If your union isn’t one in which humour comes easily; isn’t one in which your partner’s idiosyncrasies are still (at least a little bit) endearing, or isn’t one in which your emotional needs are being met, perhaps you’re in a lonely marriage, says Carol Bruess, a Professor Emerita of Communication and Journalism, and formerly the Director of Family Studies at the University of St Thomas, Minnesota, the United States.
In one of her TED talks, Bruess says lonely marriages are real and too common. She cites surveys that state that some 40 per cent of people know the pain of being lonely in a relationship because they’ve been there at some point.
“Although no two happy marriages are identical, every lonely marriage has one thing in common: at least one spouse feels abandoned emotionally,” Bruess says.
“Emotional abandonment can be confusing, vague and hard to pinpoint because the person is, quite often, lying next to you in bed every night or co-raising kids. They might even be the person with whom you’re still having sex. But it’s also the person with whom – when you get honest with yourself – you know something is off. Something is missing,” the marriage researcher adds.
Defining what it really means to be lonely in marriage, experts say it doesn’t mean one is physically excluding one’s partner from one’s life, but that one is emotionally excluding them from one’s thoughts.
Bruess says, “While you two may talk, you’re not communicating your hopes, fears and dreams. You might not be arguing or yelling or showing any obvious signs of disharmony; quite often, you’re not fighting at all, because you’ve found it’s just easier not to.
“Being in a lonely marriage also doesn’t mean you’re not being an attentive, loving parent. Many couples who feel disconnected from each other actually respond by throwing the majority of their energies toward their kids.”
For emphasis’ sake, experts stress that being in a lonely marriage doesn’t mean one doesn’t love one’s partner.
However, the emotional distance between one and one’s partner has increased to the point that love is lacking an essential intimacy – a tenderness of words, actions, and thoughts.
If you feel alone in a marriage, it’s often a sign that there’s an underlying issue in the relationship or in your own personal life that must be addressed.
According to marriage researchers, the following are some of the reasons someone may be feeling lonely in their marriage – despite living together with their spouse.
A licensed marriage therapist and author based in the US, Kiaundra Jackson, says people get lonely in marriage when they go through the mundane waves of life.
“They go to work, they come home, they go to school, they take care of the kids, they cook dinner, and they just go through the regular day-to-day motions, and there isn’t any specific time to connect with their spouse,” Jackson writes on mindbodygreen.com.
“When couples fall into the monotony of daily life without making intentional time to connect as a couple, the relationship can begin to feel stale and lack affection. This can create feelings of loneliness if one or both parties feel like they’re not receiving special, romantic attention, time, or energy from their spouse,” she adds.
Also, a Lagos-based marriage counselor, Mrs Bimbo Adesanya, says lack of attention can create a disconnection between a couple.
She tells our correspondent that when couples start allowing daily activities to take a priority over their relationship, an emotional distance is created.
“When a partner has the feeling that their partner doesn’t listen to them anymore; feeling of not having enough sex; poor communication or lack of communication; money issues; life transitions; and day-to-day stressors can all create an emotional disconnection,” Adesanya says.
Sometimes, couples struggle to separate the role of being parents and that of being spouses, focusing entirely on their parental responsibilities and neglecting their relationship.
“Our role as a parent is very important, but you also have to give time and energy into your marriage. And when you don’t? You can feel lonely. Spending all your energy on caring for others and not receiving any dedicated affection yourself can feel isolating, not to mention draining,” Jackson says.
In a 2020 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology on almost 1,400 heterosexual married couples in their 50s through their 70s, the researchers noted that married couples are dealing with increased enmeshment, wherein their lives are unhealthily intertwined.
When couples exclusively rely on each other as their primary social connection, it can put a strain on the relationship – and leave the individual people susceptible to loneliness when the relationship inevitably goes through phases of disconnection.
According to Jackson, it’s easy to fall into the trap of making your spouse wholly responsible for your sense of fulfillment and validation. However, she says partners need to be able to feel full and complete on their own as individuals.
She says, “In other words, your marriage cannot be the only thing that keeps you from feeling lonely. You shouldn’t be seeking full validation from your spouse. You can’t look for another person, whether that is your spouse, to fulfill you 100 per cent. You have to be happy with yourself. You have to give your own self joy. You have to have your own career goals. You have to have your own passions.”
Jackson adds, “If the idea of having a feeling of a totally complete life outside of your partner makes you feel uncomfortable or scared, it’s probably a good sign that this is something you need to work on.”
An Ibadan, Oyo State-based marriage counsellor and psychologist, Mrs Olufunmilayo Oyewale, says bullying one’s partner in marriage is a recipe for loneliness in the marriage.
She says, “When a partner feels they are too important, maybe by virtue of their lucrative job or high income, and then bully the other partner, it creates fear in the life of the partner being bullied. Then the partner starts living in constant anxiety and depression.
“Psychological and emotional abuse then becomes a regular affair. Sometimes, the victim can live their entire life in bondage because they don’t know what circumstances can invite their bully’s wrath. This tears the couple away from each other as much as possible. It’s a terrible thing and it’s happening to many couples.”
Counsellors say not not spending time alone can be a huge problem particularly in a home with many family members living with the couple.
A marriage counsellor based in Brisbane, Australia, Dr Stephanie Azri, writes on lifehack.org that it is not enough to live under the same roof with one’s spouse but to always spend quality time together.
“It’s important to find time to be together if we don’t want to find ourselves lonely in our relationship. But what is as important is making sure that the quality time that is spent is actually good. Emptying the trash together might be time spent as a couple, but what kind of quality time is it?
“Pay attention to the quality of your time together and make it fun, enjoyable, and/or diverse. Take turns in planning your activities for a broader range of fun!” she says.
It is said that humans have needs – physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual needs, to name a few. Azri notes that when people are in a relationship, they hope to have some of these needs – if not all, a good chunk – met by their lovers.
“When this doesn’t happen, we feel rejected, unloved, unprioritised,” she says.
Azri continues, “Unfortunately, what happens then is we seek to meet these needs elsewhere. It’s human nature, and it’s universal. Perhaps it’s through a third party. Perhaps it’s through a distraction such as work, friends, hobbies. Perhaps it’s by cutting all expectations that our spouse is willing and/or able to meet our needs.
“We feel lonely, and our human brain will seek to fill that void anyway it can. It took me a while to realise that expressing what my needs were wasn’t selfish. It was what people did when they felt safe. And feeling safe and nurtured was definitely what I wanted for both me and my partner.”
Azri says, “Yes, this may appear common sense, so I won’t harp on about this one too long. When couples experience objective or subjective feelings of betrayal – whether through affairs, lies, or other hurtful incidents – spouses may definitely feel lonely.
“Repairing the damage is absolutely doable but may require patience, commitment, and major efforts on both parts. Depending on what the issues are, couples may benefit from a relationship expert to guide them in the right direction.”
Meanwhile, counsellors advise that it is better to not give room for loneliness in marriage, admonishing partners to always strive hard to make each other a priority in their lives over anything else.
However, for couples who may be battling loneliness in their marriage, the experts say it is not too late to get back on track.
Oyewale says, “Communication is the panacea for all ills in a marriage. Talk to each other again as often as possible. Talk randomly and share your experiences of the day. Discuss the day’s news or converse about a topic that is of common interest to you both. Approach your spouse from their perspective. That keeps the atmosphere at home lively.”
She also advises doing each other a favour in the home.
“Is he struggling with his necktie? Help him do it. Is she a foodie? Prepare a delicious breakfast for her. This will make your partner look up to you. They know they can come to you for any help or with any problem. You will be their first destination in distress,” Oyewale says.
Apart from communication, Jackson recommends learning each other’s love languages.
“The five love languages are words of affirmation, physical touch, quality time, acts of service, and gifts. Each person has one primary love language that is their preferred way of receiving love.
“When you can speak your partner’s love language, there’s no room for them to feel lonely because they’re going to feel loved and appreciated and heard and respected,” she notes.
Additionally, experts advise couples struggling to work out things again to seek a counsellor or therapist’s help as this can be a helpful way to get on the right track.