We always connect loneliness with single people. Or people that are divorced, widowed, people without close families… But what about loneliness in marriage? I mean, marriages are supposed to shield us from loneliness! Our spouses should be our lifelong companions who are there whenever we need some comfort, a good conversation, emotional support.
We rarely think about the phenomenon of marital loneliness, although it’s becoming more and more pervasive, it seems.
The year 2020 seems to be rife with loneliness in marriage studies. I found two particularly interesting ones which I want to briefly mention here.
Two studies on loneliness in marriage that tell us a lot about this phenomenon
So, before I continue on with the topic of marital loneliness, I want to first define what this type of loneliness is and why people feel it in the first place.
The first study gives a very neat definition, I think: “Individuals feel lonely when they perceive a discrepancy between the amount of closeness and intimacy in social relationships they desire and what they actually experience.”
So it’s a back and forth relationship between the expectations you have from your partner, coupled with the need to fulfill certain needs and desires.
And yet, paradoxically, partner relationships or marriages “have consistently been found to be the most powerful protective factor against loneliness,” as the study says.
Eight years in the making, this study looked at 2337 “stable couples” and their relationship dynamics in German families.
A key point that I found particularly interesting in it was the difference between how men and women experienced loneliness in marriage. Namely, “women were most satisfied with their relationships when both partners scored low on loneliness, whereas men were most satisfied when their own loneliness was low, irrespective of their partners’ loneliness.”
I mean, we’re some selfish dogs sometimes, I’ll give you that.
And, of course, the obvious conclusion was that increases in relationship satisfaction had a lot to do with low levels of loneliness between the spouses, or “declines in loneliness of at least one partner.”
The second study looked at older married couples
A new joining study from Michigan State University and the University of Chicago, published in February 2020, looks at loneliness in marriages between older adults.
And, as the study shows, it seems that older married couples are more likely to live “in an ambivalent, indifferent, or aversive marriage.” But how many couples are we talking about here? Well, it turns out that from 953 studied couples, more than half of them lived in these kinds of marriages. I find this number particularly sad, to be honest.
Also, women are more likely to feel lonely in a marriage. The study concludes that “wives (but not husbands) in indifferent marriages are lonelier than their supportively married counterparts.” What’s more, the good relationships with relatives and friends don’t seem to ameliorate feelings of loneliness in marriage and poor quality of marriage in general, according to the study.
Loneliness in marriage is a hard thing to pinpoint
But there’s a pattern here. Loneliness in marriage doesn’t simply spring out of nowhere. It develops throughout the years until it grows bigger and bigger. Until some time after you find yourselves enshrouded in a misty cloud of separation and isolation which is harder and harder to fix.
A successful and quality marriage implies a sense of connectedness among partners, regardless of their age. And this is precisely what’s lacking in marriages where spouses feel lonely.
And the main problem with loneliness in marriage is that it’s really hard to pinpoint. I mean, both of you are right there! Day in and day out, you still get to lie by your spouse at night, raise your kids together, pay the bills, etc. Heck, you might still be having sex like nothing’s the matter.
Yet emotional abandonment prevails. Something’s not right, something’s missing, although it’s not that easy to say what exactly. There’s no real form to marital loneliness – it’s just there, stretching in and around your household with no end in sight. And this makes it a tad more complicated to solve or overcome. But not impossible, for sure.
This is what I wanna talk about next fellas. Yeah, I want to see how you can overcome loneliness in marriage and bring back that sense of connection with your partner. It’s doable – you just gotta find the right lines and work hard.
How to Overcome Loneliness in Marriage
So as we can see, feeling lonely in a marriage doesn’t mean that you’re somehow both physically excluding one another from your lives. It’s actually more of an emotional exclusion, an abandonment of sorts. Your partner not being present in your thoughts, your considerations, your emotional needs, and desires, if you will.
Sure, you may talk on a daily basis. But that doesn’t say much about your connection. Do you share your dreams, your desires, your hopes, and your fears? Ask yourself this and the answer to the question of whether you’re in a lonely marriage will become more clear.
The same goes for marital fights. You may not fight at all. Maybe you haven’t raised your voices in years. And yet, the presence of marital conflict can actually be healthy, if done right. So, sometimes this lack of fighting in a marriage may be due to just feeling like you can’t even be bothered to fight. Which is not good at all.
The third thing is your kids. If you’re both good parents and have a loving relationship with your kids, that also doesn’t say much about your marriage. You can be the best of parents, yet feel disconnected for years, decades even. Kids can even be a sort of emotional lifeboat for the both of you.
What about love though?
Well, that’s the thing – if you’re in a lonely marriage, it doesn’t mean you don’t love your spouse. How can this be? How can you still love each other, yet feel emotionally disconnected, with your intimacy being compromised as well?
I’ll answer this in the next section.
What Are the Reasons Behind Feeling Lonely in Your Marriage?
Well, it has to do with a lot of things. Maybe you or your partner have been holding and hoarding resentments for too long. Or there was something you wanted to change in your relationship, but you never had the nerve to communicate it. Or they weren’t responsive for some reason.
I suggest we take a look at some of the most common reasons why couples feel lonely in their marriage.
Busy and mismatched schedules are a source of a lot of marital worry and disconnection. And yet, they’re very hard to tackle and reorganize because they don’t depend on our own free will, but on our bosses and the companies, we work for.
Nowadays they’re so pervasive that you may end up not even noticing you’re in this constant hectic rush and fragmented quality time with your loved ones until it’s too late and the damage has been done.
And it’s not just our jobs and careers. Family matters and obligations with kids can also affect the emotional and intimate bond of marital partners. Often couples who have young kids find it excruciatingly hard to find time for themselves, whether it’s sex or something else.
A non-responsive partner implies someone who doesn’t really respond to your current and ongoing needs, desires, moods, life events in the way you’d want or expect them to.
For example, imagine the following situation. You have a sick relative, and you’re anxious about their health. Even in your worst days, when you don’t want to talk much or you’re feeling really gloomy, you want your partner to understand. You want them to ask if you need anything, try and get you to talk, and leave you alone if you don’t feel up for it, but still, to somehow be around, whenever you need them.
Well, now imagine the opposite situation from this. Imagine your partner being too distant and inconsiderate. Maybe they’ve got too much to handle at work, maybe they’re the type that thinks everybody should just suck it up and go on. But you want a little tenderness, a few nice words. A little more understanding than usual. And you don’t have that.
And if this keeps repeating itself in different circumstances, well, then you have the perfect recipe for feeling lonely in your marriage. When your partner doesn’t provide you with emotional support, it’s hard to feel connected with them. So you withdraw, you keep silent instead of sharing your worries and joys.
Troubles with (physical) intimacy
Try and think of the last time you were truly intimate with your partner. I’m not talking about having sex, whether it’s frequent or not. What I’m talking about is a tender caress, a passionate french kiss, hugs throughout the day, a playful pinch, you know how it goes.
When was the last time you shared something meaningful? Intimacy is both about the body and the mind, you can’t take one out of the picture.
You’re not spending enough time together
Time is a vital element in a romantic relationship. Time spent together is an important relationship foundation (yes, even for long-distance couples). If the time a couple shares is fragmented, dispersed on different people or work obligations, then the foundations will rock.
A lot of couples after they have kids find themselves in a situation where they have very little time for themselves.
Or maybe you’re living with too many family members and the house is small and you don’t really have much space for yourselves. And if persistent efforts in making time for one another persistently fail, then you give up and you gradually become emotionally detached over time. From then on, loneliness in marriage is not far off, unfortunately.
Emotional baggage from the past
In some instances, loneliness in marriage may actually stem from past relationships. It may not have much or anything to do with your spouse. Instead, it can be a result of past toxic or failed relationships, or lingering family issues, parent or sibling conflicts, etc.
Bullying, intimidation, and abuse
This last reason is a pretty scary one. But, if you’re going through something like that, I suggest you ask for immediate help. Try talking to a counselor, a therapist, a local non-profit organization that deals with family and marital abuse and bullying.
The feelings of loneliness and isolation in this kind of marriage come from your spouse’s intimidating and overly dominant attitude. They usually manifest by them feeling they’ve got power over you which gives them the “permission” to abuse you emotionally, and sometimes also physically. If this happens, you’ll probably feel very lonely, full of fear and anxiety, and watching your every step.
This is because you’re never quite sure what will set them off or when, for that matter. Also, this uncertainty and anxiety will make you want to avoid them at all costs, and it will also discourage you to try and reason with them somehow (which is often very hard and downright impossible).
Don’t hesitate to contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline if you think you’re in such a relationship.
How to Spot Signs of Loneliness in Marriage
As I mentioned earlier, loneliness in marriage is not that easy to spot sometimes. But observing some patterns and behaviors in your relationship may help you find out its presence and its cause.
What are the signs of loneliness in marriage?
Loneliness in marriage may look like:
- Lack of time for each other.
- Not sharing daily routines.
- You’re not being intimate with each other.
- You don’t listen to each other when you talk, you forget what the other person says, and you also often forget important meetings, events, appointments with one another.
- You don’t ask each other anymore for stuff. You don’t share what you want from the other person, and what bothers you.
Loneliness in marriage doesn’t equal a loveless marriage
There’s plenty of hope on the horizon. As marriage researcher Carol Bruess says for TED Ideas, “[W]ith a little work and a few tweaks in your behavior, you can come back to a better daily reality.”
Bruess says the first key point in starting to “reclaim connection” with your spouse or partner is to agree to be patient. She likes to think of it as a series of therapeutic muscle and body exercises after an injury or an illness. “[Y]ou wouldn’t just head out and run a 10K immediately after a three-year hiatus from exercising,” she says, and I find this metaphor very, very apt.
There’s gonna be some effort and a little bit more time to rebuild the connection with your spouse. And what I especially like in Bruess comments is that she says we already have the solution and the therapeutic methods in us: “Muscle memory is a powerful thing, and that goes for intimacy muscles too.”
That being said, let’s finally see some of the best strategies you can use to overcome loneliness in marriage.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions
In marriages often loneliness concerns both parties and not only one of them. So, if you’re feeling lonely in your marriage, Bruess says that it’s probably the same for your partner as well.
This means only one thing – you have to begin with yourself. Take initiative and start asking some questions.
Start small. Don’t try to solve the whole thing in one take (remember: patience). Try to ask at least one question during the day. And try to make it something other than having to do with how you manage your joint life. Bruess generally advises against questions like “Did you pay the electricity bill?” and “Can you grab the kids tomorrow after school?”
Instead, she says you should ask your partner about her current worries, or her current joys, what she looks forward to. Inquire about what makes her happy or excited in the present, or what she is stressed about.
And the next step, equally important, is to actually listen to her answers
Bruess says that you shouldn’t fret or be surprised if you notice your wife/partner is somehow suspicious of your intentions. “Re-establishing emotional connection is a shift in energy,” she says. What does this mean?
Well, it basically means it’s unexpected. If your wife hasn’t experienced it in ages, it’s normal she’ll feel a bit taken aback at first. It’s a change of dynamics in the way you communicate. Suddenly, even the small, seemingly trivial details of life become important again.
They get back into the spotlight of your marital life in order to propel the energy of further conversations forward. And what this also means is that you’re gonna share your own woes and joys as well.
Bruess advises us to look at it as a sort of a daily goal. Ask one, two, three questions a day to spur “the curiosity-conversations each day”. Chances are she’ll start to recompense (especially if she’s the one who’s been more withdrawn over time). She’ll start asking similar questions, and one day at a time you’ll have a whole mound of Q&A about your daily joys and nuances.
Now, bear in mind that it’s probably not gonna happen right away. I said that already. But be persistent and have faith that it will start to grow with each new interaction into a more meaningful connection again. Of course, that’s just one part of the puzzle of how you fight marital loneliness. There are other pieces too, which I’m gonna talk about next.
Enter Your Partner’s World
The minds and hearts of our spouses hide a wealth of thoughts and feelings. They are whole worlds replete with events and emotions. The biggest challenge is to find out what happens inside of their heads at any given time.
Which is why, at first glance, what Bruess suggests – “get into the world of their thoughts” – sounds a bit counterintuitive and downright impossible. What she means by this, however, is to ask some more questions. It also means doing a sort of exercise, a “quiet, internal effort to take your partner’s perspective,” which you mustn’t do without if you set out to rebuild your marital connection and beat marital loneliness.
But how can you do this? Well, it’s actually fairly easy, contrary to what you may think. It involves a bit of imagination, and just a little bit of time out of your busy day.
She says you can take even just 60 seconds of each day to close your eyes and start picturing the world from your wife’s perspective, as well as her own internal world. Include elements from the previous talks you’ve had, from your judgment of her character, from current, ongoing events and situations in your own individual lives.
And then ask yourself the following questions while you’re imagining her world:
- What’s her present reality like?
- What are her ongoing challenges?
- What could she be experiencing, feeling or needing at this moment?
- Where does she seek happiness and joy? What does she want or do to make her happy?
- What are her current worries, what’s weighing her down?
- What is she yearning for?
This kind of exercise induces empathy and patience, which is what makes it so special. It opens your mind and heart to new experiences and vantage points. And empathy is among the key necessary elements needed to renew an emotional and intimate bond with a partner.
You can do these exercises in parallel with the Q&A one that I talked about earlier. It’s best when you do them in tandem. Then you can also include her new and updated answers every time you do the exercise.
Come Up With “Rituals of Connection”
Shared experiences are the backbone of emotional connections in a romantic relationship, and loneliness in marriage will most likely be a result of their scarcity. Which is all the more important that you start re-creating them.
Like in the previous steps, here it’s also important to tread lightly and start small. These “intentional shared experiences” can be as simple as making dinner together.
Like, for example, if your wife is the one that usually prepares your family meals, take some time to join her in the kitchen. Ask her how you can somehow help her with the food. Set the mood, for whatever other activity you set out to do together. Whether it’s cleaning, cooking, you can still “pull up their favorite artist on Spotify and set the tone” for the creation of joyful and positive feelings between you two, as Bruess says.
“These gestures of connection are the powerful stuff of thriving marriages, each one contributing to a larger reality of being a we again.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Consider visiting a therapist as well
Now, Bruess says that it’s okay if you find it a bit difficult to start doing these gestures of togetherness in the beginning. After all, it’s been a while, and getting into the flow of things requires a bit of time and patience. This is why it’s a good idea to ask for some help and support in the meantime.
You can talk to a friend or family member that understands the issue, or better yet – you can talk to a licensed counselor, a marriage, family, or couples therapist. Ask around for ones in your area which are good and recommended, and then contact them.
You can go to a therapist on your own or with a partner. But, it’s a good idea to include your partner in the sessions at some point.
Now, not all spouses are going to be welcoming this suggestion, but don’t give up if they’re showing resistance at first. Try to encourage them to look at it as a way to grow both as people and as a couple, as a type of education, as Bruess says. It’s not about going there and asking to be fixed or evaluated what kind of couple you are. It’s about bringing you two together again through a third, more objective party.
If you wanna know more about couples therapy, feel free to check my articles on the subject: Everything You Need to Know About Couples Therapy and Couples Therapy Exercises and Techniques to Try at Home.
Simply put, couples therapy can help you develop and recreate some new ways in which you can be together and rebuild communication. And all of this will happen on what you’ve already accomplished as a couple, all the good experiences you’ve gone through together, and all the things you’ve learned from bad.
Consider how your relationship reflects on your kids
If you have kids, consider them as well, says Bruess. The way you behave and relate as a couple reflects on your kids as well, and that mustn’t be forgotten. So when you set out to rebuild your relationship, think of your kids, and remind your partner of that as well.
And What If Your Partner’s Not Responsible for Your Marital Loneliness?
Okay, consider this scenario. Your wife/partner is doing everything in their power to make you feel good, fulfilled, listened to. She responds to your needs and desires, so what’s the problem? Loneliness seems to spill out of someplace else than your marriage, even though you still might feel disconnected from your partner. Why is this so?
Well, in that case, “loneliness is something that exists within yourself” and “you might be someone who tends to look for external ways to quell your loneliness,” says Niloo Dardashti for the Times, a psychologist and relationship expert based in New York.
Remember the section on reasons behind feelings of loneliness in marriage? Well, emotional baggage and past experiences were one of them. If you don’t confront your own personal demons, by yourself first, no amount of love from your partner will confront them for you (although it will help to give you strength, for sure).
Dardashti suggests that you seek help from a therapist, yet again, in order to confront these feelings of loneliness. According to her, therapists will provide you with a push to “look at yourself and reflect on your stuff, your issues, and patterns.” It’ll give you the necessary space to face underlying issues that, evidently, have affected how you feel in your marriage too.
Surrounding yourself with people isn’t the go-to solution you might think it is
She then goes on to add (very aptly, I think), that the ready solution to combating your own feelings of loneliness besides a supportive partner isn’t to surround yourself with lots of people. Introspection is key here, so Dardashti suggests you try stuff like meditation, for example, where you really get to clear your own thoughts and actually confront them before doing so.
“The key is that if you do want to be more comfortable with your alone-ness that you don’t avoid being alone,” she goes on to add. Once you become aware of the source of your loneliness, it’s more likely that you become more comfortable in being lonely, or at least come up with better ways to tackle it and address it.
Talking to your partner about this is always a good idea, and talking to a therapist as well, as I mentioned earlier. Also, you can try signing up for meditation classes or other concentration and relaxation-related exercises that you think might help.
A good marriage takes work, just like any good thing. And while yes, loneliness in marriage can be hard to detect, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Couples can go on for years with the thought and feeling that something’s wrong, and yet they’re still not able to pinpoint what’s the matter. And what they’re actually lacking is a real emotional and intimate connection with their spouse.
Getting back on track is not easy, but it’s totally doable. And if you want to save your marriage from feeling cold and empty, I suggest you both start working right now.
I mean, who doesn’t want a partner they can tell their worries to without fearing they’ll be dismissive or downright indifferent? Or a partner with whom you can laugh about the big and small nuisances of daily life?
Everybody deserves a partner who’s more than just the mother of their kids, a partner with whom you can share and enjoy space and reality reserved just for the two of you.