Lonely but not alone - loneliness, relationships and parental conflict

Published in Blog by Amanda Hart on April 26th 2022

We don’t have to be alone to feel lonely.

Those of us working in relationship counselling know that some couples feel it too.

When we think about loneliness, we don’t often associate it with being in a relationship. But my work with people addressing relationship conflict (specifically parental conflict) has taught me that loneliness can be a factor in how people manage in relationships, whether that be feeling lonely now, or fear of feeling lonely later.

People who are experiencing conflict in their couple relationship sometimes feel misunderstood by their partner, or not heard, and this can feel very isolating. When conflict arises in intimate relationships, it’s common for individuals to retreat into separate – often polarised - positions, where they can end up feeling stuck, which can be a lonely place to be. Over time, and with repeated conflict patterns, that distance between partners can grow, and they can end up feeling extremely isolated, even alone. Of course, all relationships experience some degree of conflict, but conflict between parents that is frequent, intense or poorly resolved can harmful in the long term to any children involved.

Some people choose to stay in relationships that are not working, out of fear that they might feel lonely if they were to leave. When there are children, that fear of feeling isolated as a single parent can be a motivator to stay in a relationship where there is unresolved conflict.

How couples therapy techniques work

My work with Tavistock Relationships on the Reducing Parental Conflict team has involved working with parents, both in couples and separated coparents, to address the conflict they are experiencing. Many parents have told me how lonely they feel when they are unable to communicate effectively with their partner or coparent, when they are caring for children on their own, or when they feel that nobody understands what they are going through. One way that we support such parents is using Mentalization Based Therapy (MBT) approaches in our conversations with them. MBT encourages people to think about how they are thinking as well as about how others might be thinking or feeling.

How relationship therapy works – an example

One couple I worked with was experiencing frequent and enduring conflict with each other which had resulted in them living almost separate lives in the same house, creating a lot of confusion and conflict for their children. Both parents told me that they felt lonely and misunderstood by their spouse, and one parent felt rejected by the children. Through encouraging them to mentalize themselves, each other and the children, these parents were able to start challenging their own thinking – accepting that their own positions or responses weren’t always helpful, and that there were other ways of looking at problems. By keeping the children in mind, and seeing things from their point of view, the parents were able to gain insight into the impact of their conflict on the family.

Through encouraging them to mentalize themselves, each other and the children, these parents were able to start challenging their own thinking.

The result was that these parents were able to make subtle changes to the ways in which they responded and interacted, leading to a reduction in the frequency and intensity of conflict. The children were therefore less disturbed and the atmosphere in the family home was calmer. At the end of our work together the parents reflected on how lonely and misunderstood they had both felt when starting our sessions, but that learning mentalization skills had enabled them to think more flexibly and to communicate more calmly and effectively. This led to not only a reduction in conflict, but an increase in communication and feelings of togetherness within the family: a less lonely place for them to be.

For couples and parents, the ability to create that time and space to think about their relationship in this way can strengthen their couple mind, and therefore help partners or coparents to feel less lonely, better understood and more supported.

Find out more about couples therapy services

How does couples therapy work, how much does it cost and where can you find out more? Read more about the services we offer.

Reducing Parental Conflict trainings for local authorities

For those responsible for working to reduce parental conflict, working in social care settings, we offer a series of expert trainings which allow local authorities to make the most of the Workforce Development Grant. Find out more.

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