The Lonely Marriage: The Pain of Feeling Alone in a Relationship

The Lonely Marriage: The Pain of Feeling Alone in a Relationship

SYR Podcast # 10 Session Notes 

(Scroll down to end of notes for podcast audio)

“Tears do not burn except in solitude.” ~ Emil Cioran

You probably aren’t a stranger to loneliness. We’ve all felt lonely at some point in our lives, especially after a painful breakup or when we wanted to feel close to someone but couldn’t find an authentic connection. Or maybe something else seemed to stand in the way for you, an unnamed hurdle that kept you feeling isolated even though you desired closeness.

Transient periods of loneliness are common.

In their book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, John Cacioppo and William Patrick describe research showing how loneliness impacts us not only on an emotional level, but also on a physical level (for instance, increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol). The ramifications of chronic loneliness are far-reaching.

How can there be loneliness in marriage?

We need emotional connection with others. Some of us deeply crave intimate connection and quickly feel its absence. It is our need for connection, love, and feeling that we matter to others that draws us to intimate relationships. For many, the commitment to our spouse/partner fulfills our attachment needs – we make the decision to open our hearts to another, and in doing so, find the emotional contact that feeds us.  

But when our intimate relationship gets thrown off-kilter, the relationship that is supposed to quiet the rumbling of loneliness becomes its provocateur.

“I’ve been married for seven years, and the last two have been very painful. I no longer feel my husband ‘gets me.’ It’s like he’s stopped trying. When I reach out to him I get little in return. For me the greatest pain is feeling abandoned in a relationship. I’d rather not be in a relationship and feel alone than be in a relationship and feel lonely.” ~ Celeste

The roots of feeling lonely in marriage

Our capacity to experience loneliness varies considerably from person to person. Some of us are prone to quickly feel the pangs of emotional isolation; while others can be alone for considerable lengths of time and rarely feel lonely.

But loneliness in marriage is a different experience, as Celeste described. To feel lonely in a relationship is to be constantly reminded of what ‘should be’ (emotional connection and intimacy) and what ‘shouldn’t be’ (disconnection, feeling alone in your relationship). Let’s turn our attention to why this might be occurring in your marriage or relationship.

1) A Failure to Communicate/Express Your Needs

It is up to you to let your partner know what you need from him/her. We all have this responsibility, to know what our emotional needs are, and to effectively communicate these needs; in short, to become an advocate for ourselves in our marriage/relationship.

If you don’t know what your relational needs are, how can your partner know?

You must make yourself known to your partner. You must discover the depths of your inner life and share these discoveries with your partner. Sometimes feeling alone in a relationship is the result of self-estrangement (of being disconnected from your own needs) and/or not knowing how to effectively communicate your needs to your partner.

2) The Conditions of Your Relationship Block You

Whether intentionally or not, couples co-create the conditions of their relationship — we must ask ourselves whether the conditions of our relationship are supportive of emotional sharing, or are the conditions unfriendly, making emotional sharing risky?

We need to feel emotionally safe in our relationship in order to openly share ourselves with our partner. Relationship conditions infected by judgment, defensiveness, or criticalness are likely to shut us down emotionally.

Loneliness can arise when you do not feel safe to share the deepest parts of yourself with your spouse. In these relationship dynamics, you or your partner may close yourselves off, severing the emotional connection that quiets loneliness.

3) The Barriers of Shame

Our proneness to shame starts in childhood. To be shamed as a child is to receive the message that you are inadequate, that your emotional needs are inappropriate or excessive, and that you are a burden to others.

When these and other shaming messages are internalized, we become conflicted about our own emotional life. The dilemma is that we still need others, but these needs cause us to turn against ourselves. At a deep level, we feel unworthy and we believe that if we make ourselves vulnerable to others (including our partner), rejection and humiliation are likely to follow.  These beliefs may not be fully conscious.

Shame segregates our emotional life, creating an internal prison where parts of us exist in solitary confinement, cordoned off from the human contact that we so desperately need. It’s easy to feel lonely in marriage when these internal shame dynamics are at work.

4) Living in Secrecy

Secrets are a part of life. Early on in our lives we began keeping secrets (for a variety of reasons), and for some of us, secret-keeping followed us into our adult relationships. At a logical level, you may know that there is no reason to keep secrets from your partner and yet, you hold onto them like an old friend, fearful that a hole will be left if you gave this part of yourself away to your partner.

Some secrets are related to shame, to a fear of rejection, to the anticipation that if you share something with your partner, s/he will react negatively in some way.

But despite the early reasons for secrecy, some of us quickly fall back on keeping secrets in a mindless, automated way. This is habitual secret-keeping, a way of relating that has become so normative that it is rarely questioned (until you are called out on it).

Secrecy is a form of hiding, and when you hide from your partner (especially when you habitually hide from him/her), emotional intimacy suffers. You are withholding parts of yourself, and when your inner world is denied contact with your partner (and others), the pain of loneliness can start to germinate.

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“I feel lonely in my relationship” is a painful reality for many couples. Understanding the roots of your loneliness in your marriage is an important step in learning how to cope with loneliness. For those of us who struggle to find the connection that will quell our isolation, clarifying the dynamics of loneliness gives us direction.

We all need a roadmap to connection.

While the above list doesn’t capture all the reasons why someone might be feeling lonely in marriage, it’s a starting point that will hopefully allow you to untangle the pain of feeling alone despite being in a relationship.

Here’s to creating a deep emotional connection in your relationship!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

(Featured image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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