Why can't I find a partner?
Counselling cases are unique. However, sometimes they arrive in clusters – relationship doubt, divorce, problems with intimacy, etc. One common theme which relationship therapists witness is a seemingly endless procession of young women who can’t find a long-term relationship. I say young women because, in general, they are more likely to turn to counselling to seek a solution. It’s not to say that young men don’t experience the same issue, the same anxiety, and the same sense of sadness.
Recent UK Government statistics indicate that the number of people who often or always feel lonely has risen by 11 million over the past year. Comparable studies show that the loneliness epidemic appears to be across the western world with men being hit hardest. Arguably, the situation is worse for men because, again to generalise, women are better at reaching out to and supporting female friends. A recent US study showed that the number of men with at least six friends has halved and one in five single men have no friends.
As a relationship counsellor, I believe that for many people the search for a fulfilling romantic relationship is a primary drive and the quest applies to both men and women. So, why doesn’t it happen for so many people? What is propelling the procession of young women to counselling? Why are so many young men lonely?
In this article I look for some explanations and propose some solutions. But before going any further, let me be clear about one thing. I don’t believe it’s essential to be in a relationship to be happy. There are lots of contented single people who can think of nothing worse than being tied down in coupledom. It’s a matter of choice. If you want to be in a committed relationship you might find this article helpful. If not, I respect your choice.
Why must it be so difficult?
Considering the individuals who ask the question ‘why is it so difficult?’, the answer isn’t obvious. In the counselling room they are engaging and interesting. So, at first glance it’s a puzzle to see why they struggle to find a long-term relationship. But here are a few thoughts.
First, the advent of internet apps has to some extent commoditised dating. While a positive feature has been to provide access to many more opportunities and potentially match well-suited individuals, they have also resulted in relationships being seen as expendable – a bit like buses, there’ll be another one along in a minute. Moreover, it might be a better one.
Secondly, many people struggle with choice. Existential therapy theory holds that making choices is a fundamental source of human anxiety. Opting for one thing rules out a variety of others. Moreover, we have to make choices in advance of knowing how they’ll work out. The resulting stress can apply to simple decisions like buying a new outfit.
Clearly, it’s a much bigger deal when committing to one person rules out an infinite number of other matches. By creating a vast array of choice, dating apps have compounded the dilemma of relationship commitment. Combined with a culture where pretty much everything we purchase is disposable, it’s perhaps surprising that anybody has the courage to stick rather than twist in the dating game.
Third, there is the issue of expectation. Popular culture has given rise to the belief that attraction needs to be instantaneous – ‘love at first sight’. However, a recent Canadian study among students found that two-thirds of romantic relationships began as a friendship. Nearly half the students surveyed said that beginning as friends was their preferred way of developing a romantic relationship compared with other routes such as meeting at a party or online. The researchers noted that previous studies had focused on ‘the spark of romance’ between strangers which appears at variance with what people actually want and what works best. The research challenges the rom-com trope of magnetic attraction and suggests a blurred line between friendship and romance.
Fourth, and to make matters worse, lockdown restrictions have effectively meant putting many relationships on hold and preventing singletons starting new ones. It could be imagined that ending restrictions would be a relief, but many are finding it anxiety provoking – a common theme encountered by therapists I speak to. This may well be the case with dating where a lack of practice in social interacting in general causes particular nervousness about meeting new people. So, what sounds like an exciting opportunity might be experienced as daunting.
A three-part strategy
Based on the difficulties outlined above, here are three suggestions about responding. First, connect more with your existing social circle and broaden it. Most romantic relationships start as friendships. Put yourself in a position where that can happen. Think about the hobbies and activities you enjoy where you might meet people of the opposite sex, for example drama groups, exercise classes and sports clubs. Meeting people with similar interests means you have something in common from the start. Give it time. Recognise it’s a long-term strategy. Allow time to create and develop friendships and see how they develop. Be philosophical, even if they don’t lead to romance you’ll have an increasing number of friends. And having more friends leads to meeting other friends and hence more opportunities of meeting ‘the one.’
Second, use online dating platforms constructively. Encouragingly, a recent Bumble survey suggested that 55% of users were seeking more meaningful relationships after the loneliness caused by lockdown. Lockdown has also made us all more familiar with video communication and the incidence of pre-dating chats has increased significantly, allowing time for relationships to develop. Having said that, manage your expectations. Don’t invest all your hopes on online dating or see finding a partner as a quest. Again, give it time. You might helpfully position it as broadening your friendship group.
Third, before opening your door to a prospective new partner get your house in order – work on being self-affirming, resilient and confident. Before stepping out to meet a soulmate who appreciates your qualities make sure you appreciate them yourself. Be self-affirming. If you don’t like yourself it makes it harder for someone else to. Being self-confident and assertive is not about being boastful or arrogant. It’s about seeing yourself as a good person, worthy of love and respect. Remember, nobody is perfect, it’s sufficient to be ‘good enough’.
Work on emotional resilience and recognise there may be setbacks along the way.
The same tools and frameworks for dealing with other adversities in life can be applied to relationship difficulties and include ensuring good physical and mental well-being, assisted by a healthy lifestyle, good sleep, diet, and exercise. It involves having a good support network – another reason for deepening and broadening your friendship group.
Importantly, it involves being able to adopt a healthy philosophical perspective. Not all relationships work out the way we want. We all need to learn to cope with disappointment and sometimes with rejection. Working on acceptance and staying in the moment, assisted by practising mindfulness, definitely helps. Sorrow does pass with time. However, if you feel you habitually struggle to cope with setbacks, there is no shame in seeking professional support.
Having got your house in order, be yourself. Having worked on your self-confidence, be confident in being yourself. Being natural and being yourself allows others to experience you as approachable. Often it is our lack of confidence that results in defences that are self-defeating – sometimes making us appear standoffish. Start seeing the world in terms of opportunities. Lockdown has been hard. Get out there.
Re-reading the strategy outlined, it strikes me that a key theme is time. So perhaps a sub-heading of this article should be, ‘You Can’t Hurry Love.’ On the other hand, by following the suggestions outlined, I believe you can give it a big nudge.