So Lonely Together

5 ways to resolve relationship loneliness.

Posted Aug 26, 2019

Shutterstock photo
Source: Shutterstock photo

We’ve all fallen under the spell of sweet fantasies when first in love. We imagine that, with our soulmate by our side, we will never again experience the loneliness of living solo in a coupled world or spending bleak Saturday nights watching reruns or wondering if we will ever know true love and connection. We imagine sharing our secrets, hopes, and dreams with this beloved other, cuddling, comforting, delighting in our togetherness.

When the bubble bursts and we prove to be hopelessly human—sometimes loving, sometimes not, sometimes wonderfully present, sometimes distracted—the ensuing disappointment, sadness, and loneliness can feel overwhelming. 

As a therapist, I’ve seen far too many couples talk about giving up at this point, bailing out of a relationship with the potential to be a good and viable one just because it doesn’t live up to those fantasies of perpetual courtship behavior. 

There are times, of course, when feeling lonely in a relationship is a signal that changes need to happen or that trouble is looming. A 2018 Pew Research survey found that 28 percent of the people who expressed dissatisfaction with their marriage or family life reported feeling lonely all or most of the time.

It can be a terrible feeling. Legendary aviator Amelia Earhart, noted for her independence, once said, “Being alone is scary, but not as scary as feeling alone in a relationship.”

You may be feeling unheard, unseen, unloved.

You may be feeling that your opinions and dreams and experiences have ceased to matter to your partner.

Your differences may be increasingly apparent: One wants to socialize, the other doesn’t; one loves family get-togethers, the other would find a root canal preferable.

You may be feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities and distractions that are coming between you, making those close and loving memories ever so distant.

David, married to Jody for 18 years, is the sole breadwinner in their family while she stays home to care for their three children. Their lives are increasingly separate and lonely despite the frantic pace of their schedules. “When we first married, I felt I had married my best friend,” he says sadly. “We were true soulmates. And then everything else, like work, kids, my long commutes, our disagreements over so many things, all intervened. Now when I get home, she never, ever asks how I’m doing or how my day went, even if I ask about hers. She greets my question with silence and a shrug and me with questions of her own like did I remember to pick up milk or the dry cleaning or whatever. We’re not connecting and it’s so sad. I don’t know what to do.”

Relationship loneliness can take on a life of its own, driving you increasingly apart as you isolate yourselves from each other to avoid even more hurt and pain.

How can you stop the loneliness and start to feel close once again?

Instead of blaming, look within. Check your expectations and actions. On the eve of my wedding years ago, a wise friend wrote me a note: “Marriage does not preclude times of depression or loneliness or other emotions endemic to the human condition. If you realize that and keep your expectations realistic, you have a chance at long-term happiness.”

It was an unconventional wedding wish to be sure, but it has resonated through the years and helped me to take responsibility for my own occasional negative feelings and not rush to blame my husband for anything that isn’t right in my world.

Intense feelings of love and happiness aren’t sustainable on a constant basis. Even among those with loving, happy relationships, there will be differences and disagreements. There will be times of distance and times of coming together again with joy. 

Also, feelings of loneliness aren’t always linked with your love relationship. Sometimes such feelings are a component of depression and/or may have genetic roots. A 2016 study found that loneliness can be an inborn trait. Some people may be genetically predisposed to feel lonely and relationships, however loving, are no cure for existential loneliness.

Have you seen a pattern of loneliness in previous relationships? Do you feel lonely even when your partner is loving? If so, it’s possible that your feelings are tied to genetic factors and/or a depressive episode.

Talk to your partner about your feelings. Let him or her know what you feel and what you need without blaming or accusing. That can be the key to helpful, productive communication. You may find your partner willing to listen, to reassure you of his or her love, and to express his or her own longings for more closeness and time together. Your partner may be open to the idea of positive change – like expressing appreciation and love more obviously and often. 

Realize that changes and transitions can bring discomfort and loneliness for a time. Even happily anticipated changes can shake up a relationship. Having a first baby can bring on seismic changes as new pressures and exhaustion become facts of daily life. A job promotion may bring personal satisfaction and more resources but may also involve an escalation in time demands and tough choices between time with family and time at work. Retirement may give you the time together that you’ve always dreamed of having, but also may cause one or both of you unanticipated discomfort as you wonder ‘Who am I now?’ and retreat to your own reflections and ruminations.

Seek professional help if your situation and your feelings remain unchanged. This might mean individual therapy for someone with existential loneliness or who is suffering from prolonged depression. It might mean couples counseling if you’ve stopped communicating with each other in a loving and meaningful way. Seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness or desperation. Getting confidential help from a mental health professional can be a way of tapping into the strengths and commitment you have as a couple to keep your love alive and reclaim your feelings of closeness.

Don’t panic. In most instances, feelings of distance and loneliness pass. Sometimes it’s a matter of growing past one phase and settling into another, like kids becoming more self-sufficient or you and your partner finding new directions that bring comfort and satisfaction in retirement.

But hanging in there doesn’t mean being passive and simply waiting for a rough or lonely time to pass. Reach out to each other with love, especially when the closeness you once enjoyed is feeling elusive. Listen to each other’s fears as well as dreams without judgment but with warm reassurance that these thoughts and feelings are safe with you. And remember that in the midst of your busy lives with work, children, and other obligations, it may not take much to dispel another’s loneliness and let him or her know how much you care. A touch, a smile, an embrace, or a few loving words can mean so very much.

Facebook image: StoryTime Studio/Shutterstock

References

Bialik, Kristin. Americans unhappy with family, social or financial life are more likely to say they feel lonely. Fact Tank. December 3, 2018, Pew Research Center.

Jianjun Gao,  Lea K. Davis, Amy B. Hart, et al. Genome-wide association study of loneliness demonstrates a role for common variation. Neuropsychopharmacology, 2017 Mar; 42(4): 811-821.