How to cope with never having been in love?
June 23, 2020 8:00 PM   Subscribe

Is there a way to cope when I've never been in love, am unhappy about it, have been unhappy about it for years, and don't see it realistically changing soon?

I'm 27, have never been in love, and hate it. I don't think this is a unique problem, but the amount of energy that I spend thinking about my lack of romantic success/how much I want a relationship is draining and not helpful.

Quarantine is cramping my style, and I'm trying to get a job working overseas to start in August or September (and will likely get it unless something goes completely wrong). That would be the earliest that I could technically start dating. I tend to uproot my life like this every few years, which isn't weird for someone in their twenties, but what does feel weird is that I don't have relationships during the "settled" times.

A lot of this is my fault - I have a hard time getting close to people and don't put myself out there much. I have never felt like I could really be myself around a potential partner. Only started dating when I was 20 and tend to have short-term, unsatisfying relationships, then go long stretches of time without dating.

I spend what feels like 60% of my time daydreaming about relationships, and this has been true for years. The whole "just learn to be happy single" idea doesn't feel like it's working - this is really painful and I want another way to approach it.

Are there some exercises/thought processes/philosophies that make unhappy singledom easier? Is casual dating something that I just have to accept whenever I get to this new country, even though I don't really like it? How can I calm down and lower the stakes for dating so I'm not constantly looking for "great love"? Can I/should I readjust my thoughts so I'm just not thinking about it all the time, even if the wanting is still there? Am I doing something wrong, am I just being too closed off?
posted by ChoiceSorbet to Human Relations (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The only people you could have a long relationship with are the ones you can be yourself around, so my first question is why were you dating people you didn't feel comfortable with? And start from there to figure out how to ID better romantic prospects.

When you start tensing up or feeling sad, can you mentally switch tracks and then go do something fun with people / that you can share with people / that you can tell people about? I guess another way to say it is to start with people you can be yourself around and then try to date them. Hobby groups is a classic suggestion. I guess virtual groups would be the go-to now? Hobby tumblrs? Cosplay Twitters?

Also, it's good to keep in mind that most relationships start with casual dating. Casual dating is the evaluation period where you figure out if you want to go to serious dating, then to a serious relationship, etc. It's one necessary step on the road to a serious relationship.

Since there's not much in-person meeting right now, could you get some video counseling?This sounds like something that therapy might give you better tools to deal with, and that can be done remotely.
posted by Ahniya at 8:26 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]

I'm 27, have never been in love, and hate it. I don't think this is a unique problem, but the amount of energy that I spend thinking about my lack of romantic success/how much I want a relationship is draining and not helpful.

I think I see a potential problem here: do you want the experience of being in love, or do you want the experience of being in a successful romantic relationship? Those two are not always the same, and separating them out might help you figure out what you want.
posted by corb at 9:32 PM on June 23 [19 favorites]

Hoo. I'm almost 36 and I'm not sure you want to hear that nine years from now you could be in the same boat but with grayer hair, but friend, I hear you.

I don't want to come on all "when I was your age" but around my mid-late twenties, I started to think in really practical terms of what I wanted to do if the things I truly, deeply want and pursue just don't work out for me. And like, sat with that, as a real possibility. For me, what helped was deciding that, setting aside specifics of job or relationship or health or money, what I mainly want is to be happy and live a good life, and I want it enough to be flexible about what it looks like.

So, it's okay to deeply want a partner, but if I never meet a partner, or if I do and then somehow end up alone again--what? Am I making a deal with myself to be miserable for the rest of my life? Jeez, that sounds terrible. And from there I thought about, okay, so how do I make a good life for myself either way? And came up with actual answers to that question, and pursued them.

At a certain point, also, it just became less painful to keep my hopes up. It's HARD to psych yourself up for the millionth OkCupid date, get cute, and show up with a simultaneous mindset of "maybe this is the one" and "but probably not" and be genuinely comfortable with both. Again, what helps me here is making the best of it--okay, maybe I won't meet the love of my life, but can I have a couple hours of enjoyable conversation? Can I see a new part of town? Can I have a tasty dinner? (And sometimes, no and no and no. But hey, if I tried, I can live with just having tried.)

I know you said "be happy single" wasn't working for you, and I really do hear where you're coming from--being happy while single and being happily single are two different things. It's hard, sometimes it really sucks. I'm still looking, and who knows what'll happen tomorrow or twenty years from now. But for me, really accepting the possibility that things might not work out that way for me helped me think about how to be happy in a way that feels more within my control. And it also helps me be more open to noticing and appreciating the things I do genuinely enjoy about being single, because it lowers the stakes from life-or-death "failure as a human" status.

(You may get advice to try therapy--I did a couple of times, I'm not sure it ever did much for me, but that doesn't mean it won't for you.)

Good luck, and good luck with the new job and country!
posted by jameaterblues at 9:33 PM on June 23 [34 favorites]

the amount of energy that I spend thinking about my lack of romantic success/how much I want a relationship is draining and not helpful

I spend what feels like 60% of my time daydreaming about relationships, and this has been true for years. The whole "just learn to be happy single" idea doesn't feel like it's working - this is really painful and I want another way to approach it.

To me, these are the crux of the issue. The problem is not that you’re single. It’s that you have painful, draining, obsessive thoughts about being single. Having repetitive thought patterns to this degree is something that therapy can help with, yes, but if you find that therapy and self help are not enough to change the thought patterns, I’d encourage you to talk to a psychiatrist to see if medication might also be a possible route to improvement.

My situation was different when I started dealing with obsessive thoughts, because I was already being treated by a psychiatrist with medication for depression, so when I did eventually get help for the obsessive thoughts, it was a matter of changing medication, not investigating it for the first time.

For me, the key to identifying that I needed to escalate how I was dealing with it was that I felt like I couldn’t redirect myself from the thought pattern; it was like a record player: the needle stuck in the groove and going over the same tracks again and again. I hear similar frustration and exhaustion in your question. If this resonates with you, I hope you’ll consider escalating your care so you can get the same relief that I have.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:40 PM on June 23 [9 favorites]

Do you have general anxiety and/or social anxiety? I'm about your age and I used to feel very similarly to you, until I discovered that I have a pretty significant anxiety disorder which somehow nobody had ever pointed out to me. I've spent the last couple years unraveling that in therapy, and while I haven't yet been much more successful on the love front, I'm finally starting to understand parts of why I've had so much trouble connecting with people romantically my whole life. It's still frustrating, and I wish these things came easier to me, but I feel like I understand myself much better now, and that understanding guides what I look for romantically and sexually.

(I am also queer and was confused about my sexuality for a long time -- not sure if that part applies to you or not, but if so, go easy on yourself! Figuring out your sexuality in a world built for straight people is not easy.)
posted by mekily at 9:41 PM on June 23 [6 favorites]

Based on my experience with this (another 36 year old here who might have written what you wrote down to uprooting my life every few years in my 20s but not finding someone in the decently longish interim periods):

- You don't have obsessively focus on learning to be happy single at the same time as you don't have to wait until you are not single to be happy. The world is not that black and white. I'd suggest putting in effort to meet someone when you FEEL like it, not putting in effort if you don't. Like any endeavor, you may feel more into it at some times than others and that's ok!

- Realize that it's natural to feel unhappy about the situation if not being single is something you want and just let yourself feel those feelings as they arise and don't judge yourself. Let yourself obsess for a bit and then go occupy yourself some other way. If you can't help yourself from obsessing, well, maybe just give yourself a pass and try to be kind to yourself. The human brain obsesses over things sometimes especially things we value and are told to value by society. Maybe it's an actual obsessive disorder but it could also just be a combination of frustration and anxiety, mixed in with some idealization?

- At some point the past few years I realized that I was often wandering into sort of casual relationships with people who I didn't really mesh with because, well, maybe I had low expectations? Or hadn't clarified my desires for myself? The last couple of years I've been more deliberate in searching out people with particular traits (eg, someone who.. wants to be in a relationship for the long term? Somehow that wasn't 100% a criteria before, but there are actually people of the opposite sex (or same sex/gender) who actively WANT that and others who don't). I feel like that has resulted in meeting more people/having somewhat longer relationships. So, I'd suggest not just accepting casual relationships, that may just waste time. I mean hey if it happens it happens but it doesn't sound like it's what you want.

Those are my grains of wisdom, such as they are. Good luck with the move. And hey, you're only 27 after all :)
posted by knownfossils at 11:28 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]

Your comment about excessive daydreaming made me wonder if you could benefit from learning about "maladaptive daydreaming."

I had never heard of this until a few years ago and when I did, it blew me away, explained so much about my thought patterns and their sources, and what I could about them.

If you're interested in learning more, check out Alan Robarge on YouTube (esp. Attachment Trauma and Longing). Good luck to you.
posted by Philemon at 4:51 AM on June 24 [7 favorites]

Since this concerns you, you should take it seriously. I'd see a therapist. I know many folks don't like psychotherapy but I take what you say thoughtfully. You will need time and a therapeutic relationship to begin to change it. I like the green, but this site is not enough.
posted by tmdonahue at 5:33 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]

I'm even older (and more hopeless) than anyone else in this thread, and I will honestly say that you do get used to the idea of knowing you're not going to have love in your life any time soon or probably far. Eventually, out of sheer exhaustion if nothing else, you'll stop caring. You know how if you're starving hungry for a long time and eventually your stomach realizes it's not getting fed today and stops being hungry? That happened to me. You CAN stop caring about how badly you want to be with someone when there's no hope, long enough. Eventually you will get tired of having those neverending thoughts going through the same troughs in your brain.

But I second jameaterblues on how to deal with your life. Do what you feel like doing. Try to focus on what your life is going to be without a miraculous person swooping in.

Also, it's a fucking pandemic. Nobody gets to find love right now. We're all on the pause button at the least.

Look, it might happen later, or REALLY later in life, or not at all. We don't know and as we all know, sitting in limbo sucks. I can't advise you on dating because I can't stomach doing it, but it is possible to finally get past that screaming inner needy of I NEED SOMEONE!!!!!!11111111111!!!!!!!!!!! I don't think of it as being happy single, so much as getting used to and accepting it rather than rebelling in your head against it. It'll take divine intervention for you to find someone, who knows if/when that might ever happen, so right now you have to deal with things are they are.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:29 AM on June 24 [5 favorites]

I don't think this is a unique problem

As a now-happily-married 58-year-old whose first proper kiss didn't happen until the age of 30: can confirm.

I have never felt like I could really be myself around a potential partner.

Then my best recommendation is to stop seeking people you see as potential partners and start seeking people you can really be yourself around.

My first kiss came as a total surprise because I'd honestly stopped looking for one. That relationship lasted four years, and taught me a hell of a lot about who I was and who I wanted to be and how to go about getting from one to the other. I honestly don't believe I could have dealt with it at less than 30.

this is really painful

Can confirm. But can also advise that learning to be content in your own skin really is something best done on your own time, not anybody else's, because not having done the work required for that is what poisons 90%+ of failed relationships.
posted by flabdablet at 7:05 AM on June 24 [9 favorites]

So, I was frustrated that I'd never 'fallen in love'.
It wasn't until I accidently did, that I realised I had never given myself the opportunity to.

That saying, 'falling in love', that is a metaphor for the loss of, or letting go of control.

I was waiting, getting to know someone before I trusted them, or let them see who I really was. But, if you wait long enough, even if someone does turn out to be a good trustworthy person, that's not trust, that's familiarity and experience. Trust is, for example, when you 'trust' someone to be 'trustworthy' even before you fully know them. That doesn't mean you keep trusting them if they can't uphold them, but that you go in, trusting them with your heart and that they'll be decent, before you know for sure.

Is part of you going, woah, hold on, but if you're wrong, that could really *hurt*?
Yes! Yes it could!
And that's fundamental. For me, if I haven't trusted them enough that it would hurt if they aren't who I hope they are, then I haven't put myself in the conditions in which I *can* 'fall in love'.

First time, was with a tourist. I knew they were leaving the country in 3 months, and somehow this gave me the freedom to go, hey. I don't really need to put the emotional brakes on, because they're leaving anyway in 3 months. I can be totally upfront and honest about how I am, because even if they end up not being into 'me' well, they aren't going to be in my social group. Finally, there's no reason to not just make hay while the sun shines, and go do a bunch of fun summer tourist things with them, in my own town.
I fell HARD.

And yeah, it hurt, and yeah it was kind of bewildering because they weren't thaaat well matched (oh, and sexual chemistry! Very much a component, but I'd had that before).

But, at least I was then able to see the ways that I'd been sabotaging myself from falling in love. That I couldn't fall in love without being candidly myself, and I couldn't fall in love without putting a branch of trust & love out, before knowing whether the other person was fully trustworthy or would love me back.
posted by Elysum at 7:11 AM on June 24 [6 favorites]

The thing about loneliness is that it's like hunger. You're not supposed to be sated by love except for really temporarily. A couple of hours later you're supposed to start hunting for the loved one, or if they are still in the room with you, trying to reconnect with them. Hunger is a biological mechanism designed to get us to find food and eat, loneliness and love hunger is a biological mechanism designed to get us to go and connect and either manipulate other people into meeting our needs or manipulate us into meeting their needs. "Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new." So it happens that a great many, likely most people, go through life feeling like they just aren't loved and they just aren't connected properly and struggling once again to feel heard and to feel touched.

Being in love does not change that. A lot of people think of being in love as only the successful early bonding stage prolonged indefinitely, but in fact there is a lot more to experiencing love than that temporary stage and many of those experiences are like an un-slaked hunger. There's the unrequited love version of love, and the why-did-I-marry-you-anyway-and-why-the-heck-do-I-still-love-you stage, and the omg, I am being a needy bitch version, and the I hate you forever for dumping me and I can't stop obsessing over it version. The romantic holding hands and kissing in the rain and the someone-to-come-home-to experiences are only parts of the whole experience of being in love, and they are often fleeting experiences where you are second guessing the whole thing as they happen. I'm not in love, it's just an infatuation. But do they really love me?

Can I get you to fantasize what you mean by being in love and describe exactly what that ideal state comprises? You might be looking for the early romantic bonding high. You might be looking for the purpose you get when living for someone else, like where it gives you incentive to go to work because you have to buy diapers for the baby. You might be looking for the role of being the tragic hero loving from a distance. You might be looking for some combination of roles. Once you know which part of being in love you want you can start looking at your motivation and realistic strategies to get those things.

If you want the bonding romance you have a completely different challenge than if you want the silent reliable presence in the background. Both finding love and dealing with not finding it will require completely different strategies depending on what kind of love you miss the most.

It is harder for people who need a high amount of control to find love and experience it. If you don't much care who you are with and what they do and where you are as long as they are generally nice to you, you can as easily fall in love with a motherly fifty-year-old woman as with a cool fifteen-year-old punk who shows you a good time at the concert, even though you never really could hear anything they said over the sound of the music and the fans.

But if you are someone who is looking for someone to care about you, and as soon as you find someone to do it you'll glom on them, it is much harder because caretakers are in shorter supply than most other groups. Like tops people who take that role are often natural bottoms/ache to be the recipient of loving but take the role that gives them the most control.

And then there is the problem of if you really just want a cool girlfriend who is the kind of girlfriend that will make all the other guys jealous of you, because that's like wanting the love high. It tends to lead to falling out of love with a bump as soon as a better prospect comes along and the intensity of having a new toy wears off. Heaven help the poor woman if one day she leaves the house without make up. You'll be appalled and soon she will be feeling very unloved indeed.

I'm going to suggest that you examine just what you want out of a love relationship without condemning yourself for it, and parse it down to the part of the relationships you've already had that worked for you. You've had unsatisfying relationships. What was it they lacked? Would you rather be in a relationship with someone that didn't love you than in no relationship at all? Would you rather be in a ldr with someone who loved you, but whom you only saw once a year if you were lucky? What about in a high maintenance relationship, where they loved you but they required a lot of constant effort? How about someone who was perfect in every way except that they loathed sex and would never ever do that with you?

The danger is when we sometimes see something we lack as the solution to our unhappiness. If you were in love you'd be happy is a concept on par with if you got your dream job you'd be happy, or if you lost twenty-three pounds you'd be happy. That kind of happiness is an illusion, and yet, "I just need someone to hold me," is not an illusion because we get skin hunger and warmth hunger and acceptance hunger, and if we lack it long enough and badly enough we can die.

There is a huge amount of unpacking that needs to be done, and meanwhile you are suffering. Unpacking just what you want out of love is, I think, the first step to reducing how much it makes you suffer. One classic way people deal with needing love is to get a dog or join a team of some sort. Neither of them brings an absolute all consuming love. The dog won't fill your need for sex or the legacy of children or intellectual stimulation, and the team you join won't meet all your needs either. But finding sources for some of what you need like this can help bleed off some of the pressure of wanting from inside you. If you unpack you can figure out which ones of your needs can only be met by a significant other and which ones could only be met by giving you magic powers and which ones can be met by people that you love fraternally or spiritually.

I think if you cast a wider net you have a greater chance of finding some of what you need and crave, and actually experiencing some love and feeling less pain. Most people use a variety of strategies, like crushing on J-Hope, making out with their girl-friend, coaching their sister in calculus, doing emotional core dumps in their journal, and going home to mom when they need cookies and a good scolding. That's the strategy of not putting all your eggs in one basket, nor pinning your hopes on one enchanted evening when they meet a stranger. It's a very workable strategy and it leaves you much less vulnerable.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:54 AM on June 24 [15 favorites]

I very firmly agree with Jane the Brown. Reaching out to friends and family is really key, forming strong relationships that are not romantic.
posted by Dynex at 10:49 AM on June 24

I'm 43 and single and I've always been single and I agree with the MeFite who mentioned the difference between happily single and happy while single. I don't think I will ever be happy that I'm single, that I'm too fat or too fussy or too boring or too some kind of wrong to find someone to love me romantically. Why would I ever be happy about that?

But pre-COVID, I was, at least, living a happy life despite being single. I have an interesting job that pays me well, I live in a home I really love, I have good friends that I see often to do fun things. Filling up my life with stuff to do gives me a lot less time to ruminate on the fact that nobody loves me. And when I'm doing fun stuff, living my best single life, being single doesn't bother me so much because there isn't so much of a hole that it feels like needs filling.

Now, during COVID, that's all a lot more difficult, and there are days I get upset and cry. Not all day and not every day, but days and times when it happens. In these dark times, I find obsessively playing games on my cell phone works because it shuts off that portion of the brain. It's a complete damn waste of time, but it's better than the alternatives.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:14 PM on June 24 [4 favorites]

Thank you to everyone for your generous responses. There's a lot that I need to think about. A couple people asked if I have anxiety or would consider therapy - yes and yes. I don't have a relationship with a good therapist right now, but am working on finding help. Also, mekily mentioned sexuality: I'm a bisexual woman, but not sure yet how that plays into things. I do feel like I need men's approval more and am "playing a role" to get their attention, but at the same time am more disappointed when a woman rejects me?

About asking what I want: If I had to choose, I'd probably take falling in love/early romance over a stable long-term relationship. What keeps me up at night is the idea that I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and never have that more emotional experience. And if I'm being honest, no matter how much I want it, I'm probably not ready to have a long-term relationship. It's frustrating - I need to do the work, but what is the work, and why haven't I got it done if I've already been in therapy before for a long time? That's probably a question for my next therapist that I can really work with.

Just some initial thoughts. Thank you again to everyone for writing.
posted by ChoiceSorbet at 1:40 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]

Falling in love/early romance aka limerence is a lot of fun and I hope you find it! And if it leads to long-term, whatever that means, good for you, if you're happy. But having been "in love" (and in several LTRs) more times than I can count--make a happy life for yourself. Make a comfortable place to lay your head ... we sleep almost 1/3 of our lives and you deserve a good bed. Take care of your health. Follow your passions. Surround yourself with good people. Moving internationally is great! I guess what I'm saying is, you can't control "love." But you can control (or at least try to control) everything else that makes you happy. Be happy.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 4:27 PM on June 24 [2 favorites]

"tend to have short-term, unsatisfying relationships" - don't do this. I understand the desire to see where it's going and whether or not it will improve perhaps. But relationships like these are such a soul killing drain. No wonder then you go single for a long time. I've been there too. Start dating someone who is clearly not suitable for me, and keep dating them even after realizing that, because - what if things improve? What if I explain my needs in a better, clearer way? Or, we do have so much in common - what if they grow on me if I give them a chance and more time? No, no, no. It has never worked! That is until I became a lot more ruthless. I'd meet any decent-seeming person for a coffee. If I didn't feel interested at all - no second date. If I wasn't sure - OK, second date, but that's it (if still not sure/not interested after that). Rinse and repeat until I met someone I liked right away. We've been dating for over a year now. I'm 42.

Maybe try to approach dating in a bit more structured way? If you meet someone once or twice and don't feel excited/happy to go out with them again - abort the mission. Do not enter into a relationship with them, even a short-term one. This way you'll have time and mental space to meet someone new again, and soon! Dating is after all a numbers' game, and the more people you meet in a context of potential dating material, the more likely that you actually meet someone who you feel like yourself around, and who makes you want to see them again asap!

And also meeting people through activities as suggested above is a great way to go about learning about new people in a more relaxed atmosphere. Best of luck!
posted by LakeDream at 10:10 PM on June 24

According to this famous study, subjects were likely to develop an attraction to someone when they were doing an activity that already stimulated arousal. The two times I've fallen DEEPLY in limerance were when I was living in a foreign country with many cultural differences where I barely spoke the language and I was pretty uncomfortable on a daily basis. So maybe in addition to trying meet ups to find someone who has similar interests, you should also try to do a few things that take you out of your comfort zone to spark those feelings. Neither of my relationships worked out and one of them ended reeeally poorly, but if you want to experience limerence then it's worth a shot. Public speaking? Improv classes? A long vacation in a foreign country? Group skydiving? It's up to you.
posted by Citruscitrus at 3:46 PM on June 25

I had similar feelings in the past and reading David Burns' Intimate Connections helped.
posted by Tehhund at 4:24 AM on June 27

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