Loneliness in Marriage
by Matt Sandford
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By Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
Loneliness can show up just about anywhere. There are the places that we expect it and we feel for those who are there. When itís us we are comforted by the expectation; that is, that it seems about right to be feeling what we are feeling, given the particular circumstances. But then there are times when we really donít expect it and we donít know what to make of it. It flies in the face of our expectations, even after we have been married for some time. And what if itís your marriage?
What if your expectations for your marriage have not been met? What if you fell in love and felt the thrill of finding the person that you could spend the rest of your life with? What if you went into this with your whole heart, ready to become one with someone, walk through life with them and ďnever be alone againĒ?
Life is hard. Itís even harder to do alone and many feel a longing in them to find someone to walk with, to have their back, through thick and thin. Someone they can depend on. Someone who accepts them for who they really are. Someone to entrust themselves to and commit themselves to. Think of the traditional marriage vows Ė to have and to hold, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part. Yes, thereís a reason why these vows have been around so long. They are attractive, even in a world where these conceptualizations of traditional marriage are being eroded and undermined. Many people act as though they donít really want this idea of traditional marriage. However, what they are actually rejecting is not the idea of a dependable, safe, life-long attachment, but rather they are for the most part rejecting the idea that it is possible. It doesnít mean they donít want it; it means they are scared Ė scared to hope for it, scared to commit to it, scared to be let downÖ and then what?!
The point is we are all longing to be connected to someone in a safe, secure, supportive manner and we are all, to some degree, afraid. These needs and fears do not disappear when we get married. Actually they usually intensify. In the first year or so of my marriage, my wife later told me that she would often fear that I was going to be in a car accident or something would happen to me. You see, as we strengthen the bond, the longings and the fears surrounding our needs for security, connection, and permanence will be aroused and will fairly often rise to the surface. These longings are normal. They are part of our human nature. And they can play a big part in our struggle with loneliness.
Loneliness doesnít come into a marriage suddenly. It creeps in. In the beginning, we probably sought to engage our spouse. We moved towards them. We invited them into our world, through talking, through play, through shared experiences, through sex. Maybe they responded at first. Maybe there was conflict, or misunderstanding, or maybe the partner was not as available as you wanted or expected? Maybe you discovered that the two of you were more different than you had known at first? Maybe you learned things about your spouseís personality or habits that rubbed you the wrong way? Maybe stressors showed up and one or both of you had difficulty coping with them effectively? The result was that one or both of you did not feel as close as you had, or one or both of you were hurt by the other, and then one of you began moving away rather than towards the other.
Marriage is not about cause and effect. Itís actually more reciprocal Ė meaning itís not about what the other person does, but rather how what they do causes a certain response in me, which in turn causes a certain response in them and so on. The temptation is to search for a cause or in other words, focus on blame. Itís a dead end in most cases. When one partner begins to distance themselves emotionally, it doesnít mean that they started it. They likely did so because they sensed that the other had pulled away in some way first. When the shift occurs and we begin to look at our spouse through the eyes of self protection, we are in trouble. We see our spouse as not so safe, not so secure, not so dependable anymore, and we begin to scrutinize, maybe become demanding, maybe hide our selves. This lends to the spouse either attacking or pulling away in response. This dynamic is surely going to lead to someone feeling rejected, abandoned and lonely.
Feeling lonely is always related to expectations. If a partner had not expected a certain degree of closeness, intimacy, or mutuality, then they would not feel so hurt, abandoned, rejected or lonely. This is not to suggest at all that longings for intimacy, security and dependability are foolish or wrong. Not at all! The problem is not the heart, but the expectations. Remember that longings are normal and are part of the normal functioning of our human nature. However, what we do with our longings is that we convert them into expectations for a degree of intimacy, permanence, closeness, and yes, perfection that marriage cannot bear and was not designed for.
Marriage is designed to be the closest relationship we will ever experience on earth; the place where we can bare our souls, be our truest, messiest selves yet be accepted and known, and reciprocate that with another. However, the truth of the matter is that our longings are even bigger than that. We long for more than the best, most intimate relationship this earth can provide. Why? Because God designed us for a perfect relationship; an intimate relationship with our creator. Marriage canít beat that. It is supposed to point us to it. How does it do that? Through our unfulfilled expectations and yes, through our loneliness.
The answer to loneliness in marriage is not to try and fill our hearts with something else, or to numb, suppress or shame our heartís ache. It is definitely not to go searching for it in another person, believing that if we could just find the right person to love or understand us better that we would then have our expectations finally met. Now, note that abusive and immoral situations do not apply here. A victim of abuse must not just settle for their situation Ė by no means Ė they must get help!
What then is the solution? First, look to the only one who can truly satisfy your heart, and who is completely dependable - Jesus. Come to an understanding about the expectations you have placed on your spouse that were unhealthy and unrealistic, and replace them with healthier ones. This certainly is not a recommendation to give up your longings for connection, closeness and dependability. We were made for such longings in a human capacity as well. It is about separating out the longings for God and the appropriate longings for a human relationship.
Of course, there is still a need to figure out how to approach the issues of your marriage. With Godís help, identify the true cause of the loneliness. Is it that there have been hurtful actions, choices, betrayals or lies? Is it that there have been misunderstandings, stressors, distractions, and disappointments in one another? How about criticalness, resentments being stored up, and unresolved wounding? If so, what needs to happen? Most likely there will be a need for each of you to take turns expressing your feelings, to be real about things that have been stored up, to really hear your spouse, take responsibility for your part and make apologies, and then to work out new ways of communicating. Since in most cases there wasnít one person to blame, there also isnít one person who needs to go first in this process. Is it risky and scary? Sure. That is usually how we reach the kind of intimacy, closeness and dependability that we appropriately long for on this earth.
Let your heartís longings direct you to God. And then work hard on the marriage, getting help whenever you need it!
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