I recently received an email from a reader, a 47-year old man about to turn 48, asking for advice. With his permission, the email is summarized below, followed by my reply.
The man reported deep loneliness from never having had a girlfriend. He said he had sought help from counselors to no avail. “I am not bitter against women or anybody else,” he wrote. “I am just having trouble coping with my fate. Most counselors and support groups will not accept me because they assume that a lack of dating is not a major problem.”
Then he added more information. He wrote that when he was 21 and intoxicated in a bar, some men tried to sexually assault him and he barely escaped. He also reported a violent encounter in which he was hit with a bottle by a woman making racial slurs. He wrote that counselors and support groups showed interest in the traumatic flashbacks he had from those episodes, but that, in his view, his current loneliness was a bigger problem than his traumatic stress. What he wanted, he wrote, was advice on dating and coping with his loneliness.
Here’s my reply:
I salute your ability to keep on trying and believe there is hope for overcoming your loneliness. Like other counselors you have come into contact with, I cannot ignore the trauma in your story. I think you may still be suffering from trauma from the sexual assault years ago. Sexual assault has profound long-term effects. For many male survivors, it results in shame and isolation, which make healthy connections with others difficult or impossible and lead to loneliness.
In other words, your loneliness may be rooted in your past trauma and your lack of dates may be a symptom, not a cause, of your loneliness.
As a step toward overcoming your loneliness, I suggest going back to a counselor who wanted to discuss your traumatic flashbacks or finding a new counselor to talk with about the assault.
I have worked with many trauma survivors, and I know the last thing many of them want is to explore how the trauma has affected them. It takes courage to be open to the exploration as a possible pathway to better relationships.
Through my work, I have learned this: When we heal the past, it doesn’t have the hold on us that it used to. When we’re healed from the inside, we have a healthier glow on the outside that others can see and reflect back to us.
Lionel Shockness, a psychotherapist, will answer reader questions for this column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org