Loneliness is a frightening prospect, and one that can cause us to act in irrational ways.

Staying in an unfulfilling relationship because you’re frightened of being alone is a relatively common situation, and one that many people come to individual counselling for help with.

It can be tricky to address because the fear of loneliness may be based in deeply entrenched patterns of behaviour or issues related to self-esteem.

Why do I feel like this?

Often, when someone says they’re scared of being lonely, what they’re really saying is they’re scared of being in their own company.

What might be truly frightening is the thought of having to deal with their own feelings when there’s nothing – or no-one – there to distract them. They may worry that they’ll be unable to look after themselves, or that they’ll feel lost or directionless without anyone there to help.

This is often a feeling that settles in over a long period of time. It can come from a protracted sense of low self-esteem – a lack of belief in one’s ability to get by because of a lack of belief in one’s abilities generally.

It can also come from a lack of experience when it comes to being single. Often, people fear being single again when they’ve been in a relationship for a really long time, or when they’ve never really spent much time outside of one.

What kinds of effects does it have on a relationship?

Of course, the truth is that a relationship where one person isn’t really present isn’t likely to be one that brings much joy or fulfilment.

Although it’s entirely possible to sustain a relationship like this for a number of years – indeed, one of the biggest risks with this kind of thinking is that the relationship does limp on with no end in sight – neither partner is likely to be particularly happy.

One of the finest, yet arguably most painful things about relationships, is that they force us to be vulnerable. When we’re in a truly intimate relationship with another person, we show them all sides of ourselves.

If one person no longer loves the other – or never loved them – the truth is that, sooner or later, they’re likely to notice. It may come out in small things like a lack of physical affection or eye contact. Or it may come out in bigger things like arguments or spending a disproportionate amount of time away from home.

So while it is possible to try to fake it, it’s unlikely to end well. The usual outcome in situations like this is a gradual widening of the gap between the two people until, eventually, they break apart.

What is loneliness?

This is the most important question to consider in this scenario. What exactly do we mean by loneliness? Is it being alone? Or rather, is it not having anyone around who understands us? This is the position that most counsellors would take.

If it’s the latter, then it’s entirely possible to feel lonely while in a relationship – in fact, it’s pretty likely – that the relationship is not a fulfilling one. That is the central irony of this pattern of thinking: that staying with someone to avoid being lonely is likely to make you feel lonely anyway.

The unfortunate truth is that the only way to avoid feeling this way is through seeking authentic and meaningful connections with others, and if your current relationship is making this impossible, making any changes necessary to allow this to happen.

Making changes

Ending a relationship is invariably painful. Even when you’re aware that the relationship has no future, breaking up with someone is still a form of loss – and is likely to feel like one. Even if change is painful, it’s sometimes only by weathering this that we can put ourselves in a position to find greater happiness eventually.

It’s usually a good idea to give ourselves some distance between relationships while we figure out what it is we do want. If you’ve been in a relationship for a really long time, it can be useful to get to know yourself again – to focus on what you like doing, what makes you happy, the things you values in life, and the direction you want your life to take.

Knowing these things can put you in a much better position to choose the right person when it comes to finding your next relationship, as it’ll mean you’ll be able to identify someone who has the same values as you and who is likely to be compatible in other ways too.

It is also an excellent idea to take time to establish and nurture non-romantic relationships in your life. Having a support network is a crucial part of growing and maintaining self-esteem. Spending time with friends and family will remind you that, even if you’re not in a relationship, you’re not alone. And creating new relationships – for example, by joining social groups, or even getting in touch with people you haven’t seen in a while – will allow you to develop a sense of independence – something that will be an important part of any healthy romantic relationship anyway.

Now back to that question of loneliness. Although all of the above is certainly important when it comes to cultivating a healthy mental attitude and sense of self-esteem, the truth is that being single can still feel lonely. Even when you’re doing all the right things, there will still be occasions when you’ll miss having companionship. Though this can be difficult, sometimes the best option is simply accepting this as part of life. After all, we all have to bear a little sadness on the path to getting what we really want.

How we can help

Making changes in your life is difficult. Sometimes, it’s hard to even know where to start. If you think you might need some help, counselling can be a helpful way of getting things in perspective.

Your counsellor won’t judge you, tell you what to do or try to force you into any decisions, they’ll simply listen and help you figure out what might be the best course of action for you. Discover more about what to expect from counselling at Relate.