141: Contentment That Isn’t Dependent Upon a Relationship

May 16, 2023

Last week, Dr. Marie Murphy discussed why loneliness is often a factor in infidelity situations and how to deal with the emotion of loneliness. In this episode, she is going deeper and discussing how to generate real contentment without that feeling being dependent on your romantic relationships.

Whether you do it unconsciously or deliberately, it’s common to expect your partner (or at least want them) to be the primary source of good feelings in your life and an escape from undesirable feelings. As a society, we have decided that if you aren’t in a romantic relationship, you are alone. It’s fine to prefer having a partner (or partners) over not having one. However, it’s time to start creating that feeling of contentment for yourself without relying on a relationship in order to feel positive.

Tune in this week to discover how to generate contentment without relying on a romantic partner to help you create it. You’ll learn how to spot the thoughts that lead to unhelpful beliefs about the necessity of having a romantic partner, and how to pursue what you want from a place of being content without it.

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:

  • Some of the reasons you may be looking to your romantic partner for feelings of contentment.

  • How, as a society, we glorify romantic love and what being in a relationship means.

  • The difference between wanting a romantic partner versus believing that you desperately need a partner.

  • Why pursuing something from a place of being fulfilled without having it actually helps you get what you want more effectively.

  • 7 simple ways to start finding contentment, peace, joy, and connection that isn’t dependent on a romantic relationship.

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.

Okay.  In last week’s episode, we talked about loneliness, and how loneliness can be a factor in some people’s infidelity situations.  And we talked about how to deal with the emotion of loneliness, as a discrete unit of experience.  Learning how to feel our feelings without acting from them in ways that we don’t like is a really important skill to develop, is important for the sake of better navigating the experience of being human in general, but if loneliness, or a fear of loneliness, is a factor in your infidelity situation, developing this skill is going to be really important to you in specific and immediate ways.  So if loneliness is a thing for you, go listen to last week’s episode.

But as I said last week, dealing with loneliness in the context of our infidelity situations is not just a matter of learning how to tolerate the experience of feeling lonely without letting the emotion drive the decisions we make about our relationships.  It’s also a matter of learning how to generate contentment that isn’t dependent upon romantic relationships.  As I said last week, so many of us DEPEND on our romantic partner, or partners, to feel okay.  We expect them to be the primary source of good feelings in our life, or we rely on them to avoid feelings we don’t want to have to feel – such as loneliness.  And we may do this consciously, but we also may get into the habit of doing this totally unconsciously.

And I think there are a lot of reasons why we may get into the habit of doing this, starting with the fact that in many parts of the world, including but not limited to the United States, we collectively place a huge premium on romantic relationships.  In general, we collectively think of romantic relationships as these really important things, that one has to have in order to be happy, or live a good life, or feel “complete.”  Think, for instance, of our notions of “soul mates” or “other halves” or “true loves.”  We really glorify romantic love, and we have a lot of shared ideas about what being in a romantic relationship is supposed to be like.  Some common understandings about romantic relationships hold that our partner is supposed to be the most important person in our life, and meet all sorts of emotional needs for us, and that if we don’t have someone like this in our life, it means that we are ALONE.  I find this last notion to be particularly unfortunate, and particularly ironic, because there are about eight billion people on the planet these days.  A lot of couldn’t be truly alone if we tried.  So the idea that by virtue of not having a romantic partner, we are alone, is one that I find particularly vexing.

However, these ideas are out there, and if you’ve absorbed some of them, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with YOU.  But you do of course get to examine your beliefs about the role and importance of a romantic relationship in your life, and change them if you want to.

On that note, let me emphasize something important.  You get to DECIDE what role you want a romantic relationship to play in your life, or how much importance you accord to your romantic relationship, or relationships.  Although I’m critiquing some of our widely shared ideas about the importance a romantic relationship should have in your life, I’m not prescribing a particular way of doing things.  If you want your romantic partner, or partners, to be the most important person or people in your life, that’s fine by me.  A lot of people live their lives that way and love it!  But there’s a difference between making that decision consciously, AND tending to your romantic relationship in a conscious way – and unconsciously buying into the idea that a romantic relationship is by definition the most important relationship a person can have.

Similarly, I want to make it really clear that I think it’s totally fine to prefer having a romantic partner, or partners, to not having a partner, or partners.  I’m not suggesting that wanting a partner is bad.  Not at all.

However, there is a big difference between wanting to have a partner, or preferring to have a partner, and believing that you desperately NEED a partner.  There’s a big difference between enjoying the particular experience of being in a romantic relationship, and believing that you are ALONE if you do not have a romantic partner.

For instance, if we believe “I’m all alone in this big, scary world,” that may feel pretty bad.  On the other hand, if we believe “I’d sure like to have a romantic partner, but I really appreciate all of the connections I have with the great people in my life,” that’s going to feel totally different.

Now I know some of you will say, well, I don’t really have that many connections with great people.  My circle is pretty small.  And that’s exactly WHY I need a romantic partner!  I need that one special person who is going to meet my needs for connection!

Here’s the thing.  Being desperate for something usually doesn’t help us get more of it.  Pursuing something we want from a place of being content without it, or fulfilled without it, usually helps us pursue and get what we want a lot more effectively.

So even if what you really want is a romantic relationship, it may behoove you to find contentment, or peace, or joy, or connection, or all of the above, that is not dependent on a romantic relationship.  And now I’m going to talk about some ways to do this, and all of these ways are focused on creating a greater sense of connection with people or entities other than your romantic partner.  There are lots of ways that we can create contentment that isn’t dependent on a romantic relationship, but what I see so often is that if we want contentment that isn’t dependent on a romantic partner, a really helpful first step is to see that we can find connection elsewhere.

So with that, I offer you this list of recommendations as a starting point for creating connection outside of a romantic relationship.  This is not meant to be an exhaustive list!  But it’s a darn good start.

Recommendation number ONE: decide, or perhaps reevaluate, how you want to engage in the relationships you currently have in your life

Whether you think you have a lot of non-romantic relationships in your life, or very few, I’m willing to bet that you at least have SOME.  How do you engage in those relationships?  If you’ve been operating from the belief that your romantic relationship is the only one that really counts, I’m willing to bet that you haven’t engaged in your other relationships in a way that allows you to feel amazingly connected to them.  If you want to experience greater or deeper connection with other people, you can start by being more present and engaged with the people you already have relationships of some kind with.  This may mean you pick up the phone and call people.  This may mean you make a few lunch dates.  This may mean you actually listen with interest when people are talking to you.  Sometimes we just kind of check out of our existing relationships.  It happens.  But if you want to feel more connected to people, check back in!  There is so much joy and satisfaction to be gained from all kinds of relationships.  When you start prioritizing connecting with people other than a romantic partner, you may find non-romantic relationships incredibly fulfilling.  I think Einstein is known for saying that friendship is the highest form of association.  Whether or not you consider that true for yourself, it’s worth looking for joy in non-romantic connections.  But you’ve got to actively engage in these kinds of connections to find that joy.

Now, on the other hand, you may find that there are some relationships in your life that you want to DISENGAGE from.  Sometimes, when we’ve been in the habit of over-prioritizing romantic relationships for a long time, we not only disengage from other relationships that are pretty good, but we stay sort of engaged in relationships that we may really want to be done with.  It can be a lot easier to focus all of our time and energy on our partner than figure out how to tell a friend that you don’t really want to be friends with them anymore.  It can be easier to stay really focused on your partner than to decide whether or not you want to distance yourself from a sibling.  Right?  So if you’re having a moment in which you’re actively deciding how you want to engage in your current non-romantic relationships, you may want to realize that there are some relationships you want to DISengage from.  That’s okay.  It may be sad, but sad doesn’t have to be bad.  If you want to make yourself available to invest in connections with other people that are great for you, you may have to disengage from some connections that aren’t.

TWO: look for ways to meaningfully connect with anyone you come into contact with.

Let me explain what I mean by this.  If you’re on public transportation, you don’t need to try to get the person in the seat next to you to tell you their life’s story, or try to get them to listen to yours.  I’m not suggesting that you need to try to become best friends with everyone you meet.  I’m not saying you want to be friendly with someone who is treating you in a manner you consider inappropriate.  But there are so many contextually appropriate ways we can respectfully acknowledge the humanity of others – instead of being withdrawn and disengaged, and actively trying to avoid interacting in meaningful ways with other humans.  Looking someone in the eye and saying, “Good morning” can be an incredibly meaningful moment of connection, even if you never see that person again.  Sometimes we get into the habit of isolating ourselves from others, because it just seems too hard or too risky to open ourselves at up to other humans AT ALL.     

Here's an example of what I’m talking about.  I live in San Francisco, and I shop at Rainbow for my groceries.  Rainbow Grocery Cooperative is a worker-owned co-op, and it’s an interesting place.  It has great produce, for one thing, and it also kind of encapsulates some of the things I love most and like least about San Francisco.  For the sake of context, let me just say that I’ve had a lot of interesting interactions with people in Rainbow over the years, for better and for worse.  If you too shop at Rainbow I’m going to take the liberty of assuming that you know what I’m talking about.  Anyway, one day a few years ago, this dude came up to me and said, “Are you a cracker?”  

Now, in case you didn’t know this already, I am, in terms of racial classifications, definitely white, and this guy who came up to me was Black, and so when he said, “Are you a cracker?” I decided to say, “Well, yeah.”  

I didn’t ignore him, I didn’t run away, I didn’t try to qualify my whiteness or make excuses for it.  I didn’t say, “I may be white, but that doesn’t mean you can just call me a cracker!”  I just said yes.  And then he proceeded to begin to give me a lecture about how white people have screwed over the non-white world and how I was, by implication, guilty.  And this was a very detailed lecture, and he was not wrong in the points that he was making.  And I stood there and listened to him for a few minutes.  I was like, I’m willing to take this.  And my spouse, who is not white, and was right there with me but was not on the receiving end of the lecture, was trying to tell the dude who was talking to me that we’d had enough, but I was like, “No, it’s cool, we can keep talking about this for another minute.”  I was like, this is an okay human exchange to be having, and I’m down for it.  Until I wasn’t.  

At some point, the tone of the lecture shifted, and I was starting to feel like the situation was not a human exchange that I wanted to be a part of anymore, and I decided I was just done.  So I told the guy that I agreed with what he was saying, but I wasn’t going to talk about it anymore.  I politely but firmly said that I was done with that conversation, and I went on my way.

There’s so much I could say about this story.  It could be an example of a million different things.  But the particular reason why I’m telling you this story for the purposes of today’s podcast is to illustrate that we can have moments of human connection with other people even when they’re a little challenging, or little uncomfortable, or a little different than what we were expecting to contend with on any given day, and still be richer for it.  I didn’t HAVE to engage with the guy in the grocery store.  I am sure I could have walked away the second he asked me “Are you a cracker?” and gotten out of talking to him at all.  And I say this, because I later heard him hearing a version of the same conversation with other white people in the grocery store, and there was this whole interesting experience of witnessing these interactions unfold as I went about my grocery shopping, and this is exactly what I mean when I say that interesting shit goes down in Rainbow grocery.  He could have found another cracker to talk to, and it might not have mattered much in the cosmic scheme of things if I didn’t engage with him.  But, for various reasons, I decided that I wanted to engage with this human who was trying to engage with me – at least for a few moments.  And my day was the more interesting for having had this particular moment of human interaction.

Let me stress that that does not mean that we have to put up with anything anybody wants to throw at us.  No.  We absolutely have the right to set boundaries that are right for us.  But we also want to be aware of the extent to which we may be cutting ourselves off from opportunities to connect with our fellow humans by setting boundaries that are more like barricades.  Life can be challenging, and dealing with other people can be challenging.  If you want to make that case to me, I will not fight you on it.  But when we try to deal with this by armoring up, and attempting to protect ourselves from discomfort by cutting off contact with anyone the second we feel uncomfortable, we may lose more than we gain.  When we’re willing to engage with people that we just randomly come into contact with, we open ourselves up to sharing each other’s humanity, and although that can be challenging, it can also be really great.

And that brings me to my next story, which falls under recommendation number THREE: Practice random acts of kindness.  Now I know there used to be a bumper sticker that said that, and I deeply hated that bumper sticker, but I actually am a great believer in practicing random acts of kindness.  I actually prefer to say, practice being kind or generous or caring just because you can.  And I will tell you about one thing I did in that spirit.

One day, a few years ago, I went into a chain store that sells women’s clothing and house stuff and maybe some other stuff too.  I had to return some things I’d bought online.  And from the very moment I walked into the store, my experience was GREAT.  I had nice exchange with the security guard when I walked in.  When I returned the items I had brought to return, I had a great experience with the sales associate who processed the return.  Then I wandered around the store, and found something I wanted to try on, but couldn’t find my size.  Someone offered to help me at exactly the moment I wanted to ask for help, and they found the size of the item I wanted to try on and they were totally pleasant and professional in a way that is both totally unremarkable, and also incredibly remarkable at the same time.  Then I made a purchase, and the person who helped me with that transaction was wonderful, too.  Overall, it was just a really good retail experience.  And maybe that shouldn’t be an exceptional thing, but it was actually pretty exceptional.

I’m telling you this story for two reasons.  The first is related to point number two, which I just made, about looking for ways to meaningfully connect with anyone you come into contact with.  Part of the reason why my interactions with these people in the store that day were nice is because the people were being nice.  But equally if not more importantly, I was open to them being nice.  And when I say “nice,” I probably don’t really mean nice.  I mean genuinely pleasant, and PRESENT for the moments in which we were engaged.  I was open to having moments of human connection with them, no matter how brief or transactional, and apparently they were, too.  They were being nice, I was being nice, and we could all just have the experience of being nice to each other.  Here we are together, being humans, being alive, and going about our business and crossing each other’s paths.  Why not be present in these moments of connection we have with each other, even if they are quite brief?  When we’re willing to do this, we can feel immense connection with others, just by going about our normal day-to-day business.  All of those interactions in that store filled my heart with joy that day.  They mattered to me, because I let them count, in a good way.  And we can do that with any or all of our interactions.

To be clear, making your interactions with sales clerks count is not the same as forming close relationships with people who you see regularly and form meaningful bonds and reciprocal relationships with.  But try making even your smallest interactions with other humans count, and see what happens.  You may be amazed by how much joy is out there right in front of you, waiting to be scooped up.

Now here’s the other reason I’m telling you this story.  A week or so after I had those nice experiences with the employees in that store, I called the store.  I wanted to tell some manager person that I’d had such a nice experience with their employees.  When I called the store it took me a while to get a human on the phone, and when I explained that I wanted to give a manager some feedback, they assumed I wanted to make a complaint, and I think they told me that I could do that online.  When I made it clear that I wanted to give a manager some positive feedback about store employees, they had no idea what to do with that.  Eventually, I was put on the phone with a manager, and when I told her why I was calling, she sounded shocked.  I went on to tell her about the nice experience I’d had with one employee, and she was like, “Wow!  Okay, thanks, bye!”  And I was like, but wait, there’s more!  And I went on to describe my positive interactions with I think four or five employees in some detail.  I gave her a physical description of each employee, in the hope that she might be able to tell each of them that she’d gotten a phone call from a customer who’d had positive things to say about their work, but I have no way of knowing whether that happened or not.  What I do know, though, was that the manager I spoke to on the phone sounded both incredibly stunned and I think grateful to hear what I had to say.  I hope I made her day.  But even if I didn’t, being able to give her some specific, positive feedback on multiple store employees made my day.  Going out of my way to tell someone that I appreciated something under their purview was a delight.  

You might want to try something like this out yourself.  There are so many ways of engaging in random acts of kindness.  I happen to particularly like expressing sincere appreciation or thanks to people, whether I know them or not.  But there are so many other ways of being kind or generous to other humans simply for the purpose of honoring our shared humanity.  

Suggestion number FOUR is actually suggestions numbers four and five: be of service to something you care about… and consider doing this in a way that puts you in regular contact with new people.

So many of us are lonely because we’re just too damn caught up in our own little dramas.  I say this with the utmost empathy and respect.  I get caught up on my own little dramas, and it’s not the end of the world, although I am the lonelier for it!  So let me emphasize that getting a little lost in your own shit is not an indication that you’re a flawed human being.  But there is much to be gained by being willing to step away from the craziness of our own little lives, and do something in the service of something you care about.  This can mean a lot of different things.  This may mean volunteering at your local homeless shelter.  This may mean participating in park clean up days.  This may mean doing something within your religious group, or your faith-based community.  This may mean helping out a neighbor who needs support and doesn’t have a lot of other people in their life who are helping them.

I have several reasons for making this recommendation.  One is that for so many people, being of service to others is a great reminder of their value and worth as a human.  We have the power to help others!  Each of us do!  It’s amazing!  And there are so many people out there who could really use some help – and we can help them!  Recognizing this can be such a joy and such a relief – especially if we have been in the habit of tying our sense of self-worth to our romantic relationship, or our lack of such a relationship.  Seeing the impact our actions can have on others’ lives can be a powerful antidote to feeling alone, or lonely.  If we’ve been putting all of our eggs in the single basket of a romantic relationship, we may feel like we don’t matter if we don’t have a relationship, or won’t matter if a relationship goes away.  Being of service can be a really quick and powerful reminder of the extent to which we do matter.

And, being of service to something you care about is a great way to meet people who are interested in things that you are interested in, and care about things that you care about.  Engaging in regular volunteer work, where you see like-minded people on a regular basis, is a really great way to meet new people who you may like and want to form relationships with!  People always tell me “It’s so hard to meet new people” and sometimes they’re talking about meeting prospective romantic partners, sometimes they’re talking about making new friends, and sometimes they’re talking about making other kinds of connections.  And the matter of it being “hard to meet new people” could be the topic of an entire podcast episode, but since that’s not what we’re doing today, let me just tell you this.  If you want to meet new people, go volunteer, on a consistent basis, in the service of a cause you care about.  Don’t tell me all the reasons why you can’t.  Just go do it.  You will meet new people this way.

Now, on the one hand I really mean that, but I also am not saying that regular volunteering is the ONLY way to meet new people and form new connections with like-minded people.  Of course it isn’t.  Join a community sports league if that’s your thing.  Take an art class.  Get involved in local government.  There are lots of great ways to put yourself in regular contact with other people for the sake of forging new connections.  The key words in that last sentence were “regular contact.”  Sometimes, if we feel lonely, we want the solution to be a new relationship NOW.  Or a bunch of new friendships NOW.  But new relationships can take time and regular effort to cultivate!  That’s why it’s such a great idea to meet people through engaging in regular activities that you enjoy.  You get the short-term gratification of doing something that you like to do, and you get the longer-term satisfaction of forming new relationships.  And, of course, if you’re volunteering, you may get a big boost of good feelings from contributing to the greater good, and seeing that you have the power to be helpful.   

Recommendation number six: Learn how to enjoy your own company.  I’m not suggesting that you need to be alone all the time if you prefer to be around other people.  I’m not suggesting that you need to ever get to the point where you prefer being by yourself to being with other people.  But I will suggest that there are a million reasons why we can benefit from enjoying our own company.  When we are okay on our own, when we’re able to enjoy our own company, we’re able to enjoy other people and our relationships with other people in a whole different way than we can when we depend on other people to make us feel okay, or we need other people to help relieve us of feeling loneliness.

ALSO, when we depend on our partner – or any person – to avoid feeling lonely, that can really impact the way we interact with them.  Valuing someone because they’re your antidote to loneliness is very different from valuing someone because you enjoy and appreciate them.  Being in a state of need and dependency makes for a very different quality in our relationships than being in a state of contentment that isn’t dependent upon the relationship.  

So how do you learn how to enjoy your own company?  I could spend an entire podcast episode answering that question.  I’m not going to do that right now, but I encourage you to ask yourself what it would be like to enjoy your own company.  If you were enjoying your own company, what would you be THINKING?  How would you be FEELING?  What would you NOT be thinking and feeling?  What would you be doing if you were enjoying your own company?  What wouldn’t you be doing?  Although I could offer a bunch of suggestions as to how you might enjoy your own company, ultimately, you have actively learn how to do this for yourself.  And you can start exploring how to do that anytime you want.


Last but not least, recommendation number seven: Connect to your sense of something bigger than yourself.  Some people like to do this through their religious tradition, or A religious tradition.  Some people have a sense of spirituality, which they define in a particular way.  Some people feel connected to their living community members, which may include family, friends, or other humans, and also may include all of the non-human beings we share the earth with.  And some people feel deeply connected to the earth itself, and to all of the beings that have come before us, as ancestors.  There are lots of things or entities or systems or beings or deities that you could foster a connection with.  And a lot of people find that doing this regularly, somehow, someway, tremendously enhances their sense of connection to themselves, and to others, and thus enhances their overall quality of life. 

Okay!  To recap, these are seven ways that you can cultivate contentment that isn’t dependent upon relationships by fostering other kinds of connections in your life.

Number one: decide – or reevaluate – how you want to engage in the relationships you currently have in your life.

Number two: look for ways to meaningfully connect with anyone you come into contact with.

Number three: practice being kind or generous or caring to other people just because you can.

Number four and number five: be of service to others, or to causes you care about… and consider doing this in a way that puts you in regular contact with new people.  Or be of service to people, and put yourself into regular contact with new people some other way.

Number six: learn how to enjoy your own company.  

Number seven: Connect to your sense of something bigger than yourself.

Creating connection with people other than your romantic partner, or partners, can help you change the stakes of your infidelity situation in significant ways.  Another thing our friend Einstein says is that a problem can never be solved at the level of a problem.  And sometimes when we create more and richer connections with people other than our romantic partner, or partners, our challenges in our love lives are a lot easier to sort out because the stakes of the game are a little different.  Yes, romantic relationships can be uniquely great, but when we can experience an abundance of connection, we can be less dependent upon them, and thus less inclined to make decisions about our relationships that are based on loneliness, or a fear of loneliness.

All right everybody, that’s it for today.  If you would like my help making your way through the specific details of your unique infidelity situation, let’s work together.  Together we will help you find relief, and find a way forward.  No matter how painful or complicated or confusing or impossible your situation seems, it is possible to make it simpler to approach.  And don’t you want to make your situation simpler to approach?  Aren’t you ready to deal with whatever you’ve got going on in the infidelity department so that you can get on with the business of living a life that you love?  When you’re ready to talk, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphphd.com.  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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