It seems like a strange contradiction, but it’s not uncommon for people in committed relationships to be lonely. They may miss having a sense of emotional closeness with their partner, or they may just feel a vague sense of dissatisfaction, or that something isn’t right in the relationship.
When our emotional needs aren’t being met, loneliness is often the result. It’s not unreasonable to expect love, affection, and companionship in a marriage, along with being appreciated and accepted, heard, and understood. Yet one study looking at people in 17 countries found that while married people are generally less lonely than single people and even couples who are cohabitating, they are not immune to loneliness. In another study, 40% of married people said they feel lonely sometimes or often.
These and other studies suggest that when marriages are working well, they protect the people in them from loneliness. Conversely, the less satisfied a person is with their marriage, the lonelier they are.
It’s tempting to blame your loneliness on your spouse, but they may not be the cause. Withholding affection, self-centeredness, fear of intimacy, extreme neediness, and addiction can all cause loneliness in a marriage. But so can absent or dysfunctional communication. In fact, people who confide in their spouses about the really important things in life also tend to be less lonely than married people who typically confide in someone other than their partner.
Sometimes loneliness comes from within ourselves, as we push away or shut out those who wish to be close. These behaviors stem from childhood traumas that we’ve never shaken free from. In fact, one study found that for both men and women, adverse childhood events were associated with loneliness.
Emotional abandonment as children sets us up for adult relationships that can leave us with intimacy issues and feelings of shame, dissatisfaction, and loneliness—even within a marriage.
When we think of emotional abandonment, we think of horribly neglectful parents—ones who were never around, never took care of us, or were verbally or even physically abusive. But even when a child’s material needs are met, even when he or she is not overtly abused, there can be trauma.
Children need to know that both parents love them, that both parents accept their uniqueness and want to have a loving relationship with them. Adults who do not realize they have suffered emotional abandonment sometimes report that they had a good relationship with one parent but a contentious relationship with the other. Or they may have felt like an outsider in their own family.
Emotional abandonment can also result when children end up taking care of their parents—emotionally, physically, or both. The parent may discuss or confide things that the child isn’t old enough to understand or cope with, or expect him or her to take on responsibilities that children can’t handle. When that happens, the child must put aside their needs and wants and focus on the needs and wants of the parent. Love and attention may be offered only conditionally, when the child does what the parent needs.
A parent who is self-absorbed or depressed or troubled may simply withdraw his or her attention. Or the child may be bathed in attention, but only the kind the parent wishes to provide—not what the child actually needs. An example might be parents who are super supportive of their child playing sports when the child is actually interested in reading or art.
Children and teenagers can also feel abandoned emotionally when they perceive that they are being treated unfairly, if they are constantly controlled or criticized, or if they’re made to feel that what they are feeling or experiencing or thinking about is wrong or unimportant.
This kind of abandonment trauma teaches us to deny and suppress our feelings. Feelings of shame and unworthiness arise when we crave intimacy and attention, so we keep to ourselves emotionally and create distance between ourselves and our partner. We may end up being emotionally unavailable, and/or attract people who are distant and withholding. Either way, both people in the marriage end up feeling lonely.
The following are several tips for reducing loneliness in your marriage or relationship.
1. Attempt connection. If you’re lonely, most likely so is your partner. Your partner is most likely feeling as disconnected as you. Try to start communicating with your partner about things you know they care about or are important to them. Be patient. In time they will most likely reciprocate the gesture.
2. Experience moments together. If your partner loves sports and you don’t, try to join in. They are sure to be surprised but it’s the gesture that counts. Let them know what you enjoyed about the experience. Or come up with simple activities like a short walk, cooking together, browse through photo albums of when you dated or got married bringing back memories where you were once more connected.
3. Understand where your partner is coming from. It goes back to the old adage, “by walking in their shoes, you will understand your partner better;” and everyone wants to be understood. Imagine how they view the world, what are their belief systems, and what do they value? This gives you the ability to have more compassion for them, which will in turn create a deeper connection with them.
Sherry Gaba, LCSW is a Certified Transformation and Recovery Coach and the leading Psychotherapist on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab and Sex Addiction. She helps people find the love of their lives. Take her quiz to find out if you’re a love addict or sign up for a 30-minute strategy session. She is also the author of “The Marriage and Relationship Junkie: Kicking your Obsession.” Sherry maintains a private practice and is a sought after online dating and relationship coach. For more information visit www.sherrygaba.com.