I’ve been a psychotherapist on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for more than three decades. During that time, countless men and women have come to see me because they are lonely and hopeless about ever finding a partner for life.
Here are five questions (and answers) that, I believe, address the deep concerns rampant in our society about the individual’s ability to find a successful love relationship:
Is the prince or princess really out there?
Of course that’s just the fantasy we have been holding on to since pre-adolescence. All those animated movies helped shape our belief in being swept away by the royal lover who not only offers us a life of ease, but you get to wear a crown too. I’m sorry, but the fairy-tales are not based in reality. The happy endings are not guaranteed. No one is likely to ride into the living room of your one bedroom rent-stabilized apartment on their white horse and carry you away. The horse won’t fit on the elevator; it won’t walk the six flights. The rider – who may have actually entertained fantasies of a royal rescue – will get sweaty and bogged down by the effort it takes to maintain that high-minded goal in the actual journey to your door or bedside.
You know all about that special kiss that’s supposed to wake you from your endless sleep? Well, the would-be prince or princess is wearing Chapstick and is a bit of a germaphobe. So he or she is not really willing to kiss a stranger. I know. It’s a bummer when real life issues interfere with the beautiful story-line.
Wait a minute: Did I say “NO” to there being a prince or princess? Well, the answer is also “YES.” But there are a few things you have to do to make that “YES” possible. You have to you allow your partner to be themselves; you have to offer them respect and patience; your love must be true and unfettered. Can you do all that? It’s a high bar, but if you answer, “YES”, then your partner’s best self will be able to emerge – prince-like or princess-like. They will seem to be very much like what you have always wished for. It will be the dramatic fulfillment of all your dreams. Now that’s what you wanted to hear.
I truly believe that every possibility exists out there in our world. It’s up to us to look with clear eyes and not with the blur of expectation. If we can truly see our partner or partner-to-be as they actually are, they will bask in that warming vision. If we can allow ourselves to know them – warts and all, they will exceed even their own expectations and be their finest selves: a prince or a princess.
Is there is a partner for everyone?
The fact that there is such shared anxiety about whether everyone can find a partner is one of the saddest things about our culture. We are way too willing to believe in the triumph of loneliness and despair. When that belief kicks in, we are quick to give up. So many lovely and loving people, who have qualities that would delight and comfort so many others, will withdraw in the face of disappointment. They decide to protect themselves from what they consider to be the inevitable failure to find the “one.”
I think this readiness to accept defeat arises from too heavy a dose of distracted parenting. When our mothers and fathers forgot about us – our needs and wants, our particular sensitivities and strengths; when they were too busy or just not interested, we felt abandoned and alone. I’m not just talking about the awful parents who forget to feed their kids or who leave them alone in a hot car with the windows closed. No. Almost every parent loses focus now and then. And when we are too young to have perspective, those temporary abandonments feel like they will never end. We endure a kind of hurt that doesn’t completely get released when they return.
That feeling of being vulnerable to extreme loss never really leaves us. It’s waiting to be re-ignited. It is our underlying dread – that there will be no one who is really there for us. And the more important the new relationship, the more this dread gets activated. So, naturally, when we fall in love, or in deep like, we may experience each small occasion of distractibility or disinterest on the part of our partner as the beginning of the end. We feel it in our gut even when our mind tells us it’s nothing to worry about.
In fact, as I see it, we live in a world of plenty – plenty of options, of choices, of available partners. Isn’t it verifiably true that there is a big wide world which we – as modern folk – have real access to? Whether via travel or on the internet, we can journey all over the globe; we can meet people that are similar to us or incredibly different. There is a true richness of variety and possibility. When we look out into our human universe from that perspective, we can see so much more. And there, everywhere we look, are good and great people who would want to know us and to be with us.
If you can stay the course, if you don’t give in to fear and dread, there will be a partner for you. I can promise you that.
What are the some of the fears that block some people from getting into a committed relationship?
We are afraid of so many things: some are legitimate, some are not. We fear losing our personal power, our autonomy; we fear making a bad choice and being stuck with someone who is mean or cold or unfeeling or a cheater. We are fearful that we will lose ourselves, that we’ll be overpowered and have to give without receiving, that we’ll have to accept things which we find disturbing or even worse.
Of course, it is possible that one of these fears might be realized. But that possibility is reduced to something quite small and unlikely if we do our vetting purposefully up front. Ask the questions you need to ask. Don’t settle for non-answers. You don’t have to be strident or rude, just inquire. Everyone expects there to be an exploratory stage of the process at the outset. Yes, it might feel a little embarrassing to ask if your new romantic interest has ever had a venereal disease or if they’ve been in prison. But don’t you really want to know? Sure. And you want to know what happened to end their previous relationships. If they haven’t had any – you want to know why not.
I’m not saying you drag out the questionnaire on the first date. . . but don’t wait too long. You do need to know certain things before you let someone get inside you emotional self.
How does our culture make it difficult to have a successful relationship?
Ah, let me count the ways. There are so many things that are now constant messages in our culture which imperil our trust in finding a good and lasting partner. Most of it is visible in our media. I know that conflict sells, and so does every writer of fiction and drama, in print and on TV and in the movies. So even if there is a happy ending to be had, we have to sit through 500 pages or two and a half hours of anguish or disappointment; of repetitive failure and angst. The girl doesn’t get the boy during the first reel or in the first chapter. No. There must be tears and maybe even a suicide attempt or two; there must be cads and cad-esses who manipulate, use and betray the one who trusts and readily opens their heart.
Even so called comedies are often based on the gargantuan struggle to “meet” someone. There are mothers in the background asking the time honored questions: So, do you have someone (a boyfriend or a girlfriend)? So, is it serious? Is he gonna make an honest woman/man of you?
Let’s pause here and take a closer look at that notion: an honest man or woman. If we are in a relationship where a commitment hasn’t been offered, does that make us somehow dishonest? Fraudulent? What the hell is that about? Whatever answer we might offer, it certainly feels quite shameful – to be other than that “honest woman.”
I do know that we live in an “enlightened” age…supposedly. We are supposed to be accepting of all choices that men or women make regarding relationships. I think we’ve come a long way down that road but not when it comes to being single; solitary; alone. “Poor baby. What’s the matter with her that she doesn’t “have someone?” Isn’t that what too many people are saying? And even more are thinking?
What if all the relationships you have had have been bad? Should you give up?
Let me give you the quick and simple answer first: No. Here’s why: All past relationships are bad ones. If they weren’t, why would they be past? Would you have ended a good relationship? Now, except for those truly sad and pretty rare occurrences when a partner in a great relationship dies, the only reason to move on is because the relationship pretty much sucks.
Learn from your past relationships. Yes. There is always something to learn: Be more selective or stop being overly choosy. Expand your field of possible partners – if you have too long a list of absolutely necessary qualities; contract your field of potential partners – if you have had too few qualifiers. If you had a bad relationship with someone with brown eyes, do not – I repeat – do not refuse to consider anyone with brown eyes. If, however, you were kind of okay with dating compulsive liars, STOP THAT. And DON’T DO IT AGAIN.
Returning for a moment to the notion itself … of a bad relationship. Let’s be honest. That’s generally what we call any relationship that hasn’t continued. More than likely, that bad relationship had some good elements. You will not be doing yourself a disservice if you remember the good parts. Sure, it might make you feel that yearning for what was lost – and no one likes feeling that. But it will help you going forward. To see the good and the bad; the ugly and the beautiful of those deep interactions you invested so much of yourself in. They make up a vast part of you personal story. Give them the space they deserve.
And, whatever you do, don’t give up.
In my work as a psychotherapist, in virtually every instance after delving into the man or woman’s history, beliefs, expectations, and fears about relationships, he or she arrives at a new place. I can see it before they do. It’s an opening, an availability that wasn’t present before. Within months, sometimes even weeks, that new state of being attracts others. A new relationship begins, and something different happens. As things unfold, we discuss the feelings and thoughts that are triggered. I help my patient look at them in a new way ,which includes not necessarily acting on the feeling itself. If there’s fear, I encourage him or her not to run from it, but rather to try to just feel the feeling. If he or she begins to overlay old assumptions on the new relationship, I urge them to wait, to actually look at what is real versus what is believed to be so.
For those who can stay with the process – and the vast majority are able to do so, with my help – something quite wonderful happens. Love and commitment flower. For a great many, a strong bond develops that is exactly what they had been yearning for – for so long. Looking back after a few years have passed, there are marriages and children and a life that had only been a wishful dream.
The form these relationships take vary widely:
There’s the exceptionally successful professional woman who at the age of 34 was in despair that she would ever find a lasting relationship. Despite her intelligence and beauty and giving nature, she had been kissing too many frogs for too long. Ten years later, she is now fulfilled by being a stay-at-home mom to three children, with a kind, generous and very handsome husband.
There’s the bright and creative woman who first came to see me with her husband; the marriage was in grave shape. She felt frustrated and hopeless about the way he stonewalled her desire for true emotional contact. Despite valiant efforts on her part, and much couples therapy, he was unwilling to truly examine his own psychological issues. When the marriage ultimately ended, she was 41 and frightened about her future as a single parent with family on another continent. Today she has formed a deep, abiding and loving bond with a man who lives ten thousand miles away (on that other continent). They see each other a few times a year, but their love is unshakeable and their connection grows stronger. She knows she deserves more than crumbs and her energy has dramatically increased. She now has access to her full self – and she’s unstoppable. She’s become a playwright and a clothing designer. And there’s more to come.
There is the couple who met online when they were in their fifties and are now married. She had been in therapy with me for five years before she was able to shed some of the old baggage she had carried since childhood. Despite her extraordinary intelligence, she could not see her own value. As a child, she was made to feel as if she had to fulfill her mother’s every whim; what she needed was never deemed important. It wasn’t that surprising that she suffered from depression. Part was biochemical and part was the void that her mother left her with.
When she was able to see herself as worth loving, and when she was able to appreciate her spectacular qualities, her husband-to-be appeared. He thinks she is the most wonderful woman on Earth and she adores him. They travel all over the world and share a love of the arts. She is loved and she knows she deserves it.
There is the talented, charming, and exceptionally kind gay man who has found the love of his life after being devastated by betrayal in a relationship he believed was to be for life. When I first met him, eleven years ago, he had no idea that he was the sweet, gentle, beautiful person he actually is. He thought he had to put up with emotional abuse in order to be in a relationship. That was the blueprint that came with the disregard and disinterest with which his parents treated him. Gradually, as his self-esteem grew, so did his understanding that he deserved so much more – and he extricated himself from the connection to the man who would never appreciate him. Within a year of his choosing to end that relationship, he met someone who loves him with all his heart and is open to working through any issues that arise.
The shared lives these people are living are not without challenges: There are health issues that must be dealt with, family members who want to undermine them, and even depression which recurs. The hallmark of these relationships is the willingness to go through things rather than get stopped by obstacles. That is where the most important work continues to be done. I re-affirm – as often as necessary – that no matter what you are confronted with, life is worth fighting for, and when you have a partner in that fight, when you are not alone, there is the power of two – which can defeat almost anything. I don’t mean to say that, magically, love will eradicate illness. No. What I mean is that when you are loved and love in return, you have a lifeline to hold onto in the choppiest seas.
For those of you who would like to participate, the following is an exercise for women designed to help dissolve some inner obstacles to having the relationship you really want:
First, please close your eyes. Now…
Imagine you are standing on the top of a beautiful mountain – let’s say it’s in the Swiss Alps. The air is fresh, you feel more alive than you can remember. It’s perfect. Except for just one thing. If only you had a special someone to share it with – that would be the icing on the cake.
As you look around at the fantastic vista, you begin to visualize the ideal partner who would be the yin to your yang. Suddenly, in your reverie, you see a speck at the base of the mountain. It’s unclear just what it is, but gradually it gets larger and more distinct. It’s a person, slowly climbing up the jagged snow-capped rock. At first you can’t make out any specific details. But soon enough you see a well-muscled man with a shock of wavy dark brown hair. His deep blue eyes are shining and the smile on his face is the most joyful and welcoming smile you’ve ever seen. It takes a moment for you to realize that he’s smiling at you.
He’s a powerful climber and within a few minutes he’s reached the pinnacle; he’s standing next to you. Looking deeply into your eyes, but without a word, he takes your hand. What you feel is a heightening of your sense of being alive. Happiness, which you had always yearned for, is now pale compared to the complete sense of well-being which infuses you.
After some time, he turns and whispers in your ear: “I’ve been waiting for you forever. You are the one for me.”
And so you experience a state of joy and peace – something you never knew existed.
Open your eyes, but let the feelings stay with you. This is something that you can have – not just in fantasy, but in reality. Let the possibility live inside you and it will allow you to be open to the love that is plentiful and available. Love that is your birthright.
Men, you can use the same exercise as above, except you are the climber. She’s waiting for you. When you are ready.