Dear Therapist: It’s Hard to Accept Being Single

Listening to my friends talk about their relationship problems is getting really tough.

An illustration of several couples in boats together and a single woman in a boat by herself
Bianca Bagnarelli
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Dear Therapist,

How do I tell my friends I really don't want to hear about the problems they are having in their relationships? It is really hard for me to listen to them complain about their spouses or significant others when I am fighting hard to accept being single.

They assume that because things are going well in other aspects of my life, I am okay with my nonexistent romantic life, and therefore free to listen to them complain. I am not. It's the reason I have been in and out of therapy for the past few years—the inability to accept and deal with the fact that I am single, with no real prospects on the horizon.

I want to be a good friend, but I just don't think I can hear another story about how he forgot to take out the trash or call right back so the marriage/relationship is over! When I tell them that I don't want to hear it, I truly mean it, but they assume I'm only kidding and keep talking. I have to take breaks from them just to get away before I explode and ruin friendships.

Please tell me what I should do.


Dear Anonymous,

What your friends might not realize is that many single people who long for a partner experience something called ambiguous loss or ambiguous grief. It’s a type of grieving, but it’s different from the grieving someone might do after a concrete loss like the death of a spouse from, say, cancer.

In ambiguous grief, there’s a murkiness to the loss. Lots of people experience ambiguous grief, not only those hoping to find a partner. A husband or wife may experience it if their partner is still alive but can no longer live with them or recognize them because of a disease like Alzheimer’s. A woman might experience it if she is trying and unable to get pregnant, though she has not lost a child. And a single person hoping to meet someone might experience it in the lack of a partner he or she longs for but hasn’t met.

Ambiguous grief isn’t more or less painful than other types of grief—it’s just different. But one thing that does make it additionally challenging is that it tends to go unacknowledged. There are no condolence cards directed at the person whose spouse is there physically but not cognitively, or the person who can’t have the child she dreams of, or the person whose imagined partner has never appeared. There are no community rituals in place to support these people in their grief. They don’t get to take a day off work because they’re heartbroken that yet another promising date turned out to be a dud and they’re back in the throes of ambiguous grief. Instead, their grief goes largely unnoticed.

If your coupled friends understood your ambiguous grief—the intangible loss, the not knowing, the toggling between hope one minute and sadness the next—they might show more sensitivity by toning down their complaints and taking your request more seriously. So rather than taking breaks from them or biting your tongue during these conversations, you might find it beneficial to be more direct in sharing your experience with them.

Your conversation might start like this: “I want to talk to you about something, because I really care about our friendship. I know that the problems you bring up about your relationship matter, but I don’t know if you realize what it’s like for me to hear them.”

Then you might explain the nuances of ambiguous grief, and let your friends know what exacerbates it. For example:

  • When you complain about your partner, it’s like telling me that your meal at a nice restaurant was disappointing at a time when I’m hungry and not sure there will ever be enough food for me.

  • When you’re upset with your partner and make offhand comments like “Don’t get married!” or “You’re so lucky you’re single!,” please remember that I’m often very lonely. When you say “I wish I had your free time!,” remember that a lot of my time and emotional energy involves trying to find a partner, which can be demoralizing and exhausting. I’d rather spend my supposedly glamorous “free” time doing something as unglamorous as sitting on the couch watching Netflix with a significant other. Consider, too, that I don’t have a partner to help reduce some of the burden of running errands or cooking or doing dishes or laundry—a privilege you enjoy every day.

  • Don’t treat my romantic concerns as either less significant than yours (because you’re in a relationship) or as fodder for your amusement. My dating stories may seem funny or entertaining to you, but they’re often quite upsetting to me, and I’m sharing them with you because I’m seeking your support.

  • When you discuss your disagreements with your partner with me, you put me in the awkward position of feeling obligated to sympathize (and diss what your partner is doing), when often the next day, you’re back to being madly in love with this person. I don’t want to be your ally against your partner, or the default person you complain to and then ignore when the dust has settled. Similarly, please don’t ask me to get together only when you’re angry with your partner, or your partner is out of town.

  • Imagine how I feel when you complain that your husband, who adores and desires you, wants to have sex with you at an inopportune time—while my choices are sex with strangers or no sex at all.

  • You’re right that things are going well for me in other areas of my life, but please don’t assume that I’m not grieving the lack of a partner. Don’t deny my grief by telling me I should feel grateful for all that I have (I am) or perfectly fulfilled without a partner (I’m not). Try to imagine what it’s like to do things by myself that I thought I’d be doing with a spouse by now, from the big (buying a house) to the small (deciding where to go for the weekend). Don’t deny my grief by saying “I’m sure you’ll find someone,” because ambiguous grief is all about the ongoing uncertainty. The truth is, nobody knows when or whether I’ll find the right person, and when you offer false certainty, you further deny my reality.

Having this conversation will help with one aspect of ambiguous grief: isolation. The more your friends understand your experience, the more they can support you, and the more you’ll enjoy these friendships and not feel like you have to distance yourself from them (which adds to the isolation). Of course, you don’t want your friends to avoid sharing their lives with you, or to feel like they’re constantly on the verge of causing you pain. But an awareness of how these complaints land on you will make your friends less tone-deaf, and that in turn will build your tolerance to hear what’s weighing on your friends (at least in small doses).

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.