success. I worked hard at that, along with pouring time into several hobbies that consumed me. For years my love life was pretty much non-existent, but I didn't feel too bad about it. I guess I was following the "live a full life and love will find you" mantra. And it did, sort of. I eventually felt I needed to work a little less hard, met someone I fell in love with, got into my first long term relationship and was deliriously happy for a few years. Then the relationship petered out, probably in no small part due to my own lack of experience, self-awareness, emotional development, what-have-you (hindsight being 20/20 and all that). It's closing in on 2 years since that ended. I've been in therapy, started dating again, feel like I've grown tremendously in terms of understanding myself, and how to be in relationships, put my heart out again and had it beaten up a bit, etc. And now.. I'm lonely. A lot. Really lonely.

Ironically I'm starting to think that it's almost more a problem that everything else in my life is so good.. it just makes this particular outage all the more painful and noticeable. It's not like I'm struggling to feel successful professionally, or battling financial/health issues. I can't seem to stop feeling like I have this great life and that all I'm missing is someone to share it with.. and sometimes I even feel guilty for feeling this way, since I have so much to be grateful for. But those very things I ought to be grateful for are fading to gray, like I can't really get excited about them because they just seem like rather meaningless ways to while away time when what I really want is to be building a deep and satisfying romantic relationship with someone. How terrible is that? Like I'm hanging out with friends, and it's so hard to just enjoy their company without feeling sad watching the couples interact, or feeling like "what am I doing here not meeting new people".

I just feel like I've been alone for so long. I hear the advice to "stop looking for love, just live life and it'll find you" and I think "well that didn't work so well for most of my life". And now I'm closing in on the late 30's, and I feel like I've succeeded at everything except the thing that really matters. Ugh.

I've read this, and think there's some stuff there for me, but I also feel like I'm asking something slightly different..?

How do I stop letting my singleness and loneliness define me? How do I stop looking at every decision and action in terms of "how will this help me find someone?"
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
And now I'm closing in on the late 30's, and I feel like I've succeeded at everything except the thing that really matters.

I've bolded an unspoken assumption that needs questioning.

If your relationships with family and friends are sound and you have an interesting job that you like, you have a lot more going for you than many people. Those relationships can give you a lot of what you are looking for in a romantic relationship, and perhaps much more, in terms of permanence and empathy. But if you're stuck on the thing you don't have, you won't enjoy them. I will be the first one to say that it is a tough nut to crack.

Readings in Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, have helped me start chipping away at all of the "good life" assumptions that are fed to us from childhood on. Those assumptions still kick in for me but I'm a lot more likely now to roll my eyes and say "really?"

Also, when you're looking at others who are in relationships, keep in mind that all that glitters is not gold. Many people make private compromises to stay in relationships that I myself would find abhorrent.
posted by Currer Belfry at 7:27 AM on July 11, 2012 [18 favorites]

Maybe it's time to try therapy again, specifically to talk through these feelings with someone. Because it's perfectly fine to want a relationship and to feel like that's missing from your life and that's something you should address, but this: I feel like I've succeeded at everything except the thing that really matters runs a very real risk of getting in your way of finding a good relationship.
posted by EvaDestruction at 7:29 AM on July 11, 2012

". And now I'm closing in on the late 30's, and I feel like I've succeeded at everything except the thing that really matters

Why do you think that's "the thing" that "really matters"? I mean, sure, it matters, but you're putting a bit too much weight on it in terms of how it makes you feel "excited" about life.

I think you need to mix up your life a bit. You make it sound like your life involves "job, hobbies, hang out with friends" in some sort of routine.

Travel more. Go to more festivals and concerts in other cities. Visit friends you keep promising to see but haven't. Host more parties. You're always going to feel like things "aren't quite right"-- that's the nature of the human condition. The relief for it is to take the good moments and suck them up for all they're worth.

Many people make private compromises to stay in relationships that I myself would find abhorrent.

Yeah, AskMe has shown me that in spades.
posted by deanc at 7:35 AM on July 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

What are you doing to look for potential romantic partners? The people I know who found life partners and spouses in their late 30s took some active steps--they asked their friends to fix them up (that's how my husband met me), they did online dating (several of my friends), they did dating services (two couples I know), they took up new activities that were outside their comfort zones (one friend met his wife salsa dancing, one friend met her girlfriend rock climbing).

According to one of the above friends, actively seeking a partner helped assuage her feelings of anxiety about being alone, because it helped redefine the problem as a challenge she was working on, rather than a state of affairs in which she was powerless.

This might not be at all relevant to your situation, but I wanted to toss it out there in case. Best of luck to you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:45 AM on July 11, 2012 [8 favorites]

As much as you can focus on taking things one day at a time? I've been going through something painful lately and I've started to learn that it's better for me if I just think about what I have to do today. Try as much as you can not to think about the future. There in lies folly. Because you don't know what's going to happen, so why worry about it. Today is the only thing that you can control, so focus on today. I mean try and set your life up so that every few days you are doing something to further your dating, but then just wake up in the morning and think only about what you have going on that day. It's hard, but when you feel a thought about the future try and stop it. Instead of "omg, omg, omg, I'm going to die alone," try "hmm, I'm going to speed dating tonight maybe I should read the paper so I have some interesting stories to talk about." It's hard but if you really try you can limit your thoughts to just today and then you're happier and you are not needlessly worrying about something you can't control anyway.
posted by bananafish at 7:54 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think you need to clarify for yourself what you mean by "lonely". The previous question you linked to indicated that he lacked both close friends and a romantic partner. You speak of having friends but lacking a romantic partner.

I have been celibate for several years for medical reasons. I am less lonely than I have ever been. I have a close relationship to both of my adult sons. I have more generally satisfying social interaction. I had some very emotionally satisfying romantic involvements during my divorce. Lack of a romantic partner is not causing me to feel lonely.

A few thoughts: A lot of sexual relationships are not particularly emotionally satisfying. I was extremely lonely during my marriage. Though we screwed regularly, I basically could not get his attention. Other things mattered more to him. I can't tell you how many thousands of dollars we spent on furniture that we could have saved had he just paid attention to me. Shopping with him was the closest I could get to having his undivided attention.

I have since known men who were happy to make me a priority. They also knew how to meet my emotional needs, something my ex sucked at. I learned a lot and got needs deeply met for the first time in my life. It has helped sustain me through a lengthy period of celibacy. At some point, I expect to want attention again. I expect to feel lonely and needy again. But I am not really there yet.

So I think you need to figure out exactly what you are missing. I am guessing it is probably deep emotional attachment/stuff that you crave. That isn't necessarily exclusive to romantic situations. Preachers, rescue workers, and certain other professions seem to get strong emotional stuff from their work. Doing certain kinds,of volunteer work also gets strong emotional reactions from people. Volunteer at a homeless shelter or in a cancer ward or to help children in some way. Live to serve. Lots of people get a,lot out of helping others.

Then, when your tolerance for strong emotion has been raised by holding the hand of someone in really deep doo doo (and maybe crying with them or crying about it later when they no longer need your support), maybe you will better figure out how to make the romantic thing work.

Again: Just a few rambling thoughts, that didn't go exactly where I thought they would. Take what helps. Leave the rest.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 8:19 AM on July 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

How do I stop looking at every decision and action in terms of "how will this help me find someone?"

I think this might change if you really felt, deep down, that you were doing a lot of things and putting a concrete effort towards finding someone. If you really felt like you were doing enough in that area, then you might be able to relax and enjoy the things like just hanging out with friends.

But those very things I ought to be grateful for are fading to gray, like I can't really get excited about them because they just seem like rather meaningless ways to while away time when what I really want is to be building a deep and satisfying romantic relationship with someone. How terrible is that?

You know, American culture says that's terrible, but not every other culture agrees. Maybe it's that we've got such a cult of the individual here. But if you said this exact thing to people of many cultures around the world, they wouldn't say "that's terrible." They would say, "well, of course!" They would find it weirder if you didn't feel that way.

So... I think the way you feel is totally legitimate and okay. This is something you really want. It is okay to put a really strong effort towards getting it.
posted by cairdeas at 9:45 AM on July 11, 2012 [8 favorites]

Then the relationship petered out, probably in no small part due to my own lack of experience, self-awareness, emotional development, what-have-you (hindsight being 20/20 and all that).

If you're not a normally charismatic guy who is easy to get to know and like that the right women just flock to, it will be hard to find someone. Not impossible but it takes work and it takes heart, and that's the thing the majority of folks have to do. Based on what I see from a couple of dudes I know on the dating scene (nice enough, average looking, kind people), you can't meet someone you'll fall in love with and have a relationship with if you're not really thinking about how you want your life to be. You don't just stumble into it if you're not lucky, and you shouldn't leave finding a life partner up to luck.

Be proactive about your search for a serious relationship. Don't just hope you'll run into it. Figure out what you want the big picture to look like. Because you can distract yourself years on end with relationships you haven't invested in, but figure out what kind of woman you'd be really comfortable with and then go on match sites to find them.
posted by discopolo at 10:20 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, cairdeas is so right. I was having a conversation with myself in the shower that was similar. In the US, you're fed a lot of ideas about what the "healthy" approach to dating is and how you have to improve yourself and learn to be alone and then you'll be perfect and never feel bad if the person you're with leaves you and once you're all good on your own then the love of your life shows up and is just the cherry on the top. A bonus.

That way of thinking is a good way to protect yourself, but I suspect it's not actually healthy.

People need people to love. It brings out the best in us to have someone to love and care about. It makes us better to our neighbors, our families, our friends, and our communities.
posted by discopolo at 10:25 AM on July 11, 2012 [23 favorites]

Sometimes when I get in this desperate mode where I'm fixated on something that will complete my happiness (or so I think) I have to step back and remind myself ... the universe does not owe me a pony. It sounds harsh, but at times we are all kids whining and pleading for ponies. I want the pony, mommy get me a pony, it's not fair, why don't I have my pony? Pony could be financial success or recognition or plastic surgery or children or someone surviving illness or a perfect relationship. Anything.

Well, not many kids actually get ponies. Just because you don't have a pony doesn't mean you screwed up, or you aren't worthy. It doesn't mean you can't have good things in your life. You could have a puppy or a kitten, for instance, but you'll miss out if you're only thinking of why it's not as good as a pony.

I have wept in the shower because I did not get my pony. It is a primal want that goes right through the heart. I acknowledge the child-like hunger for what that pony represents, and I accept that the pony just isn't going to be mine. Paradoxically, this opens me to the reality of my life and the amazing things I do have. Grief is really powerful for healing.

I do think you can find the love you want, but this sort of pony-love you are craving may actually be hurting your chances. You have a definite hunger you want someone to satiate, and that can be intimidating to the person you are asking to feed you. You are effectively asking someone else to be your pony instead of seeing them for who they are. Real life love may always disappoint you because it doesn't compare to the pony in your head, leading to greater despair.

Next time you feel that anxious, desperate, clamoring energy, sit that part of yourself down and very kindly tell yourself that you aren't going to get that pony. It may really hurt - you may end up crying in the shower - but if you can let go you may be able to accept the life you have, instead of dwelling on the life you don't have.
posted by griselda at 10:35 AM on July 11, 2012 [22 favorites]

Looking at your assumptions is good indeed, and there is also a large societal component to them of which better comprehension and recognition, at least for me personally, has been essential in coming to a more individual acceptance of single/celibate life. Societal narratives affect us, we're human after all; social animals. One of the best articles I've ever read on this was posted recently. So many stuff written "about/for" singles feels like it's taking an anti-couple stance, and/or that the author (usually single) is somehow usng the article to defend their personal choices rather than to enlighten others. This article, however, really hit a balanced, informative, original voice (in spite of its rather tired title): In Defense of Single People. That's a Salon link, so if you use Firefox, it might be cut off where a "Continue Reading" link should be – if so, try it in another browser or view it with the "Print" option. This paragraph is especially good:
If marriage and couples are supposed to be this magic bullet, and your relationship is the thing that is supposed to define and make the world for you, that’s putting an enormous amount of pressure on that relationship. This book is not against couples — it’s really against the primacy of the couple, the anxious over-importance of the couple that actually makes couples fail because you can’t by definition make a whole world out of one other person. If you try, you’re shrinking your world and your existence in the hope it’s going to cure everything. It creates a lot of distress and at the same time it’s invalidating your other experiences you had when you were by yourself, when you were dreaming up other kinds of associations you might have.
Depending on your orientation, it's also good because both interviewer and interviewee are queer (their own word), so there's also discussion of the LGBT component of lack-of-singlehood narratives!

I'm coming up on my late 30s too, have been single for 8 years now. I grew up wanting a family; now I'm working on recalibrating my own narratives to fit reality. Which is that I'm single, childless, and doing well – like you I have a good career, home, friends, and also cats. And really, the more time goes by, the happier I am to be single. I'd love to be in a relationship, but I'm no longer looking for that, and am finally starting to change my long-term views as well. I spent so many years preparing for a relationship and children, believing, on the other hand, that singlehood isn't really something you need to plan for. But it is. The hardest part of being single is valuing yourself and your desires, in large part because of these narratives flooding us with images of "happiness in a loving couple" and anything for ourselves being "egotistical". Yes, sharing is great, happiness with another person is sweet! But what about happiness single? We're not egoists simply because we live alone – those of us who've been in past relationships with true egoists know that they get even worse when in a couple, whereas being single tends to actually soften an ego's hard edges.

There's practically no wider societal recognition of happiness or contentment single/celibate (especially celibate, yeesh), and so it can feel very lonely indeed, and if you don't realize that's part of the reason (which I didn't, for a very long time), you get caught up in that loneliness thinking – going along with the overabundant narrative – that the loneliness is because you're Not In Love. Once I realized that the loneliness also came from well-meaning people worrying that I was "still single", and me falling into that to respond "oh yes, I'm looking, just haven't found the right one yet," a lot of the loneliness subsided. I stopped referring to myself as "single" and just talked about what I do, enjoy, have done; I engaged as an individual rather than as half of an inexistent, future couple. No one asks me about my love life any more. People even began assuming that I'm married (really strange since I never wear any rings at all).

Long story short: what comes through in your question is that you don't want to be defined by the search for someone. It's scary, I know, I've been trying to wrassle this concept myself recently, but: start defining your life by what you already have. Filled with the people already around you, the ones who already love you; the things you enjoy. You say you've been having a hard time finding joy in those; I know that feeling too, I used to love sewing, cooking, and writing in my free time, and then I lost the taste for it until recently, when I started doing them just because I wanted to. No other reason at all. Loneliness will still hit, but it will be balanced by all the genuine fulfillment you have elsewhere. Experiencing this is wonderful.

It's a big perspective shift, and a frightening one, because it does entail Not Doing What Society Thinks Singles Do. And as simple as it sounds, we know it's not, because we know that going against society's narratives means that we're even further outside them, which means couplehood also might indeed be further from our reach. But then, if contented singlehood/celibacy/whatever is your reality, then that is your reality. It's so much healthier and more fulfilling to accept that; doing so opens up more possibilities, too. Motivation returns, because you have new purpose.
posted by fraula at 10:40 AM on July 11, 2012 [14 favorites]

OP, I feel for you. I am going through a very similar situation myself.

First, I want to validate your feeling that you want a loving, meaningful relationship in your life. That desire is a good, normal, natural thing. I have had people tell me things like "Oh, relationships aren't all they're cracked up to be", "You're lucky being single because then you can do whatever you want whenever you want", "Life isn't all about romance and relationships", and other various sorts of unhelpful advice. And 9 times out of 10, the people that say that to me are married or have been in a long-term relationship for some time. In other words, it's easy to forget how painful being chronically single can be for those who are in relationships now.

With that said, I have made a decision in my life to work on letting go of the whole dating and relationship process for now. This is very counterintuitive for me, because I'm wired to believe that lack of effort = unfavorable outcome. And that may be true to some degree, but my recent experience in trying really hard to find eligible men my age (early 40's) with similar interests has not yielded much more than frustration. So I have concluded for now that maybe the timing is not right, right now. As much as I hate to acknowledge it, dating and relationships are aspects of life that I have very little control over. I can do what I can to put myself into the stream of life, but I can't make other people like or love me.

So my stratagem du jour is to like and love myself as best I can. This involves taking care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Eating healthy, exercise, spending quality time with friends, etc. My biggest challenge of late is working on coming to believe that I am a dynamite gal and that there is a great guy (or guys) out there with whom I could share mutual attraction and compatibility. It seems like such a tall order given my experience. But I'm not going to stop hoping. I just need to relax a little and see where life takes me.

And when the going gets rough, I have to remind myself that "the best is yet to come".
posted by strelitzia at 10:59 AM on July 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

My experience with being lonely didn't have to do with the number of people in my life who liked/loved/interacted with me, or whether or not I was "keeping busy." I have been exactly where you are right now, down to the How do I stop looking at every decision and action in terms of "how will this help me find someone?"

It had to do with *my relationship with myself*, which entails good self-care: eating right, not drinking to excess, getting enough sleep, speaking up for myself, not doing things impulsively to simply please others, but doing what is truly my heart's desire (meditation helps with this). This may sound strange to you, if you haven't considered your relationship to yourself before. It includes how you talk to it in a kind way? Do you find yourself meeting your own needs in a healthy fashion?

Once I finally learned & understood how to be kind to myself, I was able to genuinely extend kindness & compassion to others, and thus found (or improved pre-existing ones) truly rewarding and emotionally fulfilling relationships.

Again, being kind to yourself results in an authentic self-acceptance, which is very attractive and attracts others, romantic and otherwise. That's the heart of the "Let it go, and love will find you" theory: focus on something else, because in so focusing, you will find y love for yourself.

Feel free to memail me, my heart goes out to you. Good luck, you're on a new path!
posted by Pocahontas at 6:27 PM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

The relationship does not solve the craving, that is unfortunately human nature and until you tame it, it will just redirect.

Worse, the relationship carries serious risk of subordinating your needs, wants, and identity to those of another.

That said, if and when you really want one, I second discopolo: be thoughtful, proactive, honest with yourself and intentional about what you want. It's easy to drift into situations that are more wrong for you than merely being single.
posted by ead at 9:27 PM on July 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

Not sure what all the negativity is about. A person to share the bed with is a pretty normal desire.

I say, since you seem to have the other aspects of your life under control, devote more time to finding a female friend. Try meet up, mutual friends, taking a class, OK cupid. Just do it in the background and don't think you will find someone tomorrow. Someone on wrote that in regards to online dating for a guy. I forget the exact numbers, but it goes something like this : You will send out a 100 emails. Maybe 15 respond, then 10 want to meet in person. Of those, only 1 will want to see you again.... until maybe a few weeks later she changes her mind... or you continue seeing each other. If she changes her mind, you start the process again. It's hard out there for single men. If you are really serious about dating, I'd day move to a major metro (if you are not in one now).

Also, I understand the cultural norm refrenced about how our culture overemphasizes the couple relationship, but as long as the OP maintains his other reatlationships and doesn't rely soles on his mate for companionship, I don't think it's such a big deal. If you do it right, a signifigant other can become a best friend- and what is wrong with loving your best friend?
posted by eq21 at 7:55 PM on July 15, 2012

*say not day
posted by eq21 at 7:55 PM on July 15, 2012

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