What to do when you're feeling lonely in a relationship

Image of a teenage boy and two teen girls. The boy is sitting at a table looking into the distance, he has a sad look on his face. The teen girls are standing behind the boy chatting to each other and laughing.

By Anonymous

To some, the idea of being lonely when you’re in a relationship might seem strange. How can you feel alone when you’re so involved with another person? The truth is, we can feel lonely regardless of who is around us. A few years ago, I was in this exact situation.

My partner and I had been dating for about a year and were deeply in love. However, I began to notice that my previously busy weekends were now spent either with her or by myself. When I’d see photos and videos on social media of my friends hanging out without me, I felt very isolated. I’d still see people now and then, but it felt different from before. At first, it wasn’t clear to me why I felt this way, but eventually I understood and started to try to improve my situation.

What are the signs of loneliness in a relationship?

You might be experiencing loneliness if you’re in a relationship but experiencing feelings of isolation, sadness, and alienation because of your social situation. If the last time you had an amazing time without your partner was a long time ago, you might need more social connections outside your relationship.

What causes loneliness in a relationship?

The first step is figuring out exactly why you’re feeling isolated in your relationship. Here are the three main causes:

  • You’re not spending enough time with friends other than your partner.

  • You’re having communication problems with your partner.

  • Your partner’s behaviour may be toxic, which might be making it difficult for you to connect with them.

Are you spending enough time with your friends?

While you’re settling into a committed relationship, it’s normal to spend a bit less time socialising with your mates, but this can easily result in your losing contact with certain valued old friends.

Friendships are important, not just for your own wellbeing, but also for the health of your primary relationship. When both people in a relationship have a strong support network, it can take some of the pressure off their partner to be the only source of care, strength and encouragement.

Are you having communication problems?

Even though your partner might be the person you’re closest to, it’s not uncommon to experience loneliness if you don’t feel heard by them, or if it’s hard to have an open and honest conversation with them.

If you’d like help with working on communication issues, check out some tips for having tricky conversations here.

Is your partner’s behaviour hurtful and toxic?

It’s normal in a relationship to sometimes be jealous or a bit ‘clingy’, but this can occasionally spiral out of control into codependent behaviour. Codependency is when a person feels like they desperately need their partner’s love, support and care in order to prop up their sense of self-worth. As a result, codependent behaviour can be quite toxic. A codependent partner may:

  • insist that you’re responsible for their feelings of anxiety or jealousy

  • say and do hurtful things because they fear losing you

  • get worked up every time you see a certain friend or group of friends, or ask that you not see them altogether

  • ask you to make unreasonable sacrifices for them

  • violate your privacy by doing things like looking at your messages or browser history.

Sadly, these were all things that happened to me during my relationship. Even though my partner and I were able to have fun together, the truth is that the relationship was still toxic and I felt very alone a lot of the time. Fortunately, I was able to ease these feelings in a few ways.

Not all toxic behaviour in relationships is abuse, but often emotional abuse begins with behaviours like these and escalates over time. If you’d like to know more about what emotional abuse is and what can be done about it, read our article about it here.

Three things that have helped me and others

1. Knowing that your friends are still there if you need them

I was afraid that my friends had begun to forget about me, or that they resented that I was spending less time with them because I was in a relationship. But after my partner and I separated, I started to spend more time with my friends again and I realised something important: good friends will always be there for you, whether you’ve spent months, or even years, without speaking.

2. Finding new ways to spend social time

In high school, our friends were automatically by our side every day. But as adults, we have to make more of an effort to keep them close. I learnt that I needed to spend a bit of time and energy planning meetups and investing in my friendships.

One way I did this was by starting a scheduled, weekly Dungeons and Dragons game with a few old friends and some new ones. For you, it could be by:

  • finding a few friends to compete in a ‘social’ sports league

  • organising a regular pot-luck dinner at someone’s house

  • finding local groups of people on sites like Meetup and Facebook to do whatever it is you’re into, whether it’s bushwalking, painting, photography or rock climbing.

3. Setting boundaries wherever you need to

Does your partner have difficult attitudes and behaviours, especially surrounding your social life? If they do, it doesn’t mean your relationship is wrong or needs to end. But it does mean that you’ll need to work on something very important: setting boundaries. Boundaries are a key feature of every healthy relationship, from your family to your friends to your romantic relationships, and they’re all about working out exactly where tricky behaviours need to stop. In a long-term relationship, healthy boundaries might look like:

  • saying ‘no’ to any attempts to reduce your time spent with friends or to cut off certain people

  • rejecting any attempts to hurt your feelings in ways that aim to control or manipulate you

  • drawing a line at any attempts to invade your privacy.

Initially, I was afraid to set a lot of these boundaries with my partner – what if she didn’t stick to them? Would it mean the end of our relationship?

In actual fact, I was surprised by how much progress she was able to make, and for a while, things were a lot better. Even though my partner and I didn’t end up staying together, I learnt how powerful and important it can be to care for yourself and your needs – and that’s important to learn in any relationship.

What can I do now?

  • If you’re in a codependent relationship, you might need to focus a little less on your partner and a little more on yourself. Check out our article about self-care here.

  • If you’re lonely, one of the best things you can do is share your experience and connect with others. Join the discussion on our Online Community!