Are You Lonesome Tonight?: Loneliness in Marriage

No one wants to feel alone in a relationship.

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Loneliness is a common experience.  In 2019, 61% of Americans reported they were lonely. Forty-seven percent of adults said they sometimes or always felt their relationships were not meaningful. MDLinx, a news service for physicians reporting on loneliness, called it an “epidemic” and noted these statistics are “double the number affected a few decades ago.”

Perhaps there is no more relatable feeling than dealing with the loneliness brought on by feeling disconnected from your spouse. Many of my clients describe feeling lonely when they are in the same space as their partner but cannot connect. When they express feelings of isolation, their words are often criticized or misunderstood by the one person they hoped would respond compassionately. 

For instance, Madelaine, 42, lived in a blended family with intense feelings of disconnection from Joshua (not their real names), 41, for many years. She was considering divorce. Unfortunately, when she was vulnerable enough to discuss her loneliness during a couples counseling session, she felt that Joshua minimized her feelings, criticized her, or showed contempt. 

Joshua put it like this: “How is it possible to feel alone when we live in the same house or even spend time in the same room? What is wrong with you?”’

She searched for the best way to state her feelings without coming across as nagging or complaining. Madelaine responded, “It feels like I’m talking to a wall because you are either on your phone or seem disinterested in what I have to say. Raising my voice is the only way I can get your attention.”

According to Frank J. Ninivaggi, M.D., an Associate Attending physician at the Yale-New Haven Hospital, people who feel lonely at any age perceive others are not listening to them, taking them seriously, or making eye contact. They also feel that others either explicitly or implicitly dismiss them. This perception, whether or not it is reflective of reality, reinforces feeling disconnected, dismissed, and uncomfortably isolated.

Fostering Emotional Intimacy and Connection in Marriage

In “The Science of Trust,” Dr. John Gottman explains that practicing emotional attunement can help you stay connected in spite of your differences. This means turning toward one another by showing empathy, responding appropriately to bids for connection, and not being defensive.  Asking your partner open-ended questions is also a great way to increase emotional closeness. If you ask questions that require a yes or no answer, you’re closing the door to intimate dialogue.  In other words, take your time and make love to your partner with words. You can also ask questions such as, “Tell me more about your day.” 

Madelaine and Joshua’s story demonstrates the importance of being able to turn toward your partner when they make a bid for connection. According to Dr. John Gottman, a tendency to turn toward your partner is the foundation of trust, love, and intimacy. After studying thousands of couples for over 40 years, he discovered that we have three ways of responding to our partner’s overtures. Turning towards your partner is an incredible way to deepen intimacy and reduce isolation. 

Bid example

“I had a tough day. Can you cook dinner tonight even though I said I would?” 

Turning Towards Response

This type of response enhances your emotional bond with your partner.

  • “I’m tired too, but I can heat up leftovers and make a salad since you look beat.”

Turning Against Responses

Another option is to turn against your partner’s bid for attention, be defensive, or shut them down.

  • “You promised to cook tonight. Can’t you see that I’m watching the news?”

Turning Away Responses

This last option can create disconnection and resentment between partners.

  • Picking up the newspaper as your partner approaches you.

After explaining the importance of turning towards each other to Madelaine and Joshua, they began to feel secure and safe enough to ask for what they needed in a positive way. For instance, Madeline told Joshua during a session, “I feel hurt when you are scanning your phone when we are eating dinner, and I would really appreciate it if you’d turn it off so we can talk.” In response, Joshua was able to share his feelings with Madelaine when he felt criticized and said, “Rather than criticize me, can you tell me what you want in a more positive way?”

In fact, turning toward one another can be an antidote for loneliness in marriage. It promotes your sense of closeness, connection, and feeling secure and safe with your spouse. Since every relationship has tension, knowing that you trust each other enough to go through challenges together is the glue that can hold you together. Paying more attention to your partner’s bids for connection can lessen feelings of isolation and improve the quality of your bond. 

Learn more about being emotionally attuned with Feeling Seen and Heard, the latest from the Gottman Relationship Coach.

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Terry Gaspard MSW, LICSW is a licensed therapist and author. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, TheGoodMenProject, The Gottman Institute Blog, and Marriage.com. Her new book, out now, is THE REMARRIAGE MANUAL: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around. Follow Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com.

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