The Fear of Being Alone
The small apartment I lived in after my divorce was nice. It had a small deck shaded by giant redwood trees. I spent afternoons and evenings sitting alone on the deck studying my latest bag of books from a local book fair; classic psychology from Jung, James, and Fromm were my most valued discoveries. After raising three beautiful children, and struggling for the better part of two decades, I cherished the solitude of the redwood shaded deck and a good book. I gratefully welcomed the quiet apartment; but soon hated it.
I was the third baby christened into my family. I was quickly followed by a brother and then two sisters. All of my siblings, followed suit-marry young and start having children. I married my sweetheart at 23 and soon was waiting my first beautiful child, quickly followed by another and then a third. Our children matured—dance lessons, basketball camps, and graduations—as my partner and I drifted apart. One by one the children left home. The empty house emotionally and physically echoed loudly that something was wrong. I was emotionally alone. After the divorce, now in my forties, I was physically alone for the first time. I never lived alone. How horribly wonderful!
I missed the whole young adult dating scene—because I was married. Now in my mid forties free to wander, email, text, and date, I was clueless. I read a few books on “how to attract women.” The first time I mechanically stumbled through the advice, I came home with a phone number scribbled on a napkin. I thought it was skill but now think it possibly was pity.
The excitement of romance faded to the drama of developing relationships. The initial spark of attraction, as it turns out, poorly predicts compatibility. Maybe still hung-over from the discomforts of a long struggling relationship I would prematurely abandon love with the slightest discomfort. I still debate whether wisdom or fear motivated several early departures. My prospective partners also had previous lives, sensitivities and insecurities. They also experienced hurts, disappoints and broken promises. They contended with their own fears.
The early excitement faded being replaced with dread. I was alone. I hated it. The repeating cycle of hope, fear, and painful endings ruined the enjoyment of dating. After several painful trips through this cycle, my stomach turned simply logging onto a dating site, spilling uneasiness into those dreadful first coffee dates. I scrolled through pictures and profiles knowing the person presented on-line wasn’t necessarily the person I would meet at Starbucks.
The drive to escape loneliness conflicted with the fear of a miserable relationship. In the end, for me, it worked out. I met a cute gal. She signed up for a bootcamp I was coaching. I didn’t need tricks to attract, or a tentative coffee date (she doesn’t like coffee). It just worked out; I still have fears. But now enjoy the security, love and companionship of a healthy relationship. Now and then, I think of the shaded deck and long for the solitude I hated so much.
We are complicated creatures composed of complicated and conflicting motivations. Often desires conflict with other desire; we can’t have everything. Obtaining one desire may require leaving another desire unfulfilled. We are constantly confronted with complicated trade-offs. My choice to commit to a relationship also included a choice to abandon the benefits of singlehood. Some fail to make these sacrifice with choices, juggle the unjuggleable until feelings are hurt and futures destroyed. Trade-offs are everywhere, not simply in relationship commitments. The addict may find several elements of their life needs changing in order to escape the devastating power of drug use.
Over time we adapt to the choices. The pangs of loneliness dissipate in a relationship. Loneliness doesn’t drive connection because we aren’t lonely. We lose sight of the debilitating feelings we experienced. The benefits of being single, on the other hand, loom large, no longer fulfilled. The motivation balance shifts and adjusts. Freedom becomes salient and more desirable when in bondage. But when a country experiences freedom over extended centuries, the people begin to wane, and slowly give up rights for present comfort.
Understanding adjusting motivations should remind us to think a little deeper. Remember what is gained and what is lost with a decision. While we all desire security and freedom, we don’t possess the same balance; some need more freedom while others need more security. One partner may adapt and push for greater freedom while the other partner still struggles for security. The first partner’s push triggers greater insecurity in the other.
Unfair expectations for a partner to magically demolish entrenched insecurities from chaotic childhoods places excessive weight on the tender beginnings of a relationship; healing takes time and if we frustrate the beginnings of love by expecting too much, we whittle a partner’s enthusiasm, discouraging growing commitments and leaving them feeling empty. Healing from a chaotic childhood requires more than a fantastic partner. Loving-care is a finite resource, in order to give it, energy must be replenished. Partners continually demanding more, manipulating with guilt, eventually pound a relationship into deficit, exacting a heavy toll on growing bonds, destroying enjoyment and hope of a satisfying connection. Relationships running in deficit invite improprieties, weakening trust and expanding co-dependency. Underlying fears motivate us to sacrifice intimacy to prevent another loss. Paradoxically, the continued co-dependent relationship doesn’t satisfy the needs. The relationship always teeters on a dramatic edge, intensifying fears, and increasing manipulations.
Whether we are insecure, or partnered with some one who is insecure, we must not condemn the fear, treating the cause as a chosen behavior to be overcome with greater self-discipline. The fear forms as a normal response to experience. Biological make-up intertwining with childhood experience, and traumatic encounters, and timing with brain development all significantly impact security—or lack of security. In a cruel cycle, the fear of being alone prevents setting healthy boundaries, allowing partners to act destructively. The moving force driving relationships shifts from fulfilling to avoiding physical aloneness—at all costs. To maintain a personal boundary, we must willingly leave partners who disrespect those boundaries. The self-confidence that we will survive without a partner is paramount to setting healthy boundaries. Powerful insecurities lead to loss of self, abuse, and depression. Neither being single nor being in a relationship can be enjoyed when the need for a partner trumps the need for intimacy.
Fear and love are not friendly traveling companions. Out of fear manipulation thrives, welcoming damaging connections instead of fleeing from them. Relationships enhance our beauty or expose a more shadowy side. Without mindful awareness, behaviors easily shift from love to the sinister influence of fear. We feel both emotions in close relationships. Our work is to refine love, recognize fear and courageously set and enforce personal boundaries. Together these practices protect against hurtful relationships, strengthen healthy connections, and build life giving self-confidence.