Wracked by loneliness, wondering if it’s time to ‘settle’

Carolyn Hax
Columnist April 30, 2011

Dear Carolyn:

I feel I’m at the very edge of what is survivable as far as loneliness. I’ve always thought it preferable to be on my own than to settle for someone, which seems unfair to me and to the other person. I’ve also thought that leading a generally fulfilling life should be enough.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I do all the things it seems one is supposed to do. I have a fulfilling career. I travel. I make time for friends. I pursue my interests and hobbies. But, even when I have the best day filled with interesting people and activities, most of the time, I go home alone and lately, it’s a rare night that I don’t cry myself to sleep over this (body-wracking sobs, actually).

I should also add that I have no family to speak of. My parents died several years ago and for various reasons, it is no longer possible for me to have any contact with either of my siblings.

I also feel like every few years, I have to make new friends, as the older ones settle into long-term relationships or the demands of raising families. For the most part, these friends still make time for me, but the reality is, they just have less time to give, and I still have all the time in the world.


So, in my worst, feeling-sorriest-for-myself moments, I think that I have no backup, that I’m not the most important person in anyone’s life, and no amount of self-help cliches can convince me there’s any other solution than finding a trustworthy partner, even if he’s not really what I’m looking for or what I want.

That was all a long way of asking, at what point can I give myself permission to say that overwhelming loneliness is worse than a low level of dissatisfaction or unhappiness with the wrong person?

— Alone

At 5, you wanted someone who would play games by your rules. At 11, you had a crush on a guy’s hair. Outsize confidence was lookin’ pretty good to you at 19, and a nice butt was the kind of bonus you believed you had every right to seek out. At 26, wow, an educated guy with a solid job who felt the same way as you about kids?

When you replaced these standards by which you judged men, did you need “permission” to do it?

You’ve evolved, your life has evolved, your desires have evolved, and your family has dissolved. Please don’t apologize to anyone — yourself least of all — for rewriting your definition of attractiveness to reflect a basic and duly recognized desire for steady companionship.

That it’s the result of a natural progression isn’t the only reason to embrace a new outlook on men. You also have built-in safeguards against doing something stupid, as long as you don’t tune them out.

Specifically, as long as you don’t force yourself to keep seeing someone whose company you don’t enjoy or who mistreats you, your “low level of dissatisfaction” is likely to be with mannerisms, resume items or beliefs that used to be important but don’t seem so anymore — all facts of life companionship.

And when you meet someone whose companionship brings more pleasure to you than your life does now, will you still be able to say, “He’s not really what I’m looking for or what I want”? You’re not comparing men with a fear of being alone — i.e., settling — you’re comparing them with a fresh knowledge of it.

Also: The words you use, “trustworthy partner,” are hardly license to throw a bag over the first man you see. You’ll have to be as selective as ever to find this person, since trust requires two quality people plus time, and partnership requires those things plus mutual commitment and compatibility.

Given your vulnerability, in fact, please be pickier than ever. Just be picky about different things: Don’t budge an inch on the way someone treats you (or the usual bellwethers: exes, waiters and pets). Sobbing in bed alone may seem like hitting bottom, but imagine sobbing while an uncaring other watches TV two rooms away.

Other things to consider — the requisite self-help cliches — include tending to your health (a depression screening would make sense), and revisiting your lineup of friends, hobbies, interests, travel, career, this time with a different kind of family-building in mind.

People who don’t have traditional families to rely on are legion, and among those who create a “family of choice,” a shared purpose is often what unifies them. If your hobbies/interests/career are just textbook stabs at being okay with being single and aren’t driven by a sense of purpose that’s bigger than you, then that’s an untapped source of peace that’s entirely within your control — which nobody’s mate ever is.

Write to Tell Me About It, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com.

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