Laura Hull, MA, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Valentine’s Day week has the same holiday prerequisite as most other “major” holidays, the prerequisite being the potential to make us feel miserable. It can be a time of fun and celebration or a painful reminder of what is missing in life, in this case, a romantic partner. For years, I never really knew the whole story behind Valentine’s Day. All I knew was that as a child it meant trading Valentine cards with classmates and maybe the occasional love note with the classroom crush. Ah! If only life could stay so simple! Even though I now know the “real” story of how we came to celebrate Valentine’s Day, I am still not convinced it is much more than a conspiracy between jewelers, florist, candy companies and card companies to make us part with more money after a frenzied Christmas buying season. By the beginning of February, commercials run frequently on television and radio, reminding us that we need to show our love by buying expensive jewelry or sexy lingerie. The daily commercial reminders that “every kiss begins with Kay” and fluff news stories reporting that the average American spends $126 on Valentine’s Day for the one he/she loves amuse me, in a nauseating kind of way. If we don’t have that “someone special” in our lives to share in all this commercialism, it is easy to stare in the mirror and picture a big “L” in the middle of the forehead. The “L” does not refer to “loser”; it refers to lonely.
Most of us have periods of time in our lives when loneliness is an issue. Life hands us enough change that require us to shift and at times leaves us lonely. In a previous article I wrote around the holidays, I mentioned some common situations in which we can find ourselves dealing with the reality of loneliness. Job changes, relocation, times of physical or emotional separation from those we love are just some of the situations in which we can find ourselves struggling. From an outsider’s perspective, we may appear to “have it all”; a good job, loads of friends, a plethora of activities/projects to which we dedicate large amounts of time. However, the abundance of time consuming activities and a large social circle in our lives does not mean we are not lonely. It just means we are busy. For some, being busy does not allow for time to dwell on being lonely or analyzing what is potentially missing in our lives. Still for others, not having that “special someone” in their lives or being emotionally distant from that life partner can be a crippling feeling.
Because we are right on the heels of Valentine’s Day, I would like to focus primarily on the loneliness associated with finding “the one”. With the average first time marrying age creeping up into the late 20’s, many of us find ourselves spending at least some of our adult years looking for that “ideal” life partner. With roughly fifty percent of first marriages ending in divorce, many find themselves again looking for “the one” at some point. These gaps in time, these periods where we find ourselves still “searching” for that person God meant for us to be with, can be frustrating and lonely. After false starts and a few train wreck relationships, some find themselves wondering if there really is someone out there with whom they are meant to share their life. Some may wonder if God really does have someone in mind for them. And if so, where is he/she? The Bible says that God created Adam, and that He saw that it was not good for man to be alone. God created sex for the marriage relationship because the physical closeness with our spouse is good for us, both physically and emotionally. Because God saw the importance of this type of relationship, it should not be at all surprising that finding our soul mate, can take on a sense of urgency at some point. However, it is important to be patient with the process and not allow loneliness or desperation to provoke us to make a mistake in choosing our significant other.
Loneliness can exist within marriage, as well. It is not uncommon for problems to creep into marriage after the honeymoon phase ends. When intensity and passion are replaced by complacency and monotony, trouble is brewing. I have spent much of my career in couples work; trying to help couples find their way back to each other after long periods of time adrift on the sea of love. I should probably pre-emptively apologize for the cheesy “sea of love” reference J. However, people who love each other CAN drift apart. When this happens, it can be the loneliest feeling in the world. Relationships can only drift for so long. Without rescue, drifters eventually drown.
What can be done to address the issue of loneliness associated with significant others? If still in the phase of life where finding a life partner is the goal, it is helpful to invest time in things that make US better life partners. Are WE bringing our “best selves” to the table? A good question to ask: “Are there things in my life, things about myself that I need to work on? Are there issues in my life that keep me from being a good partner to someone else?” If the answers are yes, then it’s time to address these things. Maybe it’s time to ask a trusted friend or family member if there are things that are keeping you from being your best self. Brace and be prepared to hear the truth, and please do not respond negatively to honesty that feels like criticism. People who genuinely love us should be able to tell us the truth without fear of repercussions in the relationship. After an honest self-inventory, it’s time to take steps. Counseling is a safe and positive way to address issues in life that may be hindering healthy relationships from developing or moving to the next step. It is always a good idea to bring our healthiest selves into any meaningful relationship. Only when we are in a good place emotionally, are we in a position to be in a healthy relationship with a significant other.
Consider this: Are we looking for love in all the wrong places? We must be mindful of where we seek out others for long-term romantic relationships. Is the father of your children or the mother of your child going to be found in a bar? I am not saying it never happens. Obviously it does…. sometimes. But if we are looking for someone who will spend the next fifty years going to church with us on Sunday mornings and who will be sipping lemonade on the front porch with us when we are old, is a bar the BEST place to start looking? Are we looking for people who are likeminded? I am always amazed seeing people investing time dating others who do not have the same values. Why do people spend time believing they can “make him/her be the one for me”? I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “I thought I could change him/her”. These same people are then bewildered when the relationship derails. Picture in your mind what you want in a significant other, and do not waste time and energy trying to “make” someone fit that picture. Please understand that I am absolutely NOT saying that marrying someone from the church singles group is going to guarantee an ideal life partner. Bad marriages have been born out of church relationships, too. But I AM saying that meeting likeminded people, who have similar goals and values in life, increases the odds of a good relationship working out in the long run.
For the loneliness that can exist in marriage, there is truly a sense of urgency. Wearing a ring on the left hand and sleeping next to a warm body at night does not mean the relationship isn’t in trouble. Loneliness in marriage that is left unchecked will be addressed eventually, potentially in a courtroom during a divorce proceeding or at the Motel 6 up the road. If we are lonely in our marriage; if we aren’t getting what we need emotionally from our partners, we will find it somewhere else. I am not necessarily referring to affairs, though that is often the case. Loneliness in marriage is a hole in the soul we will fill up with something or someone else. Many will pour all their time and energy into parenting, work, kids activities, church activities, anything really, that tries to compensate for what’s missing in the relationship; anything that takes up time and does not allow for much opportunity spent dwelling on what is missing or what is wrong. This is a dangerous place to be. Loneliness in the marital relationship has the potential to be fatal to the marriage. When recognized, it must be addressed swiftly and decidedly.
Everyone experiences loneliness at one time or another. It’s part of the human experience. But it does not have to be permanent or debilitating. Recognizing it and addressing it is the key to overcoming it.