Are You Lonely in a Partnership or Marriage?
About my soaring, loving marriage of 26 years (5 months and 17 days—but who’s counting), people often say: “You’re soooo lucky!”
Sorry folks. It’s not called luck; it’s called hard work.
And it’s the best and most rewarding type of labor in the land—that of co-creating a partnership or marriage steeped in friendship, mutual adoration, and never-ending respect for each other’s talents and quirks. (Oh, if I could list all of my highly not-always-adorable idiosyncrasies!) It’s not by chance nor providence that my sweet groom and I have stayed connected and tuned into each other’s frequencies—forever and often imperfectly, but consistently, turning back toward each other when momentary silences (or sometimes near-deafening static) occupies too much space between us … consistently—quite imperfectly, which is what makes it all perfect—making sure each other’s emotional needs are tended to.
And, okay, I might have a slightly unfair advantage: I’m a social scientist who studies this stuff day in and out—the work of making marriages strong and vibrant, those of so-called #relationshipgoals. Ask my husband about what it’s like being married to a marriage researcher for a quarter century and he’ll act all witty, detailing the book he dares to write some day: “Lessons from a guy married to a marriage researcher.” Its subtitle: “My relationship? It’s a petri dish.” (Indeed, well-positioned humor is essential in every marriage!)
But here’s a too-obvious truth: You don’t have to be a marriage expert nor wedded to one to know when something isn’t quite right in your partnership or marriage.
If your union isn’t currently one of those in which humor comes easily; isn’t one in which his adorable quirks are, well, still endearing; or isn’t one in which your emotional needs are indeed being met, perhaps you’re in a lonely marriage.
Sounds oxymoronic, right? “Lonely” used to describe “marriage?”
How can someone be lonely but not actually alone? How can I be lonely when my spouse is right there; I can literally see him, smell him, and we totally just paid all the bills together without even arguing or snapping at one another (#success)!
Unfortunately, you can be lonely in your marriage. And talk to someone who has experienced it and they’ll likely tell you it’s worse than being lonely all alone. According to recent surveys, 40% of people know too well the often-quiet pain of being lonely while married because they have been in one at some point. Although no two happy marriages are identical, every lonely marriage shares one thing in common: one spouse feels a bit abandoned—emotionally, that is.
Emotional abandonment can be a bit confusing. Somewhat vague. And hard to pinpoint—precisely because the person is, literally, lying right next to you; raising those chubby, sweet babies and toddlers and teens day-in/out with you; and might even be the person with whom you’re still having sex. But, it’s also the person with whom—when you get honest and quiet enough to admit it—darn it, you just know something is off. Something is—how do you put it?—“missing.”
Being in a lonely marriage doesn’t mean you’re physically excluding your partner from your life; it means you’re excluding your partner from your thoughts. It doesn’t mean you aren’t talking; it means you aren’t communicating about your hopes, fears, and dreams. It doesn’t mean you are arguing and yelling all the time; it is more likely to mean you don’t fight anymore—because, honestly, it’s just easier that way. And, it doesn’t always mean you’re not doing a great job parenting! In fact, many couples who are feeling disconnected throw the majority of their energy into their kids. You know, as a distraction from the real pain; the real problems; the real and nagging ache that comes from knowing something is—how do you put it?—missing… a something you sometimes aren’t sure you want back, most likely because getting it back is going to take some (vulnerable) work.
And, let’s be clear: Being in a lonely marriage doesn’t mean you don’t love your spouse. It more likely means the emotional distance between the two of you has expanded to such a point that your love is lacking an essential intimacy—a tenderness of words, actions, and thoughts. A type of gentleness you know is possible in your two-ness because (remember?!) it was that very gentleness which attracted you to each other in the first place!
And, good news warning here: It’s with that very sense of possibility that you should remain hopeful and optimistic, even if you’re quietly reading this right now with a knowing dread that the marriage I describe above is, indeed, your current marriage.
Why be hopeful? Because most relationships in which emotional distance and loneliness have taken up residence can, indeed, be shifted. They can – yes, yes, yes they can!– be ushered back to a we-ness replete with positive energy and joyful intimacy.
You can, with a little work and sometimes just a few very small tweaks in your own behavior (yes, change starts with you), come back to a daily reality which looks more like this: a marriage in which you do know what your spouse’s current worries are; in which you can laugh again at the slightly over-drawn checking account; in which you do want to create and actively anticipate with joy to an evening where the kids go to grandma’s and, well, just the two of you do what just-the-two-of-you love doing (ahem, do engage your R-rated imagination here. #wink).
Yes, you can get back to that marriage!
“How?” You might ask. And do you need to find a therapist to reclaim said #goals marriage?
As you make the decision to reclaim a connection with your spouse, resolve first to be patient. Not completely unlike the work of getting back in physical shape after injury or illness (you wouldn’t strap on your shoes and run a 10K after a 3-year hiatus from exercising, amiright?), re-building relationship muscles after allowing them to atrophy a bit will take a little time; will definitely require a little effort. But “little” is the key word there! And muscle memory is a powerful thing, as is the intimacy muscle. Here are three simple tips as you begin your new reconnection exercise routine:
- ASK QUESTIONS. If you are lonely, it’s most likely your partner is lonely too—feeling similarly hopeless and helpless, not sure where to begin. The simple answer to where you begin? It’s with you. Take the initiative by asking your partner at least one question a day about something NOT related to managing your lives (“Did you pick up the dry cleaning?” “Can you grab the kids tomorrow after school?”). Ask them about something they’re currently worried about. Stressed about. Excited about. Looking forward to. And, then, really want to listen. Start small, and don’t be surprised if your partner is a little suspicious at first. Re-establishing emotional connection is a shift in energy—a shift in wanting to know what each of you are thinking and feeling again. Make it your goal to engage your partner in more of these conversations each day. Most likely they will begin reciprocating, asking you similar questions. It might not happen right away (old habits are… you know!). But trust that over time it will. Humans are pretty predictable; we tend to give back precisely what we are given.
- GET INTO THEIR WORLD. Meaning, into their thought-world. Yes, this can happen by asking questions (see point one). But also important is your own quiet, internal effort to take your partner’s perspective—an exercise you can’t skip as you work to re-build an emotional bond with your partner. How do you engage in this thing we call “perspective-taking?” Close your eyes. And then really (with a smile, please) try to imagine your partner’s world from his perspective. From her vantage point. What do you think they are feeling/experiencing/needing? What is daily life like—from their angle? Come into these few minutes of perspective-taking with a generosity of heart and mind, an activity that will (kind of magically) give you more empathy and patience as you talk to and navigate daily life with your partner.
- CREATE RITUALS OF CONNECTION. Start small here. Choose to create tiny moments during which you gently and intentionally share experiences again. If your spouse is the one who usually makes dinner, join him/her in the kitchen and ask how you can help tonight. Maybe pull up his/her favorite artist on Spotify, filling the room with a joyful sound—setting the tone for more joyful, even if they’re tiny, feelings between the two of you. These small gestures of connection are the powerful stuff of thriving partnerships and marriages, each one contributing to a larger reality of “we” (again).
If you’re more than a little worried about doing any of the above – and depending on how long and deep you’ve been in the lonely season of your partnership or marriage—it might not only be wise but necessary to seek some support as you guide apathy, loneliness, and lack of connection out the back door of your marriage. And here’s the good news: there is most likely a gaggle of excellent, licensed marriage and family therapists in your town. How to find one? I like to begin by asking a colleague or pal for referrals. Another option: simply enter your zip code here to get a list of great, licensed peeps near you:
Also, did you know that seeing a MFT is covered by most health insurance plans? And, finally, if your spouse or partner is reluctant about marriage/couples therapy, two pro-persuasion tips:
- Encourage them to think therapy simply as education—a (simple) opportunity to learn new ways of being together!
- If you have kids, harness their desire to raise thriving littles—reminding your spouse that the single most important thing you can do for your children is to have a healthy relationship yourselves. (Yes, they are watching.)
And yes, you can reclaim intimacy again! But it’s going to take some work. Just keep reminding yourself: it’s the most valuable work you’ll ever do.
Carol Bruess, a professor emeritus at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, studies and writes about relationships, is highly fluent in emoji, loves parentheticals, and is preparing her best happy-dance for empty-nest-time next year (but shhhh—don’t tell her kids because they think she’s going to be all weepy). Check out her research, books and sewing/design shenanigans over at carolbruess.com.