by guest blogger Pam Fullerton, psychotherapist and writer
In my last article, I touched upon loneliness in marriage. When I married my husband as a young person of 28, I never thought that I would experience feelings of loneliness. The truth is, that feeling of loneliness is one of the utmost challenging experiences that any of us endures.
In part, one of the reasons we marry is to partner in life with someone we love. As a single person who hopes to find a partner in life, there's nothing more exciting than finding that special person with whom we connect on many levels. We think about this person--maybe obsessively--and we are ignited with joy at the thought of seeing him or her again. This is connection!
As humans, we thrive on connection. So who would guess that at some point we would experience loneliness while being married to this person? Who would imagine that we'd feel loneliness with our loved one in the room?
In our relationships, at some time or other, we will all experience either "disconnection" or only a "thin thread of connection"--and the result is a feeling of loneliness. Experiencing loneliness while in a relationship may lead to feelings of sadness, hurt, despair, and hopelessness.
Stay with me, though. All is not lost, and there are ways to not only manage times of loneliness, but also to reconnect with one another.
Why do we experience loneliness in marriage?
Simply stated, loneliness is experienced when partners feel disconnected from each other. Disconnection is normal because conflict is normal and necessary in marriage. However, we need to measure disconnection in degrees. Are you experiencing extreme disconnection, minor disconnection, or disconnection that falls somewhere in between?
Did you have an argument that created disconnection and therefore loneliness? Have you gone through a painful experience, such as a family tragedy, and each of you has coped with it differently, therefore creating disconnection and loneliness? Has your marriage been put on the back burner, meaning other priorities have taken your time and attention, so you haven't been doing the necessary work of maintaining connection? I'm not being judgmental here--there are times for us all when we are distracted by other elements in our lives. And simply not knowing how to do the extremely challenging work in marriage can also be at play.
When we experience unresolved conflict, we remain in disconnection. When we don't forgive or we hold on to misunderstandings, we remain disconnected. When our needs aren't met, we feel disconnected. There are many, many things that lead to disconnection and, therefore, to feelings of loneliness.
How should we respond to feelings of loneliness?
When we're struggling with disconnection with a loved one, one thing that we tend to forget is the value of self-care. If the two of you are in an unresolved argument and are experiencing painful disconnection, it's easy to forget how to be your own loving, compassionate, and empathetic companion. Disconnection can be a time for self-care. This does not mean withdrawing in anger and punishing your partner with an attitude of "The heck with you; I'll take care of me." What I mean by self-care during disconnection is more along the lines of, "We are both hurting, and I need time to reflect, repair, and nurture".
Learn to balance your endurance of the pain of loneliness with a renewed attention to self-care. When in pain, our instinct is to imagine how to move out of our pain as quickly as we can. This is only natural, but it's likely that it's easier to imagine ways out of our relationship than to finding a way back in to reconnect. It's challenging to imagine how to reconnect when both of you are hurting. However, during times of disconnection, you essentially have distance--and you can use this distance to gain clarity, insight, and perspective.During these times, I do many things in an attempt to gain understanding, such as:
- Journal: Journaling can provide a process of thinking and working through our thoughts and feelings. While I understand that it might be challenging to find the time to journal, I can't express strongly enough how helpful it can be. When the two of you are disconnected and are feeling lonely, take time to be reflective. You can journal your hurt, and you can also reflect on what you need to reconnect. Balance your hurt with remembering what you love about your partner.
- Talk with a trusted other: The reason that I say trusted is because it's essential to choose someone who can balance supporting both of you. It can be challenging to find someone who can attempt to understand both sides. However, only through an understanding of both sides will you find the necessary support to reconnect with one another. If only one side is supported, you'll remain disconnected. So, while your friends may think they're being supportive by telling you that your partner's terrible, you deserve better, and such, what you really need is someone who's a little more circumspect and can provide a balanced perspective. It's easy to focus on the challenges that your partner brings to your relationship as opposed to his or her positive contributions. Recently, I was discussing disconnection in marriage with a friend. She said that she married young and finds it difficult to connect with her husband these days. During our conversation, I suggested to her that we tend to try to find a way out of our relationship rather than find a way in. She thought about it for a minute and shared a story with me. She said that she embarrassingly ran out of gas in her car recently, and when she called her husband he immediately came to help her. She reflected and said, "You know, he didn't berate me for running out of gas; he simply came to help me." It was a nice moment of reflection of what he brings to the marriage rather than what he doesn't bring!
- Spend time in nature: For me, being in nature provides comfort when I'm in pain. Time spent in nature provides a sense of healing so that I can reflect in a more positive frame of mind. However, you may find something else that comforts you, and if nothing springs to mind, explore what does comfort you and bring you a sense of peace. We need to feel comfort and peace in order to positively reflect and find a way toward reconnection.
First is to understand the root cause of disconnection and loneliness. Is this disconnection a constant experience or is it a short-term disconnection due to an unresolved conflict?
A client once said to me, "When we have conflict, there are times when my husband withdraws for days." She described feeling lonely and rejected when he withdrew. We continued our conversation, and I discovered that while arguing, she had told her husband that she was unhappy with his behavior during their vacation. After more conversation, I shared with her that he might have withdrawn due to feelings of shame. Please understand that it wasn't her intent to shame him. She was simply trying to explain to him how he affected her on their vacation. She responded with, "Oh, my, he does tell me that he feels corrected by me!" She was stunned and agreed that his withdrawal was due to feelings of shame.
Afterward, she felt hopeful because she knew that she could find ways to communicate with him that wouldn't trigger shame and could reassure him of her intent. She would let him know that when he withdrew from her, she missed him.
Another reason for loneliness in marriage is needs not being met. There are times when life is so busy that we neglect our relationship, or our partner may be going through a difficult time and be unable to meet our needs. I've also encountered couples that haven't shared what they need from one another. We are responsible for expressing our needs to our partner. Have you shared with your partner what you need from him or her? Doing so doesn't necessarily mean that your partner will immediately respond in a positive way to you; however, it can begin the conversation.
For greatest success, be sure to talk about needs in a "non-blaming" way. And choose your timing, if you can. Broaching the subject when the challenges that life can bring already have your partner feeling overwhelmed or depleted might leave him or her feeling unnecessarily as if he or she has failed or is inadequate. At that particular point, asking more of them might not go well.
Try to think of this conversation as a collaborative conversation mixed with empathy and understanding, leaving room for compromise. I know--this is very challenging to do! I don't find it easy in my relationship, either. However, I want you to know that it is complicated, and you can think of this as a process of learning that takes time.
Another way toward connection is to recognize the humanness in one another and forgive, forgive, forgive. Recognize that it's most likely that both of you feel lonely, hurt, and lost regarding how to find a way back to one another. It's always important to work your way toward understanding one another rather than drawing unfair conclusions (which all of us do).
One last thing: Do you remember when you met your partner and you did things together? And maybe each of you introduced the other to doing something new? Couples tend to fall into the habit of doing the same things day in and day out. Try doing something new together! Whatever that might be for you, research shows that couples in a long-term relationship can ignite feelings of connection by doing something new with one another. You might be surprised what you discover!
We tend to close down openness to discovering something new about our partner, believing that we already know all there is to know about them. I am always surprised when I work with a couple and I ask questions. Inevitably, one or both will say, "I never knew that about you!" There is always something new to discover in each of you. *
If you would like to learn more about relationships, I wrote this for you: Ten Essential Things I've Learned about Marriage & Relationships, which includes the lesson that saved my marriage. I care about the work that I put out to you, and I hope you find it helpful. Please let me know!
Pam Fullerton has been in private practice as a psychotherapist for the past 19 years. Although she works with a variety of life issues that are presented to her in therapy, her passion is to understand the vast complexities of all relationships. She believes that healthy connections with others are what promote personal growth. Keep up with her writings on relationships, mindfulness, and more by subscribing here.
* Details of any stories told in my blogs have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.
For more from Maria Rodale, visit www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com