140: Loneliness

May 09, 2023

People often think of loneliness as the feeling that comes from isolation or being alone. However, being alone doesn’t necessarily lead you to feel lonely. Circumstances don’t dictate your feelings, and you can be alone and feel fine about it. On the other hand, if you’re alone and you don’t have the contacts and relationships with others that you’d like to have, then you may feel lonely.

Whether you are clear on how loneliness occurs or not, fear of loneliness is a big factor in many people’s infidelity situations. When it comes to infidelity and loneliness, there are two distinct but related problems. One is that as humans, we don’t like feeling lonely. The other is that people will go to pretty extreme lengths to avoid loneliness, like getting into or staying in relationships that they don’t actually enjoy.

Tune in this week to discover the role that loneliness might be playing in your infidelity situation. Dr. Marie Murphy is discussing how to see whether you’re engaging in or continuing a relationship you aren’t actually excited about in order to avoid the feeling of loneliness, the beliefs that cultivate a fear of loneliness, and how to deal with loneliness in a way that doesn’t create undesirable consequences.

If you’re ready to take this topic deeper in a confidential and compassionate environment, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with Dr. Marie Murphy by clicking here!

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • How loneliness occurs when there is a perceived gap between your desired social connections and your actual social connections.

  • Why loneliness is a big factor in infidelity situations.

  • How people often engage in or continue relationships they aren’t actually excited about to avoid feelings of loneliness.

  • Why it’s possible to feel lonely, even when you’re in a committed romantic relationship.

  • The specific beliefs that inspire feelings of loneliness, whatever your relationship status, and can stop you from making clear decisions about your relationships.

  • How to deal with your loneliness in a way that doesn’t end up creating undesirable results in your life.

Listen to the Full Episode:


Featured on the Show:

Hi everyone, I’m Dr. Marie Murphy, and I’m a relationship coach.  I help people who are engaging in anything they think counts as infidelity to deal with their feelings, clarify what they want, and make decisions about what they’re going to do.  No shame, no blame, no judgments.  When you are ready to resolve your infidelity situation in a way that’s truly right for you, I can help you do it.  I’m not going to shove prescriptive advice down your throat, or tell you what you should do, or have to do.  I’m going to help you deal with your situation in a way that you feel great about.  When you’re ready to get started you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  I can’t wait to meet you.

Today we are going to talk about loneliness.  There are a lot of definitions of loneliness out there, and some of them I think pretty bad, such as one that holds that loneliness is the feeling that comes from isolation, or being alone.  Being alone, or isolated, doesn’t necessarily lead us to feel lonely.  Our circumstances never dictate our feelings, and we can be alone and feel fine about it.  But on the other hand, if we are alone and we don’t like that, we may feel lonely.  Or if don’t have the contacts or relationships with others that we’d like to have, we may feel lonely.  So some definitions of loneliness hold that it’s the feeling we feel when there’s a gap between our desired social connections and our actual social connections.  Or what we feel when there is a perceived gap between our desire for the company of other people, or certain types of company we can experience with other people, and the amount of company from others we’re actually getting.

For today’s purposes, I think the definitions I just mentioned are a sufficient starting point.  I think it’s sufficient to say that loneliness is what we feel when we perceive a gap between the type or quality of relationships that we’d like to have, and the type or quality of relationships that we actually have.  I think there’s a lot more we could say about loneliness and how people experience it, but I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on that right now.  I just wanted to provide you with some sense of what I mean when I say loneliness.

Loneliness, or a fear of loneliness, is a big factor in some people’s infidelity situations.  It’s a big factor in a lot of people’s lives in general and love lives in particular, even if infidelity isn’t a factor, so we all stand to benefit from learning more about loneliness and taking a look at our relationship with it.  But obviously, given the focus of this podcast, I’m mainly concerned with how loneliness intersects with infidelity.

When it comes to infidelity situations and loneliness, there are two distinct yet related problems that I’m going to talk about today.

The first is that in general, we don’t like feeling lonely.  A lot of us have a pretty outsized aversion to loneliness, or an outsized fear of feeling lonely.  We don’t like actually feeling lonely, and we don’t like the idea of feeling lonely.  And we often try to get rid of the feeling of loneliness if we’re experiencing it, and we often try to preemptively avoid feeling lonely.  

And sometimes, the things we do in an attempt to not feel lonely have consequences that we do not like.  Consequences is kind of a loaded word, but what I mean is simply that any actions we take will have some kind of outcome, or result.  And although the things we do in an attempt to avoid feeling loneliness may indeed help us temporarily avoid feeling loneliness, they may have other consequences, or other results too.  And we may not like those results.  And that’s the second problem.

More specifically, when we are terrified of loneliness, we may depend on a person, or persons, in an attempt to avoid feeling lonely or deal with feeling lonely.  We may pursue or continue relationships that we aren’t really all that excited about, because being in ANY relationship seems like a better option than being alone – or “alone” – and potentially feeling lonely.  And this of course can have implications for anybody and any relationship, even if infidelity is not a factor, but this kind of thing can and does come up in infidelity situations a lot.

So for example, this comes up a lot when people are considering leaving an established relationship partially for the purpose of having a shot at a relationship with someone else.  People fear they may be lonely if they leave their established relationship, because even if they’re unhappy with it, they’re USED to it, and they’re afraid they’d be lonely without it.  And this fear of loneliness can and does lead people to choose to stay in a relationship they aren’t all that thrilled with, even when they have the possibility of another relationship right in front of them.

Similarly, sometimes people are afraid of not having anyone.  They’re afraid that if they end one relationship to pursue another, the relationship they’re pursuing might not work out, and then they will be ALONE and feel lonely and it will be totally terrible – at least for the foreseeable future.  Sometimes people truly believe that if they’re involved with two people and it doesn’t work out with either of those people, they might never find someone to love them again.  And some people just believe that it might take a while to find someone new who they really connect with.  And these kinds of beliefs can inspire a great fear of loneliness, and be pretty paralyzing.  People who believe these kinds of things often do not make clear decisions, and may stay in the limbo of their infidelity situation, even if they HATE being in limbo.  Because it just seems too damn scary to do anything else.

It's also of course possible to feel deeply lonely even if you are in a romantic relationship.  Sometimes we think that if we have a partner, we won’t feel lonely, but a lot of people feel very lonely indeed, even within a relationship.  And sometimes people deal with that by finding another relationship to deal with the loneliness they’re experiencing within the existing one – and of course, sometimes this is done in a way that constitutes cheating.  Someone feels lonely within the context of their marriage, but they don’t want to deal with what’s going on in their marriage, so they look for someone else to connect with.  And that connection may relieve the person of their loneliness, but now they’re in a marriage they aren’t all that excited about and they have an infidelity situation on their hands that might become quite a thing to deal with in its own right.  So in “solving” the problem of their loneliness, they’ve created a few others for themselves.

Instead of dealing with loneliness in ways that create a bunch of undesirable results, or consequences for us, we can instead learn how to deal with loneliness in a new way.  And when we can do this, we can make decisions about our relationships that we are much happier with on the whole.

So how can we develop a relationship with loneliness that serves us well?  How can we deal with loneliness in such a way that it doesn’t drive or dictate the decisions we make about our romantic relationships?

For starters, we want to recognize loneliness for what it is.  It’s a feeling, or an emotion.  And if you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you know that emotions are sensations in our body that are created through our thinking.  And it’s so, so, so incredibly important for us to remember that emotions – even the ones we don’t particularly like to feel – are a normal part of the human experience.  We have done ourselves such a tremendous disservice in our society by valorizing a certain set of emotions and pathologizing a certain set of emotions, and loneliness is definitely one of the emotions we’ve come to consider negative.

But ultimately, loneliness is just a set of sensations in your body.  And we can survive sensations in our body, even if they aren’t terribly pleasant.  Loneliness can be uncomfortable, but we can ride the waves of that discomfort with a reasonable amount of good will, if we choose to.  And then we can survive the emotion and make clearer decisions about the situation we’re in.

But that isn’t what we usually do.  We usually think that loneliness is a problem, and that feeling it is bad, and that we need to do something about it immediately.  Maybe we need to numb the feeling, maybe we need to distract ourselves from it, maybe we need to find someone to connect with or keep us company.  

But what if we could just feel it?  What if we could just tolerate feeling loneliness?  What if we could entertain the radical idea that loneliness is not a problem, per se?

Now just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that you want to feel lonely ALL THE TIME.  I’m not suggesting that you want loneliness to be your dominant emotion every day for weeks upon weeks on end, and that if it is, you shouldn’t try to do anything about it.  And to be clear, I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with preferring to have a romantic partner, or partners over not having a romantic partner, or partners.  It’s legitimate to like companionship in general, and this kind of companionship in particular.  Some people would say that humans are hard-wired for connection, and whether you like that kind of biological determinism or not, it’s totally fair to want the company of other people.  The point of tolerating loneliness isn’t to turn yourself into a hermit.

Rather, the problem is that a lot of us do not want to feel lonely AT ALL.  As in, not even for a MINUTE.  Forget about turning into a hermit, some people cannot stand the idea of experiencing sixty seconds of disconnection from other people.  

And to echo what I said earlier, this aversion to loneliness can end up motivating us to engage in our relationships in ways that we don’t really like.

So what we have the opportunity to do is be willing to feel our loneliness.  Instead of trying to avoid it.  Instead of trying to get rid of it when we do feel it.  

And the great news is, we can practice doing this in tiny little increments.  Cultivating a willingness to feel loneliness is like training for a sporting event in a sport that you’re new to.  If you’ve never run a mile, you don’t run a marathon in one day.  You start with getting some new sneakers and going for a jog.  And then maybe the next day you do that same jog.  And then if that’s easy, you run a little longer the next day.

And it’s just like that with loneliness.  We can start small.  We don’t have to tackle our fear of loneliness in one day.  We can dedicate ourselves to developing new habits in relation to loneliness, and practicing them consistently.

The most important habit that we want to start to cultivate is awareness.  If we notice that we’re feeling lonely, we can pause and ask ourselves, “Okay, what does this actually feel like, in the most immediate sense?  If emotions are sensations in our bodies that are generated through our thinking, what sensations am I feeling right now?”  And then you can tune in and notice what’s happening.  This does take willingness, and effort!  Most of us are in the habit of trying to avoid or resist our uncomfortable feelings the second we notice ourselves feeling them.  But it is totally possible to change our habits and willingly feel our feelings.

So we tune into the immediate physical experience of feeling loneliness and we see what we notice in our bodies. maybe loneliness feels like heaviness in our limbs.  Maybe it feels like our chest is hollow.  Maybe our throat feels tight.  Maybe it feels like we’re going to cry.  Maybe we do cry.  Maybe we feel hot, maybe we feel cold, maybe our left foot twitches.  There are a lot of different ways we might feel loneliness in our bodies, and the point is to tune in and notice what you feel.  It may be that at first you don’t really know what you feel, or you don’t notice much of anything in terms of sensations in your body.  That’s okay.  Most of us are not used to feeling our feelings this way, and it takes practice to develop this kind of attention and awareness.  

When you do this, when you focus on how loneliness feels in your body in real time, you tend to notice that you can survive the sensations your body is experiencing in the present moment.  Loneliness might feel great, but you probably are not going to implode from feeling loneliness.  Sometimes it might feel like you might, but you probably won’t.  And if you stay focused on the immediate physical sensations you are experiencing, you can deal with them one moment at a time.  Sometimes we may even say to ourselves, “Oh my god, it feels like I’m going to implode.  Oh, but I didn’t!  Oh, it feels like I’m going to implode AGAIN!  Oh, but I just survived that moment, too!  Maybe I really can hang in there with feeling this emotion for another moment or two or three.”  That may be what the process is like.  

But we don’t usually do anything like this.  What usually happens is we notice that we’re feeling lonely, or we feel afraid of feeling lonely, and we instantly start making this mean something very bad.  Even if we just have the vague sense that loneliness is a problem, that can be a pretty powerful thought, and it may inspire us to attempt to get rid of the feeling of loneliness as quickly as possible, by any means necessary.  And this is where we may start to make decisions about our relationships that don’t line up with our deepest desires and highest priorities. 

So part of developing a new relationship with loneliness entails being willing to be present with the immediate, physical experience of the emotion.  When we see that we really can get THROUGH feeling lonely, one moment at a time, we no longer have to fear loneliness, or try to avoid it.  We can just stay present with ourselves as we experience it.  And when we show ourselves that we really can do that, we gain so much power in our lives.  We no longer have to make decisions based on a fear of loneliness, and enables us to go after what we really want in our love lives.

Another part of developing a new relationship with loneliness entails getting clear on how we’re thinking about loneliness, and getting clear on what we think loneliness means.  The way we think about loneliness shapes our experience of feeling lonely.  If we think that loneliness is a problem, and therefore, we shouldn’t have to feel it, and that if we do feel it, something has gone really, really wrong, of COURSE we’re going to freak out if we feel lonely, and that just compounds our suffering.  When we can deal with the original issue – the discomfort of feeling lonely – without giving ourselves more problems to deal with by making the loneliness into a bigger problem, we can make our way through life with a little more ease.

We have a lot of shared understandings about why loneliness is bad, or why it isn’t good to feel loneliness, and I’m not going to talk extensively about those, but I do want to reiterate that the point I’m making here isn’t that loneliness is totally great and that we should all love feeling it.  It’s reasonable to not like feeling lonely, and it’s reasonable to want rich and meaningful connections in life.  But I do want to encourage you to consider that loneliness does not have to be a problem per se, or a fundamentally bad thing.

After all, humans have the capacity to experience a wide range of emotions, and it’s that range that gives richness and depth to the human experience.    

Some would say that it isn’t possible to fully experience an emotion without being able to fully experience the contrasting emotion.  So for our purposes today, that would mean that without being willing to fully experience loneliness, we can’t fully enjoy the pleasure of connection.

I don’t think that has to be true in any absolute or literal sense for it to be instructive.  We can recognize that there can be great value in experiencing contrasts in life.  Having experienced the absence of something that we really want may help us more fully appreciate the presence of something we really want.  A lot of people find that to be true.

But what I find more helpful when it comes to thinking about loneliness is this.  Loneliness may hurt.  Letting go of a particular relationship may hurt, or not being in a romantic relationship at all may hurt, and the loneliness that comes from those situations may be pretty intense.

But that intense loneliness may ultimately feel better to our soul than feeling comfortably numb.  Feeling lonely may feel better than the relief from loneliness that we may get from staying in a relationship that isn’t really right for us, or pursuing a relationship with someone just for the sake of having SOMEONE.  Or, put differently, loneliness may feel better to the part of ourselves that trusts in our capacity to evolve and grow than attempting to avoid loneliness feels to that part of ourselves.  It may feel a lot better to feel lonely and know we’re being true to ourselves than to feel protected from loneliness and know that we’re selling ourselves out for pretty cheap.  It’s kind of like the old saying that it’s better to be alone than in bad company.  We may not LIKE being alone.  We may not LIKE feeling lonely.  But at some point, we may like being alone and lonely a lot better than what we get out of spending time with certain people.

And quite practically, sometimes being willing to feel lonely is the only way we can create the opportunity for us to have the kinds of relationships we really want to have in life.  This of course can be true in lots of life situations, not just situations involving infidelity.  If you yearn for deep and meaningful friendships but you keep hanging out with a bunch of people you don’t like very much because you think that’s better than being home by yourself and possibly feeling lonely, being willing to tolerate that loneliness may be necessary for a while if you’re going to free up time and energy to meet new friends.

If you’ve been avoiding leaving your committed relationship because of the loneliness you think you might feel if you didn’t have that person in your life, and you’re also seeing someone else, you aren’t giving yourself the opportunity to go all-in on any of your relationships.  And you aren’t enjoying any of the benefits that you might get from being technically single, and not committed to anyone!  You may think that what you’re doing is having your cake and eating it too, and that COULD be your experience of what’s happening for a while.  But at a certain point, the decisions you make out of your desire to avoid feeling lonely may end up getting in the way you of having the kind of relationship, or relationships, that you really want to have.

So to recap, here’s the deal: loneliness is just an emotion.  If we can willingly feel the immediate physical sensations associated with the emotion, without adding a million layers of meaning onto the experience, we will have a much easier time tolerating loneliness.  That doesn’t mean it’ll be pleasant.  But we can totally do it.

Getting clear on what we make loneliness mean – and perhaps adjusting what we make the experience of loneliness mean – is also really important.  If we think that loneliness is a terrible thing that we shouldn’t have to feel, and that if we feel it, it means there’s something wrong with us, that is probably going to compound our suffering immensely.  And there’s no need to do that to yourself.

On the other hand, if we recognize that loneliness is a normal human emotion, and maybe even an emotion that’s worth experiencing at times, we’re going to eliminate or at least reduce a lot of unnecessary suffering.  Sure, the loneliness itself may not feel awesome.  But we can deal with it as a natural, normal, and maybe even inevitable part of human life – rather than as a problem.  Usually, the worst thing about feeling an emotion is not the sheer, immediate physical experience of the emotion.  It’s what we make feeling the emotion mean for us and about us. 

Finally, when we’re willing to tolerate the emotion of loneliness, when we aren’t desperate to not have to feel lonely, we’re able to make relationship decisions that get us more of what we want in our love lives.  If we’re willing to tolerate loneliness, we can say goodbye to a relationship that really isn’t right for us anymore.  If we’re willing to feel lonely, we can make ourselves available to be with someone even if we aren’t sure they’re going to choose to be with us.  If we’re willing to tolerate loneliness, we can be selective about what we want.  We can pursue what we want without being desperate to get it.

In next week’s episode, I’m going to talk about creating contentment that isn’t dependent upon romantic relationships, which is another important component in dealing with loneliness.  Part of dealing with loneliness is dealing with the feeling itself, and what we make the feeling mean.  But another aspect of dealing with loneliness is creating and sustaining more of the kinds of connections we want to experience in life – both within and outside of our love lives!  So many of us depend on our romantic partner, or partners, to feel okay.  We RELY on them to feel the emotions we want to feel, or to avoid feeling the emotions we don’t want to feel.  And when we can learn how to generate our own contentment, we don’t have to be so emotionally dependent upon our partners, and that is a huge win on so many different levels.  

Okay everyone, that’s it for today.  If you would like my help working on your relationship with loneliness, let’s talk.  Listening to the guidance I provide on the podcast is one thing, but having me as your coach who teaches you specific tools and helps you put them into use in your own life is another thing entirely.  So if you are ready for change in your infidelity situation, and you want to make change as effectively and efficiently as you possibly can, working with a coach can be the best investment you ever make.  When you’re ready to get started, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com, and you can learn more about the coaching packages I currently offer along with my current pricing through the services page of my website.  I can’t wait to meet you.

Thank you all so much for listening!  Have a great week.  Bye for now.

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