Maybe it’s a significant other, friend, or other person you regularly see or spend time with but you’re unsure if your relationship or friendship with them is for the right reasons, or whether it’s just because you’re feeling lonely. If you feel that this applies to you, here are some steps for figuring out whether or not you genuinely like spending time with this person or only do so because you don’t want to be lonely.
Question your initial motives for choosing to know this person. At the start, maybe you were genuinely interested in this person’s qualities or had something in common with them when you first met. On the other hand, maybe you felt you should be nice to them just because your other friends liked them, or you were on the rebound from a break-up, or something in the other person’s life made you feel sorry for them. Try to go back to the start of your relationship and think of as many different reasons as you can for why you became involved with them. Doing this will help you to decide how you truly feel towards this person.
Consider how you usually feel in this person’s company. Think about what you personally gain from the experience of spending time with this person. Do you get bored, feel anxious, or uncomfortable? On the other hand, perhaps you often feel happy, cheerful, loving, or warm when spending time with them. Take some time to think through as many different memories as you can to build up a pattern – have you experienced enjoyable times or is it hard to even remember the last time you experienced any positive feelings around them – if ever?
Give yourself some space. This step may be difficult for you if you really dislike being alone but it is important to try. Being apart from the person about whom you’re not sure can give you a clearer perspective on whether or not it’s purely loneliness that motivates you to keep communicating with this person, or whether there are genuinely good reasons for staying connected. Try to remain apart for at least two weeks; this amount of time will help you figure out whether or not you really miss the person in question, or whether you’re just bored when they’re not around. While apart, consider whether:
- You miss specific things about them. If so, it’s probable that you genuinely care for this person.
- You find it hard to recall anything in particular that you’re missing, or there is only a vague sense of missing their company. You might even feel a sense of relief that you’re not having to “put up” with certain behaviors and attitudes this person has when you’re together. In this case, it’s possible that you’re only keeping this person in your life to fill a gap.
- You find yourself making comparisons with ex-friends or ex-dates in your life. Some time apart can sometimes reveal a negative pattern of similar issues, personality traits, and habits arising. In this case, you have probably made the same error again, repeating a relationship that is unlikely to fulfill either of you.
- Give yourself time for self-reflection and self-discovery. If you don’t know yourself very well, you’re vulnerable to seeking affirmation of your worth in relationships with others and are under the spell of expecting others to “raise you from the ground up”. If you feel that this is what you’ve been doing, allow yourself time to figure out who you are and what you care about so that you can grow to like yourself more. In doing so, you’ll replace feelings of loneliness with liking yourself, creating a strong foundation for healthy relationships with other people.
Ask yourself if your expectations for the relationship are too high. Sometimes you might question whether you want someone in your life because you constantly butt heads with them. But it might not be that you actually dislike this person. It could simply be that you like them well enough, but that there are habits or personality traits of theirs you find it hard to relate to or handle over any extended period of time, indicating that you’re just not all that close or that when you’re together, it needs to be only in “small doses”. For example, it could be because they’re an introvert while you’re an extrovert. Or, maybe their interests don’t coincide that much with yours but they insist on telling you all about theirs while not returning you the same courtesy of listening about yours. If you’re thinking by this point “yes, that’s exactly it!”, this is likely to be a sign that you’d benefit by spending more time with other people – as well as still some (perhaps less) time with this person – rather than a sign you dislike this person and only spend time with them to avoid being alone.
Expose yourself to as many other people as you feel you can. Spending time with other people might give you a better idea of the kinds of people you’d prefer to know. Seeing other people in different contexts might help to give you an idea of whether or not the person you’ve been spending a lot of time with fits into this category, or whether you might have outgrown them.
- If you’re feeling nervous about spending time with other people (especially if your time has greatly revolved around this one person), trying out this step doesn’t have to mean spending time with family or close friends (though these things do help) only. Just saying a cheerful “hi” or seeking to make small talk with a few acquaintances (whether it be a shop assistant, colleague, or someone you regularly pass in the street) can be a start.
- If you’ve allowed this person to take over a lot of your life and shut you off from other people, you might like to consider volunteering with people who are feeling lonely, such as senior citizens, or down and out youth. This will help to put your own feelings of loneliness into perspective and will bring into contact with many other people, thinking of their needs rather of your own neediness.
- If you feel bad about spreading your wings, see this as an altruistic act. Your spending time with a wider range of people can help break the loneliness cycle not just for you, but for the other person; a recent study undertaken by the University of Chicago, the University of California-San Diego and Harvard found that loneliness is contagious and can be passed on to others, meaning that you could transmit your loneliness to this person without even meaning to do so. In increasing your exposure to other people, you may be breaking the cycle of loneliness for both of you.
Monitor your ongoing thoughts and emotions. Another approach you can use to test the relationship’s value to you is by making plans to do something with this person and following through with the plans. All the while you are carrying out this plan, monitor your automatic thoughts and emotional reactions. If, prior to and during this time, you find your head is full of negative thoughts such as “This is going to be awful,” or “I wish I had something nicer/more interesting/better to do,” or you experience strong negative emotions such as dread, disgust, boredom, etc., then these are likely warning signs that you don’t truly like being with or appreciate this person as someone who connects with you.
End the friendship or relationship if appropriate. If you feel after trying these steps that you truly don’t like this person, and only see them to avoid being alone, consider ending the relationship and finding other people or activities to fill your time. Not only will this bring relief to you but doing this will be fairer on the other person rather than dragging out the lackluster relationship any longer. Accept that sometimes we have to let go in order to grow.