"I just don't want to feel second," Kyra insisted, as she told me how upset she got when her husband interrupted dinner to take a phone call from his cousin. It reminded her of how she used to feel when she was a child and her mother and sister would talk animatedly with each other. She would tug on her mother's sleeve but be ignored. She thought those feelings of being neglected were behind her—she had found the man she loved, and he was her friend as well as her lover. But now she was filled with doubt.
The dawning of loneliness is a very strange time in a relationship. It can be a sign that something is wrong—but this is not always the case. One of the age-old truths about love is that while it offers unparalleled opportunities for union and the lifting of ego boundaries, it also washes us up on the shores of the loved one's otherness. Sooner or later, love makes us feel inescapably separate.
While I was sympathetic to Kyra's needs for intimacy, I felt there was something potentially destructive in her longings for closeness. Like many people who appear to have it all, she was getting in the way of her own happiness.
Most of us are brought up to think the key to happiness lies outside ourselves. We look forward to falling in love, having a family, making a career, or building a dream house, and we expect that these levels of accomplishment will be enough. But often we find that when one level of need is satisfied, another takes its place.
We respond to those new needs in a variety of ways. The most common response, as Kyra discovered, is to try to squeeze more juice out of what we have. This is what Kyra seemed to be doing in wanting her husband to pay more attention to her. Another strategy is to try to override the feelings of loneliness by turning to food, drugs, alcohol, or extramarital affairs. This is the path of compulsion, and its casualties are legion. The third reaction is to turn against what we need. If Kyra was unable to get her husband to give her more attention, she might withdraw from or disparage him sexually, driving him further away. This could bring the marriage to a stalemate, increasing the chances of her seeking happiness through the attention of another man. But she would eventually face the same predicament in her next relationship.
"Love is the revelation of the other person's freedom"
These thinkers approach, but then pull back from, the spiritual dimension of loneliness. They understand that the ego yearns for release, seeking it most commonly in the surrender of loving relations. But when this vehicle comes up short, they do not recognize that our disillusionment is an opportunity to rethink our approach to happiness. If we only look outside ourselves, we remain blind to our capacity for inner fulfillment.
The spiritual teacher Jack Kornfield, in his book A Path With Heart, tells a story about his battles with loneliness while training as a monk in Thailand. For a long time, Jack was besieged by sexual longings in his meditations. Embarrassed, he asked his elderly teacher what to do. The old man told him to simply observe his longings. Jack worked hard at this, applying what is called bare, or nonjudgmental, attention as fantasies filled his mind. Slowly, a feeling of loneliness emerged. His lust was not only lust but a way of seeking closeness.
Jack continued to observe his inner process. He realized (like Kyra) that his loneliness was tied to a childhood feeling of insufficiency. There is something wrong with me and I will always be rejected, he found himself thinking. He recognized this as a core belief about himself, but instead of closing down around it in self-pity, he applied what he had learned from his training in mindfulness meditation. By neither holding on to this belief nor pushing it away, he opened to it in the spirit of acceptance. Slowly but surely, disturbing emptiness gave way to clear space. The lonely feelings persisted, but they were stripped of the quality of "poor me."
Kyra was not as self-aware as Jack, but she was able to head down a similar path. In therapy she realized that she was an expert in closeness, having learned how to weave herself into someone else's space in order to make that person happy. "I know how to put someone else first," she told me proudly, with a trace of exasperation at her husband's inability to do the same for her.
"You don't want to feel second, yet you always put the other person first," I pointed out. "What would it mean to put yourself first instead of waiting for someone to do it for you?"
Kyra began to question the assumptions that had been running her relationship. She wanted to feel important to her husband, but when she felt lonely, her trust in him began to crumble. "Can't you feel lonely and be important to him at the same time?" I asked. Kyra admitted she had never thought of it that way, and then had the kind of breakthrough that makes me happy to be a psychiatrist.
"Feeling the loneliness is being close to myself," she said softly. I could feel a new level of self-acceptance taking hold. If she didn't allow herself to feel lonely and tried only to be closer to her husband, she could never find herself.
This insight stopped her from turning disappointment into depression. It broke the connection between loneliness and low self-esteem that had been forged years ago when she struggled for her mother's attention. Kyra had taken her loneliness to mean she was flawed. By staying with the feeling a little longer instead of rushing to an old judgment, she opened up other possible meanings. Her husband might ignore her at times, but she could be close to herself. There was excitement in this discovery: Aloneness uncontaminated with self-pity is very fertile. Now she had time and energy to focus on something other than her husband. And although she was not very practiced at this sort of "selfishness,'' she was ready to learn.
Mark Epstein is a psychiatrist and the author of the book Going on Being (Broadway Books).
More O: Two simple ways to upgrade your relationship