We don't get into relationships to be (or feel like we're) by ourselves, so when it happens, it can surface tough emotions. There’s a subtle distinction between feeling alone and feeling lonely within a relationship, though. According to marriage and family therapist Joy Berkheimer, PhD, loneliness is more about feeling unseen and disconnected, while being alone is feeling like you’re on a team by yourself or like your partner just doesn’t quite understand you.
“Lonely feels like, 'I’m in a room with you, but everything else is important to you, and it’s like I don’t exist or move you in any way,' [whereas] being alone is like, 'I have to make life work without you being an equal or contributing partner or just without you,'” says Dr. Berkheimer.
"Being alone [in a relationship] is like, ‘I have to make life work without you being an equal or contributing partner or just without you.'"—Joy Berkheimer, PhD, therapist
However, both feeling alone and feeling lonely can erode a relationship and raise questions about whether it's worth staying in the relationship in the first place. Below, find seven reasons you might find yourself feeling alone (or lonely) in a relationship and intel on how you can create or recreate a team dynamic with your partner.
7 reasons you might be feeling alone or lonely in a relationship
1. You and your partner are living parallel lives
Life can get busy, and if you have a demanding work schedule or other commitments, it can be tough to carve out dedicated time for dates and bonding with your partner. “If a couple is too busy or hasn’t prioritized their relationship or made time for each other, they could be leading parallel lives,” says Gottman-trained couples therapist Kimberly Panganiban, LMFT.
Maybe the only time you get together is fleeting, so you find yourself spending a lot of time by yourself. The more you and your partner function like ships passing in the night, the less connected you'll feel—and the more alone or lonely as a result.
2. You don’t feel as if your partner supports your personal goals
Another reason you might find yourself feeling alone in a relationship is if your partner doesn’t seem to care, isn’t supportive, or doesn’t make active efforts to help you achieve your goals. “This happens when you feel like you have to make your life—or the thing that's most important to you—work by yourself,” says Dr. Berkheimer.
For example, perhaps your goal is to write a novel, so you need some dedicated time in the evenings to brainstorm or draft notes. If, after expressing this need to a partner, they still play loud music at night or expect you to handle time-consuming nighttime chores, it may feel like they're not acknowledging or supporting your goal, leaving you alone in that endeavor.
While they aren't necessarily required to help you write the novel, showing some basic support is part of being in a healthy relationship, says Dr. Berkheimer. In this example, that might look like leaving the house in the evening to give you some uninterrupted time alone or preparing or cleaning up after dinner so that you can get started earlier.
3. You’re the only one working toward you and your partner's shared goals
Besides having individual goals, couples often set goals together; think: getting married, buying a home, having kids, or traveling the world. If you feel solely responsible for working toward or accomplishing one or more of these mutual goals, you could wind up feeling pretty alone or lonely in your relationship, says Dr. Berkheimer.
For instance, if you and your partner are both looking forward to a big bucket-list trip, but you're the only one adjusting your spending habits to focus on saving for the trip, you could feel like you're on an island by yourself... despite the relationship underscoring the trip.
4. Your values don’t align
Shared values are part of the foundation of a healthy relationship, allowing you and a partner to feel like you belong to a cohesive team. If, as time goes on, you find that your values don't align with your partner's in the way that you thought, or perhaps your or your partner's key values change, you might feel as if you're not quite on the same wavelength, says Dr. Berkheimer.
Perhaps one partner has recently turned to religion, and the other doesn't get it; or you and your partner find out that your preferred parenting styles are deeply different. The resulting chasm could leave you feeling alone in your relationship.
Certainly, that's not to say you have to like all the same things as your partner; some differences in terms of hobbies and interests are, in fact, a good thing and can help you both grow. But if your core values or what you deem important turn out to be significantly different or have changed over time, you might begin to question the feasibility of your partnership.
5. You feel like you’re working to change your partner
If your relationship has taken on something of a parent-child dynamic or that of a mentor and mentee—where you feel like you're responsible for shaping your partner into the person you need them to be, or for teaching them critical skills—you could feel like you don't really have an equal teammate in your relationship, says Dr. Berkheimer.
Perhaps your partner had a very different upbringing from your own or never learned basic cooking or financial-management skills—and now it’s your "job" to supply them with that knowledge. That kind of teaching role can feel as isolating as a relationship in which you don't interact much at all.
6. You and your partner have begun to turn away from each other
A feeling of disconnection can happen when you or your partner feel like your "bids"—aka simple verbal or nonverbal requests for connection—are not welcome or reciprocated. These bids can include things like physical affection, jokes, questions, and sexual overtures, but no matter what form they take, if you begin to sense that your partner is not receiving or returning them, it can create a pattern of "turning away from each other," says Panganiban.
At that point, it's important to figure out why you and your partner have fallen into this pattern—whether it's anxiety, or a mismatch of how feelings are expressed or processed, or something else entirely, says Panganiban, because "when people stop making bids or they stop even seeking that connection, that's really when loneliness can set in."
7. Your partner just doesn't understand your life situation
If your day-to-day reality is vastly different from your partner’s, they just might not be able to relate to or understand how you experience life, says Dr. Berkheimer, and that can leave you feeling very lonely. Just think about it: If you have a partner, and you want to be able to have conversations about the things you're experiencing, but they just can't fathom [your reality], you could be at a loss for real connection, she says.
For example, if you're a person of color in an interracial couple, and you experience micro-aggressions and want to share this with your partner, but they just can't relate, you might feel as if you don't have a real teammate. This could lead you to bring up the topic less and less, which can just further contribute to feelings of loneliness.
Another example? Perhaps you have children, and your partner doesn’t. In this case, your partner may not understand the challenges and responsibilities inherent in parenthood, which could feel isolating, says Dr. Berkheimer.
How to deal with feeling alone or lonely in a relationship
Much like any relationship problem, how you manage feelings of aloneness or loneliness in a relationship has much to do with the root cause. If, for instance, you learn that you and your partner have vastly different value systems or that your goals are incompatible, it may be wise to go your separate ways. But in most cases, the answer has more to do with good communication, empathy, and compromise.
“If you can communicate your feelings and share with your partner what [feeling alone] feels like, it could motivate them to learn how to support you more effectively or make you feel validated in what you’re experiencing—even if they can never feel what you feel,” says Dr. Berkheimer.
One helpful way to encourage empathy from a partner is to use a comparative analogy (with something in their life) to drive home the magnitude of the feeling, she adds. For example, perhaps your partner looks forward to a weekly pickup soccer game as a way to unwind; in this case, mentioning that feeling unsupported in your goal to write a novel (or whatever it is that's making you feel alone) leaves you feeling as badly as they do when they miss a game could help illustrate your point.
If it feels too challenging to share your feelings openly and connect with your partner, seeing a couples therapist could also help facilitate those conversations, says Dr. Berkheimer.
From there, re-upping or establishing new goals as a couple—where both people feel heard, seen, and responsible—is a smart way to work together and feel less alone in the process, according to Panganiban. Scheduling dedicated time to connect can be helpful, too. "During those periods, you can work on finding those shared interests or common goals to work toward and discuss ways that you can begin to prioritize your relationship and make more time for each other," she says.
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