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The Lonely 'I' and Romantic Love: An Affliction

Updated: Jul 30, 2023

“I do not like to work with patients who are in love. Perhaps it is because of envy—I, too, crave enchantment. Perhaps it is because love and psychotherapy are fundamentally incompatible. The good therapist fights darkness and seeks illumination, while romantic love is sustained by mystery and crumbles upon inspection. I hate to be love’s executioner.”

― Irvin D. Yalom, quote from Love's Executioner: & Other Tales of Psychotherapy

Yalom's profound reflections on romantic love and his self-identification as 'love's executioner' have left a lasting impact on me. It sparked my interest in exploring the potential threats that love and romantic relationships pose to our self-awareness and personal growth. Irvin Yalom is a prominent figure in existential psychotherapy. I hold profound admiration for his efforts to humanize therapy and address the challenges of our human condition.

Throughout his work, Yalom has emphasized four existential concerns that we all confront in our lives. He called these "the four givens of life," these concerns are death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.

This article focuses on the third given of life - isolation - the inherent existential loneliness that repeatedly accompanies us. However, Yalom clarifies that this loneliness is not synonymous with interpersonal (lack of relationship with others) or intrapersonal (feeling detached from both self and others) loneliness. Instead, he defines it as a sense of separation from the world, even in the presence of meaningful interpersonal connections.

As we mature and comprehend the world, we repeatedly encounter the truth that "we came alone, and we will die alone." Aloneness is an intrinsic aspect of the human experience. However, this existential truth often fades away during our teenage years, fueled by hormones and romantic fascination. And further as young adults, we prioritize securing a primary relationship, a lifelong companionship characterized by intimate love, shared experiences, and togetherness. Our culture and media glorify romantic relationships, causing us to forget about the pervasive loneliness we can never escape. What a burden it is!

Recently, I found myself deeply disappointed as loneliness knocked on my door despite my best efforts to avoid it. As a therapist, I cherish the wisdom I gain from each client and the reminder that I am not alone in my experience. I recently met with a client who took a relatively longer break between his sessions. Upon asking the reason for the same he shared how he was thinking about the loneliness that he has always felt, that he had been feeling ever so much more lately and how he is trying to learn to be okay with it. He shared his understanding that regardless of the presence of relational experiences one has in life, this loneliness is ever present. “I wanted to meet you for a session earlier, but I felt that would also be an attempt to escape this loneliness, and I want to learn to be okay being with it”, he said. I was inspired by his courage, honesty with himself, the truth of life, and the sincerity with which he was invested in his personal growth.

This encounter reinforced my determination to reflect further on the topic. The concept of "eternal oneness" that awakened individuals often speak of made me wonder if it holds the key to overcoming loneliness. However, I recognized that experiencing it firsthand is necessary before drawing any conclusions. Thus, I returned to exploring within the confines of my own experiences and the knowledge shared by experts like Yalom.

I find fault with the notion of love and attachment instilled in us since childhood, perpetuating unrealistic expectations. We often succumb to wishful thinking, believing that this lonely "I" can transform into a blissful "WE," leading to a happily ever after where loneliness never intrudes—until, of course, one of the two partners passes away. This romanticized perspective entices us, repeatedly drawing us back to loneliness despite finding "our person." Our individuality is too profound to permanently merge into a collective "WE." Yalom's quote about the incompatibility of love and psychotherapy deepens my understanding of the dangers of intense romantic relationships. Romantic love often blinds us, leading us to seek temporary solace in the arms of a lover, longing for the unfulfilled spaces, stemming from our childhood, to be filled, believing it will make us feel whole.

It is maddening that we yearn for connection while being unable to escape the inherent loneliness that accompanies our humanity. This realization made me question whether there is a way out - a means to navigate this yearning and expectation. Can we stand firm on the shore while allowing the immense wave called love to wash over us without pulling us into its depths?

My client's approach seems like a positive step. Being courageous and self-aware can help us coexist with loneliness. I don’t think we can always resist the force of the wave, but we can always find courage as the wave leaves us back to the shore. We can always be brave, accepting this existential condition, accepting this loneliness as a guest we will never be able to get rid of, and welcoming it wholeheartedly instead of resisting it and being even more miserable in the attempt to run away from it. Another learning that I am personally trying to hold close to is to try to remember the permanency of this loneliness and be conscious of my expectations. When I catch myself trying to run away, I try to find the strength to sit with it, embracing the discomfort and engaging in a conversation with the silence it brings. Loneliness can teach us much about ourselves.

Amidst expressing my annoyance and frustration with this affliction, I must emphasize that finding a balance between loneliness and moments of deep, intimate connection can be immensely relieving. Being able to sit with loneliness can also help us appreciate connection more deeply. Finding ourselves moments of genuine connection with people we love and who love us.

But more importantly to keep reminding ourselves that feeling alone is okay and that it won’t kill us. To also change perspective and view this existential loneliness as an opportunity that life keeps presenting to us for us to fall equally for ourselves, to find similar fondness in our solitude, in moments when we are truly with ourselves. This loneliness also brings a chance to interact intimately with life, to be seated in our own raw experience and the meaning we make of it, unadulterated by another person for a while.

This is an invitation for you to embrace loneliness just as we are taught to embrace connection. What are your thoughts on this? Share them with me and fellow readers in the comments below.

Man sitting in solitude in nature


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