How to Love Deeply in a Lonely World

Six keys to strong loving relationships

Graffiti on a brick wall that says "lets adore and endure each other" in reference to couple relationships

When the bubble bursts

Anyone who has had any long-term romantic relationship can attest to the many challenges that accompany all the beauty and joy. Why is it so hard to hold on to the good stuff without slipping into squabbles, bickering, and frustration? 

Even the happiest couples have disagreements and get on each other’s nerves, however, there are some important differences between the couples that occasionally get frustrated with one another and the couples who experience frustration and squabbling as a regular part of their relationship.

It's all about connection

According to relationship researchers John and Julie Gottman, couple members' responsiveness to each other’s “bids for connection” is an important component in predicting relationship satisfaction and longevity. Bids for connection are the many moment-by-moment attempts that we make to feel a sense of connection and understanding with important people in our lives.

A bid for connection can be as simple as sharing a short anecdote from our day or reaching for our partner’s hand. While it is important to make these attempts to connect, a key predictor of longevity and satisfaction in intimate relationships is the degree of partner responsiveness to these bids for connection. Without a responsive recipient these bids for connection do not lead to connection, and instead may lead to feelings of loneliness, bitterness, and rejection.

The loneliness of independence

Most of us are not consciously aware of the many attempts that we make to be seen, heard, understood, validated, and recognized, but most of us can attest to the pain that is experienced when these needs are not met. Why is it that it hurts so much to be misunderstood and to feel disconnected from those we love?

Early Western psychological theories rooted in individualistic philosophies have placed a heavy emphasis on autonomy and independence as the ultimate goal of healthy human development. From this perspective any action that could be labeled as “dependent” has been considered problematic or even pathological.

The belief that a healthy person should be self-sufficient has become so widespread in many Western societies that it has contributed to a culture of second-guessing our attempts to feel loved and connected. We may judge our desire for recognition, connection, and appreciation as "being needy", "weak" or see it an indication that we have "low self-esteem."

We also learn to judge and label other people's desires for connection in similar ways - leading to disconnection and fear. Despite the fear of "needing" others, these deep desires for connection do not seem to go away. Instead, these longings for connection and recognition go underground and surface in confusing and indirect ways.

We may tell our partners "I don't need you" while punishing their failure to acknowledge us and our contributions. We may advertise our desirability as potential romantic partners on dating websites by describing our attributes as "strong, independent, and complete" as if to suggest that looking for love is merely a recreational activity rather than an attempt to meet some of the most important needs of human beings. 

The research tells a different story

Despite the strong and sometimes crippling influence of these theories, research on early childhood experience and healthy adult development suggests something radically different. The experience of feeling strong and independent appears to be related to the degree to which we feel loved, secure, and safe in important relationships.

When we feel deeply connected and emotionally bonded with others we have the courage to take risks and to venture out on our own knowing that if we fail we are still loved and loveable. Whereas when we feel unsafe and insecure in important relationships, or fear becoming dependent, we may end up fighting for both connection and autonomy, feeling lonely and disconnected yet unable to take risks and pursue individual goals.

Rather than an individual psychological problem to overcome, our deep sensitivity and attention to the maintenance of strong social connections with others has likely been vital for our survival as a species. Humans are inarguably social animals and the safety and survival of our ancestors has always come through cooperation and understanding, even when that cooperation was at odds with the survival of other human societies and species.

Even in contemporary societies where communities are not fighting for basic survival, individuals live longer and experience a better quality of life when they are embedded in strong social networks.

From this perspective, our many attempts be seen, recognized, and appreciated are part of what we have learned to do to survive and thrive as a species. When these bids are not recognized and responded to in close relationships, not just do we feel lonely but we also feel threatened. Not being seen, respected, and appreciated can be a legitimate threat to our wellbeing and survival and we respond as such - often fighting for this recognition as if our lives depended on it.  

When considering this larger perspective about the importance strong human bonds, it seems obvious that being good at recognizing and responding to bids for connection would increase a sense of emotional safety and allow for more intimacy, play, and adventure. When our bodies are telling us that our survival may be on the line we rarely feel like relaxing and playing.  When we feel connected and secure, we free up energy and resources to put toward the other important aspects of our lives beyond simply surviving.

How to maintain secure and loving connections

Some of us will be lucky in that we, and our partners, were raised in such a way that our bids for connection are clear and explicit and are responded to a high percentage of the time. The rest of us have some work to do. If we feel misunderstood and disconnected from our partners, it is likely that our partners feel the same way too. Therefore, it will be most effective to do the following work together:

1)    Entertain the premise that connection and autonomy serve both partners in the relationship and that the more you are able to support each other in feeling safe and connected, the more you will each have room to be yourselves. 

2)    Hold yourself responsible for making your bids for connection clear. While it is helpful for your partner to be responsive to even the subtlest of bids, the more you know what you want and the clearer your requests are to your partner, the better the chances that you will get what you want. 

3)    Don’t criticize or blame your partner if they are not responsive to your bids. Nothing gets in the way of connection more than blame and criticism. It is easy to feel angry when we are rebuffed or rejected, but anger will likely lead to the opposite of what we are seeking. Be persistent if it is important, but engage your partner with kindness and vulnerability. 

4)    Look for your partner’s bids and try to be responsive. This can sometimes shift relationship dynamics even without the previous three steps. The more safe, loved, and understood you partner feels, the more likely they will act in loving and responsive ways to your bids, even if they don’t know that they are doing it. 

5)    Be responsive to your own needs. Although it is helpful to have the support of others, we won’t always get what we want and sometimes important relationships end. The more we can hold ourselves in kindness and compassion, especially when we are feeling rejected or disconnected from others, the more tolerable our pain will be and the more we will have to offer others. 

6)    Get support. Even strong relationships can use tune-ups and outside perspectives. Talk to friends, family, spiritual mentors, therapists, or anyone who you trust has you and your partner’s best interests at heart.    

Therapist Nat Roman

Nat Roman is a Registered Psychotherapist with a Master of Science in Couple and Family Therapy and a BA in Psychology and additional specialized training in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) processes, community based restorative conflict circles, and fifteen plus years studying, practicing and teaching mindfulness meditation practices and Buddhist psychology. In an earlier stage of life Nat worked as a professional musician and strongly believes that creativity is an essential part of life, whether one is engaged in a formal creative discipline, problem solving, or attempting to get kids off to school in the morning.