"Only in relationship can you know yourself, not in abstraction and certainly not in isolation.” —Jiddu Krishnamurti
While alone time can be a welcome break from the noise of life, a truly wonderful chance to recuperate and concentrate, loneliness is always a downer. We can rationalize loneliness away when we are indeed alone. It seems to be a grounded response. There might even be hope for the future. On the other hand, feeling lonely in the presence of a life partner is the type of loneliness experienced in underground dungeons where “tomorrow” makes little sense. It is painful to feel estranged when looking at the one with whom we share a bed. Coming home full of impressions without being able to impart them to a partner who stands right before us is but a cruel tease.
What is there to do? First, both partners can implement simple behavior changes that might go a long way, such as switching off screens and inquiring about the other after waking up and coming home. (See "10 Zen Things to Save Your Marriage.")
Second, we can learn to listen and see to it that the other feels heard. This is easier said than done. Lavner, Karney, and Bradbury have found that communicating well does not predict satisfaction in a couple, but that a satisfied couple communicates well.1 This means that even after improving our communication style, we might not necessarily feel more intimate with our partner. A feeling of kindred spirit cannot be reduced to skills and good behavior, just as love cannot be achieved working off a checklist. This makes the subject difficult to tackle. (This post is not meant to instruct, but to inspire.)
When a couple seeks therapy, I do not lead with questions such as, “Do you communicate well?” or “What have you done lately for your partner?” Instead, I ask both partners if there is still love in their hearts. I can teach methods and help process experiences that seem stuck. But I cannot make people care about each other. If only a modicum of love has survived past “heart-ships,” we can put it under a magnifying glass and build up from there. Should you experience painful and ongoing loneliness in your relationship, you might want to ask ...
1. Is there still a glimpse of love in me?
Most people enter a relationship with love in their hearts. Instead of starting with the other and his or her shortcomings, focus on yourself first. Try to remember what you loved and how it felt. Be specific. You might want to write about your love without mentioning how you have disconnected from this experience since then. Preferably, your partner wants to participate in this exercise and write her or his own love letter, but the first step is to reach into your own heart.
2. Ask yourself where your love has gone.
Love can hide behind judgment, sadness, and fear, to name but a few obstacles. We are not capable of loving another when we are habitually judging ourselves over every shortcoming. When you are hard on yourself, you are likely to be hard on your partner once the honeymoon period is over. On the other hand, you might have entered the relationship with sadness or fear. At the beginning of your relationship, your excitement might have overridden your characteristic experiences. If this is the case, do not blame the other for their reoccurrence, but explore them with kindness, if necessary with a psychotherapist.
3. Are you addicted to external stimulation?
Bombarded with information and accustomed to instant gratification, we might not know how to receive subtler messages of love. Who has time for complexities? Most of us do not recognize our addiction to “easy.” We just feel bored and blame the other for not being more exciting. Satisfying relationships need time and dedication.
While acknowledging one’s own propensity for boredom is a good beginning, learning the art of meditation is better. Don’t be intimidated by the word “meditation.” It is just stilling the mind and paying attention to the present moment. There are many ways to meditate, such as walking in gardens and forests, gardening, sitting for the sake of sitting, listening to water fountains, birds, and other music. Become still in yourself and notice the ordinary gifts of life. Happiness is being here.
4. Do not feel guilty about feeling lonely.
It is common to blame oneself for one’s loneliness. I have heard countless times how “Nobody owes you anything!” and “You should not feel lonely when the universe gives you so much.” Don’t let yourself be shamed for your honest experience. Loneliness is an enormous cultural issue, and you have every right to address it within your relationship. (See "10 Tips to Help You Get Past Loneliness.")
5. Let your partner know how lonely you feel.
It is bad enough to feel lonely in your relationship. As long as there is no abusive behavior, do not hide your loneliness from yourself or your partner. It is crucial information. Sometimes it is impossible to be on the same wavelength, but when you can freely express your disappointment over this fact, you might emerge from the experience as two people swimming in one ocean.
© 2018 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.
1) Justin A. Lavner, Benjamin R. Karney & Thomas N. Bradbury. Does Couples’ Communication Predict Marital Satisfaction, or Does Marital Satisfaction Predict Communication? Journal of Family and Marriage (2016). https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12301