While being in a committed relationship with someone you love can evoke feelings of connection, validation, and security, some might find that they feel less connected to their partner over time. Whether anxiety pangs in their stomach at the thought of discussing a controversial topic within the relationship, anger whirls whenever another hurtful comment is spoken by their partner, or you're perfectly happy but still feel a bit off — there are a wide variety of negative feelings one can feel while in a long-term relationship. Sometimes, these feelings can feel like loneliness. But how can someone feel lonely within a relationship, when they are not actually alone?
We've talked to two mental health and relationship experts about whether it's possible to feel lonely in a relationship. We also investigated what may cause such feelings of loneliness, what the common symptoms are, how to overcome it both individually and together — and how to know when it's time to let go.
Can You Feel Lonely in a Relationship?
While it may seem paradoxical that someone could feel lonely while being in a committed relationship, experts say that it is in fact possible and not uncommon. "For people who have been in long-term relationships, it can be quite common to have periods where they feel lonely or distant from their partner," says licensed clinical marriage and family therapist Asia Ewell. According to Ewell, a person can feel lonely whether they are single, dating, or married, and such feelings can be a result of individual stressors, issues within the relationship, or both.
What Could Cause Someone to Feel Lonely in Their Relationship?
Feelings of loneliness in a relationship can stem from a variety of root causes, ranging from stressors outside of the relationship to issues within it. When it comes to issues within the relationship, "we feel lonely in our relationships when we are unseen," says Elizabeth Earnshaw, licensed marriage and family therapist and certified Gottman therapist for couples. "This means we believe that our inner self is not part of the equation within our relationship," she adds. According to Earnshaw, this can result in "intimacy neglect," which is characterized by believing that a deeper connection within one or more of the six areas of intimacy – physical, emotional, sexual, intellectual, experiential, and spiritual – can no longer be established. Additionally, feelings of loneliness can arise when someone's repeated attempts to connect with their partner are ignored or rejected, or when they feel as though their role in the relationship is unfairly balanced or unreciprocated. "Carrying most of the emotional burden or taking on the work at home," are examples of this, says Earnshaw.
According to Ewell, personal stressors outside of the relationship can also cause feelings of loneliness within. "Personal stressors such as stressful work life can cause the person to disengage and isolate themselves, causing the other person to experience loneliness," Ewell states. "A partner having health problems and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety can make it difficult to emotionally engage with their partner and cause them to be more withdrawn, disconnected, and isolated," she adds.
How Do I Know If What I'm Feeling Is Loneliness?
So how do we know if what we're feeling is loneliness? According to Earnshaw, signs that someone feels lonely in their relationship include: "feeling separate from [your partner] even when you are in the same space with them, experiencing blocks in deeper connection, difficulty engaging with [your partner] in a fulfilling way, low self-esteem, self-loathing or self-criticism, believing there is no one you can go to, and feeling like your attempts to connect are unreciprocated." Earnshaw goes on to describe that continued loneliness can trigger someone to lose interest in connecting with others. "After a while, you might notice yourself feeling burnt out and overwhelmed with the idea of connecting with others – and you might withdraw socially," states Earnshaw.
It is important to note that, outside of the relationship, loneliness can be a sign of depression. "If you find that your relationship feels healthy, but you are still lonely," adds Earnshaw, "you might want to consider talking to a therapist or doctor about your symptoms."
Is It Possible to Overcome Loneliness? How?
If you find that you are feeling lonely in your relationship, there are ways to overcome such feelings both individually and with your partner. Individually, it is important to explore where your feelings of loneliness are coming from. "Sometimes we can look to our relationships to fill voids that only we can fill," states Ewell. "Try focusing on your individuality and find other ways to find purpose outside of your relationship such as volunteering, [dedicating] more time towards your hobbies or interests, spending time with family and friends, or pursuing other enjoyable ventures."
Feelings of loneliness in a relationship can also be overcome in collaboration with your partner. When both partners are willing to work towards a solution, tools such as couples therapy can be extremely beneficial. "Couples therapy can help you and your partner effectively communicate about issues within the relationship, and provide tools to improve closeness and intimacy," says Ewell. "If the problem isn't addressed, it could lead to further feelings of loneliness and sometimes even feelings of depression and resentment or anger towards your partner."
How Do We Know When It's Time to End the Relationship?
While feelings of loneliness in a relationship can be overcome, it "can only occur when both partners are willing to put in the work," according to Earnshaw. "If you find that your partner is not willing to build skills and work towards connecting with you on a deeper level, it might mean that the relationship is not going to provide you with a sense of connection and community," she adds.
When deciding whether or not to continue with the relationship, Ewell recommends asking yourself the following questions:
- "Has this relationship helped me or hindered me?"
- "Am I only feeling lonely and depressed when I'm around this person?"
- "Has my mental/emotional health worsened since being in this relationship?"
- "Am I finding myself tolerating and dreading being with this person?"
- "Am I neglecting/compromising my own happiness?"
- "Is it hurting me more to stay in this relationship?"
- "Have I lost who I am in this relationship?"
According to Ewell, "if the majority of the answers are 'yes,' then it can be an indicator that it is time to consider walking away." She emphasizes that no matter the decision, "make sure you are choosing the option that makes you the happiest and healthiest you."