Attachment Styles in Relationships

Attachment Styles in Relationships

Attachment Styles in Relationships

Hey baby. What’s your attachment style? 

That question is overtaking “what’s your sign?” on dating profiles, and I have to say I think it’s an improvement. When a marriage counseling or relationship coaching client knows their attachment style, I’m thrilled; Becoming aware of your attachment patterns helps you understand how you show up in relationships, and how that impacts the way your partners respond to you. 

Can the Zodiac tell you that? I don’t think so. 

But, as with any psychological concept that gets compressed into 50-second TikTok videos and disseminated widely, confusion about attachment styles is gaining traction as quickly as awareness of them. And that’s too bad, because attachment is both important and fascinating stuff.  

When you become attached to a romantic partner, an invisible machine starts whirring in your brain, monitoring the security of that bond and the availability of your mate. If the relationship feels threatened, attachment prompts you to take action to preserve it, either through bids for more connection, or for more space. 

This machine keeps our relationships alive and in balance, which makes it possible for us to sustain love for a lifetime. So how does it work? And why does attachment look so different from person to person, relationship to relationship, or even from day to day? 

I created this episode of the podcast to answer these questions and more. We’ll be diving into the science of attachment, some popular misconceptions about attachment styles, and common attachment dynamics that may be playing out in your relationship — and how you can handle them. 

I hope this episode helps you to better understand yourself and your partner, and gives you a new appreciation for your brain’s incredible attachment machine. To get the most out of this episode, I recommend taking our attachment styles quiz first. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Attachment Styles in Relationships

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Attachment Styles in Relationships — Episode Highlights

Attaching to a romantic partner is a fundamental human drive. It happens without much effort or conscious thought on our part — we simply canoodle with an attractive mate, and before long, find that even the thought of losing that relationship is enough to cause us a full-on freakout. 

Our first attachment is with our primary caregiver when we’re babies. There’s no substitute for this connection; without it, babies can’t develop into happy, healthy kids.  

But the quality of that primary relationship will shape the way we bond with other people for the rest of our lives. This is your attachment style, and it has a major impact on how you show up in your most important relationships. 

Adult Relationship Attachment Styles

The first thing to know about attachment styles is that they exist on a spectrum. Perfectly embodying one attachment style or another is exceedingly rare. Instead, attachment is a bell curve, and most people spend their time hanging out on its hilly center. 

With that caveat out of the way, here are the four identified adult relationship attachment styles: 

Secure attachment — People with a secure attachment style have the core belief that “I am ok and you are ok.” They believe they are worthy of love and respect, and generally trust their romantic partners to treat them that way. Securely attached adults don’t spend too much time worrying about whether their partner loves them, cares about them, or wants to be with them. They tend to recover from breakups and rejection fairly well, and they’re comfortable with both closeness and space in their relationships.  

Anxious attachment — People with an anxious attachment style aren’t so confident that they are ok. They worry that their partner doesn’t really love them, care about them, or want to be with them. They’re afraid of abandonment, and they require a lot of reassurance that their partner isn’t going anywhere. Sometimes their need for reassurance can arise through controlling behavior, and can have the effect of pushing their partner away. They may be labeled “needy” or “clingy.” 

Avoidant attachment — People with an avoidant attachment style don’t feel worthy of love and respect, and they don’t trust other people to meet their needs. They tend to feel it’s safer not to rely on anyone, and they have a core belief that they are on their own. When a partner tries to get close, avoidantly attached people can experience that as a threat. They may avoid commitment and emotional vulnerability, and develop negative narratives about their partners to justify holding them at arm’s length. 

Disorganized attachment style — Also known as anxious-avoidant attachment, people with a disorganized attachment style may display an inconsistent orientation toward their partners. They may want love and closeness, but have trouble trusting their partners, and feel a deep need to protect themselves from abandonment or rejection at all costs. They tend to alternate between pulling their partners close and pushing them away. Disorganized attachment is not the same as having fluctuating feelings about a partner, or a fluctuating desire for closeness; it’s a rare attachment style that’s associated with an abusive environment in childhood. 

Relationship Attachment Styles Aren’t Static

Our attachment styles vary from relationship to relationship, depending on how our partners are oriented. If we’re with an anxious partner, who only feels loved when we’re constantly reassuring them, we’ll naturally feel a little more avoidant. If we’re with an avoidant partner, who seems standoffish and remote, we’ll naturally feel a little more anxious, and a bit more preoccupied about the relationship. 

Even within the same relationship, attachment styles fluctuate. During periods when your partner seems more distant or withdrawn, your anxiety will be piqued; you might find yourself pushing for more affection or attention to alleviate your anxiety about how secure the relationship is, without being conscious that you’re doing so. If your partner starts to seem needy, clingy, or demanding to you, you’ll naturally push for more space, and move a little closer to the avoidant end of the bell curve. 

This is the attachment machine at work, helping your relationship find an equilibrium so that it can be sustained. But sometimes couples can get locked into extreme pursue-withdraw dynamics, particularly when an anxious partner is paired with an avoidant partner. This can cause a lot of conflict, and a lot of stress for both partners. 

If a pursue-withdraw dynamic is happening in your relationship, it can help to understand why you’re either withdrawing from your partner, or pursuing them, and what their predictable reaction to that will be. These cycles can be hard to break, but working with a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who understands relationship systems, can help. 

Attachment Issues in Adults

When it comes to attachment, there’s a wide range of what’s normal and fundamentally healthy. Just because you tend to lean a little more on the anxious side, or you tend to need a little more space in your relationships, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong. 

But that doesn’t stop people from armchair diagnosing themselves or their partners with “attachment issues,” which are actually pretty rare. Attachment issues in adults are on the far ends of the attachment style bell curve, and they’re often associated with childhood neglect, abuse, trauma, and abandonment, or with personality disorders that develop independently of those experiences. 

Of course, this happens, to varying degrees. It is possible that your past experiences or your genetic predispositions have led you to develop attachment issues as an adult. But labeling yourself or your partner with attachment issues isn’t helpful; It makes it harder to develop self compassion and understanding, to learn and grow in your relationship, and to develop the trust and emotional safety that a healthy attachment requires. 

Attachment Styles In Relationships

If you suspect that you and your partner’s attachment patterns are triggering conflict in your relationship, working with a licensed marriage and family therapist with an understanding of attachment can be incredibly helpful. 

And just being part of a healthy relationship can also go a long way toward healing insecure attachment. Through secure relationships, people can recover their sense of trust  and safety with others. [To learn more about how this works, listen to this episode on Healing Relationships.]
I hope you enjoyed this episode on attachment styles in relationships, and that it helped you understand some of the invisible dynamics at work in your relationship. Want to learn more about your own attachment style? Take our attachment styles quiz.

Episode Show Notes

[5:52] Attachment Styles in Relationships

  • Attachment is having an emotional, psychological, and, to an extent, physical bond with someone.
  • There are three main attachment styles—secure, anxious, and avoidant. 
  • None of these attachment styles are “wrong” or abnormal. 

[15:17] Do I Have Attachment Issues?

  • People have a tendency to self-diagnose themselves with specific attachment issues without understanding what’s healthy.
  • Most people fall within the normal spectrum of secure attachment with some behavioral tendencies towards anxious and avoidant attachment styles.
  • There is no one with a perfectly secure attachment style.

[22:35] Biological and Childhood Influences of Attachment Styles

  • Attachment has its roots in basic human survival drives; we need communities and family bonds.
  • Answering an ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) questionnaire can help you understand if you have some difficulty with attachment. 
  • If your attachment style is causing issues in your relationships, it’s best to consult a licensed marriage and family therapist.

[30:04] Attachment Issues in Adults

  • Bonds and attachments happen in every relationship, not just with your romantic partner.
  • Changes in relationship dynamics or responsibilities can cause rifts that may threaten a person’s attachments on an emotional level.
  • Relationship distress can make even the most securely attached people exhibit traits of insecure attachment.

[41:03] Opening Discussions About Attachment.

  • It’s okay to talk about attachment behaviors you or your partner exhibit.
  • Talking to your partner or people can help you both feel more secure with each other.


Music in this episode is by Yuutsu with their song “Attached.”

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://yuutsu.bandcamp.com/track/attached. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast.

That's the band Youth Zoo with the song Attached. I think doing a beautiful job of conveying the bond of a strong attachment to another person, and perfect for our topic today because that's what we're talking about—attachment styles in relationships, and how to figure out yours as well as that of your partner. 

This is a super important topic, but I think also one that is very much alive in the zeitgeist right now. There's a lot of talk about attachment issues and what they mean, and not all of it is great information. I hope to dispel some of the myths today and help increase your clarity, and confidence, and understanding about attachment styles in order to be able to use this awareness for positive things in your life and in your relationships.

I'm glad we're here together today. Thank you so much for joining me. If this is your first time listening to the show, I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching. I'm a licensed psychologist; I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist; I'm a board-certified coach; and I am the host of this podcast. I love doing this show for you.

My intention of every single episode is to make these really, genuinely helpful and valuable for you. I'm always listening to your questions that come through on Instagram. Sometimes people email us hello@growingself.com with your questions, and so that I can be sure that I'm creating podcasts that are genuinely helpful to you. 

If you have questions or things that you would like to learn more about, please get in touch with me. I would love to hear what's on your mind. What I have been hearing a lot of lately is how incredibly important your relationships are to you, and understandably so. I mean, our relationships are truly the most important things in our lives in many ways. 

I mean, having healthy relationships with other people is just so fundamental to having happiness and the life that you want. When things are not well with our relationships, or when we want more closeness with people than we have, or if we're feeling a lack of love and connection in our lives, it really impacts us on every level. There is a reason for this. 

This is not some deficit that you should be happy by yourself and you aren't, so, “What's wrong with me?” It’s not even going to bat that away. The truth is that humans are built to bond. It is why we are here. It is essential to our survival from an evolutionary perspective, and attachment is also fundamental to our wellness. 

That is true for children. Children literally cannot develop properly without secure attachment bonds. Some people experimented with this early in the late 1800s, early 1900s of the powers that be decided that it might be a better idea to take poor children away from their filthy alcoholic parents and put them in hospitals or orphanages. Perfectly clean, nice rows of gorgeous sparkling cribs, fed at regular intervals by clean nurses dressed in white and bundled up in identical little swaddles. 

It all seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, though, the babies kept dying, and nobody could figure out why. Until the psychologist and researcher John Bowlby showed up and had the gall to say, “Hmm, maybe it has something to do with our lack of attachment to one consistent caregiver.” Everybody sort of scratched their heads and said, “Oh, okay, maybe.” 

They revised that policy, thankfully. Attachment in infancy is crucial to literally growth and survival. It is crucial to our developing of psychological health and wellness in very basic ways in early childhood. It is no less important to us as adults, and the idea that it should be otherwise is very much a myth of Western culture.

I'm just going to take that myth away from you while we're talking. Instead, turn our awareness to what attachment really is and how it really works. My hope for this conversation is to help you understand what is normal and also help you understand when there might be signs of real attachment issues, so that you can manage them effectively because you can. So we're rolling into all of it today. 

This is a huge topic. We have a lot to talk about. We're probably not going to cover all of the everything about attachment during this conversation today, but broadly, I'd love to give you an understanding of all of this. Let's start by just defining our terms. Like, when we talk about attachment styles in relationships, what are we talking about? 

Attachment Styles in Relationships

Attachment is essentially having a bond with someone—an emotional bond, and a psychological bond, and, to a degree, believe it or not, a physical bond with someone. In the sense that when we do bond with another person, we experience neurological changes and even hormonal changes. Attachment happens on very deep levels.

When we're talking about attachment styles, we're referring to your signature ways of relating to others. Broadly speaking, there are several different kinds of attachment styles. There are what we think of as a secure attachment style, which is the ability to have strong, enduring relationships with other people. 

Where the core assumptions and the core kind of emotional experience of that relationship is, “I am fundamentally okay. I am fundamentally worthy of love and respect, and other people are fundamentally okay and trustworthy. I can connect with someone and feel generally sure that they will treat me well and be nice to me. I will get my needs met in this relationship, and we're all alright.”

That is the nonscientific way of describing what it feels like to have a secure attachment style. Not that there aren't ups and downs, but that fundamentally, “I'm okay and you're okay.” It's important to understand that the attachment kind of style, the way of relating, extends to other people as well as to yourself, “I'm okay, you're okay.”

There are other types of attachment styles that can show up when babies, young children, and anyone through our lives have experiences with other important people that teach you otherwise—either, “I am not okay, and I can't trust you,” is where other kinds of attachment issues start to show up.

Broadly speaking, there are two other kinds of attachment styles. There is an anxious attachment style where the core experience with other humans is, “I'm not sure that I am okay. I'm not sure that I am worthy of love and respect, and I'm not sure that I can trust you to meet my needs.” What that turns into is a lot of anxiety about relationships. 

“I don't fundamentally know I'm okay, so I need a lot of reassurance from you that I am okay. I need a lot more like active love than a securely attached person needs in order to feel okay. I don't trust that you're gonna give it to me. Even if you do give it to me, I can't trust it, that it's real, so I need more, more, more, more, more.”

Somebody with a really anxious attachment style never really feel secure in relationships, never really feel loved, and really needs a lot of reassurance and like active love behaviors. “You have to say nice things to me and give me lots of compliments and tell me you love me 75 times a day. If I text you, you have to check me back within five seconds. If you don't, I'm going to be very upset because what does this mean?” So lots of anxiety.

Also, in very anxiously attached people, it turns into a lot of controlling behaviors because they really need this from others in order to feel okay and secure. When they don't get it, they tend to get very escalated and very upset. You see a lot of control happening in relationships from anxiously attached people who are trying to get their partners to do things in order to help them feel better, essentially. That is one far end of this attachment spectrum.

The other end of this attachment spectrum refers to people with avoidant attachment styles. Similarly, early in life, they had experiences with usually caregivers where they learned, “I am not worthy of love and respect, and I cannot trust other people to be safe or meet my needs. Therefore, I am making an executive decision that I no longer need other humans.”

“Other humans are not relevant. They are not important. I am the only person that really exists, that matters, I can only trust myself. I'm not even going to try to connect with others, or think for a moment that my needs will be met by them. Because not only will they not be, if I get too close to them, I will be in danger, so I'm just not going to do it at all.”

An avoidant attachment style turns into a fundamental psychological solitude, essentially. “I am the only being. Other people are sort of around. I may try to utilize them in order to get my needs met. But without an emotional attachment, because that is not going to end well.” People become very much islands with an avoidant attachment style. Other people aren't safe, fundamentally. 

There's also not a desire to attach to other people, commonly with people who have very serious attachment issues on the avoidant side of the spectrum. What this also looks like in practice is that in relationships with people that do begin to develop some closeness, somebody with a very avoidant attachment style, will begin actively rejecting that other person. 

These happen at like deep emotional levels that are nonconscious, but what that bubbles up into is a lot of consciously all of the reasons why somebody isn't good enough. It's a lot of criticism; it's a lot of comparison; it's a lot of focusing on somebody's negative characteristics—all the reasons why they're not going to be a good partner, and really kind of talking themselves out of a relationship, because fundamentally they feel uneasy being close to other people, and so they rationalize it. 

Somebody with an avoidant attachment style will usually have a series of fairly short-lived relationships. They will either find ways to end those relationships—kind of breaking up with people, and it is always the other person's fault, by the way. Or there can be a lot of, like, cheating behaviors because, in their minds, they're not in a relationship anyway. The other person is not that important to them, and there all these other people that they could be hanging out with, so hey, why not?

It can look like the sort of indiscriminate attachment. Superficial kind of bonds with other people that—but nobody is, like, really important is what that can kind of look like. These attachment styles, as you are inferring, can have major issues on the health of your relationships. If you have a very pronounced attachment style in one of these directions or another, it's going to be global. 

If you have an avoidant attachment style, it's going to show up in every relationship with your significant other, with your family, with your boss, and vice versa. It's very powerful stuff. It's important to know this about yourself if you have these tendencies in every single situation, because this stuff has to be managed or you are going to blow out of every relationship, right? Through no fault of your own, like you didn't make this happen, and was the hand you got dealt, and it's crappy, and it's yours to deal with, and again, it can be managed by understanding it.

It is also true that there are attachments, and attachment styles, and attachment experiences that happen in relationships that can feel like these, and to a degree, they are very, very normal behaviors, truly. Again, while the attachment issues are very significant, either if you see them in yourself or if you're trying to have a relationship with somebody who has very significant attachment issues, it's real.

Do I Have Attachment Issues?

But the thing happening right now that I think is so interesting is people are self-diagnosing, or diagnosing their partners with attachment issues, without a full awareness of, like, the normal spectrum of what this looks like and how attachment always works in every relationship. I think a great example of this, I sometimes get asked to provide expert opinions or whatever, with journalists will, like, reach out and ask for commentary.

I had this one very nice girl reach out not too long ago. She was working on a piece for publication about attachment styles and relationships, and could I provide some insight like, “Yeah, sure.” We're talking with each other about attachment and kind of secure versus anxious, avoidant. As we were speaking, she was like, “I'm pretty sure I have disorganized attachment style. Like, I'm anxious and avoidant in relationships.” 

I heard that was like, “Oh, really? Tell me more.” She's like, “Yeah. Sometimes just when I'm with people, sometimes I worry about how they feel about me, but then sometimes I wonder if I really want to be with them anyway. So I don't know, I'm pretty sure I have disorganized attachment styles.” 

Like, “Okay.” In the back of my mind, I was thinking, unless you were raised in an orphanage staffed by Satanists, I don't think you have disorganized attachment style. It's very rare, and it is very profound. It is associated with, like, really serious early childhood and abuse—abuse, and neglect, and abandonment. Certainly, like, that exists, right? 

I mean, people do end up in foster care and live through terrible neglect, and drug addicted parents, like all those things happen. But even then, like, if babies have even just enough, like, somebody in their lives was good enough, they can achieve so much resilience and so much health. 

But—what, anyway, what I came to understand through talking with this journalist, and what has also come out in conversations with clients, is that I think what's happening is that people are learning about attachment styles, anxious attachment styles, and avoidant attachment styles, and doing the same thing that I and the rest of my classmates did in our first year of counseling school, where we read the DSM and basically diagnosed ourselves with everything in it, and started handing out diagnoses liberally to friends and family. 

It's because with things of a psychological nature, we can see instances of these things in ourselves. If you have just enough information to be dangerous, it is very easy to make kind of sweeping statements about yourself and others that are not just inaccurate, they're also not helpful. Here's the irony, doing that too much can also create issues in your relationships.

If both you and your partner are completely fine, have secure attachment styles, but if you are interpreting either your or their behavior as being in some way pathological and then kind of going off to the races in that direction that will also cause problems. 

I want to unpack this a little bit more with you. What ended up happening with this journalist, and also sort of happens usually with clients, at some point during our sessions, I do begin drawing weird pictures. With this journalist, the weird picture that I drew was one of a bell curve. I don't know if you've ever encountered a bell curve in any statistics classes.

But essentially, if you visualize a hill—a hill with it's higher in the middle, and on each side, it kind of slopes down. What we do with these hills, these bell curves is it's kind of a visual representation of normal distributions of things. When it comes to attachment and secure attachment, imagine that the middle of the hill is fairly broad. Everybody in, like, that highest middle part of the hill has a secure attachment style. 

There is no exact center. There is no perfectly, perfectly securely attached human. We can all kind of trend towards one side or the other based on our normal life experiences. But due to the culture of our families or just some things, we can kind of have a natural tendency towards being a little bit more attached or a little more avoidant, and still be very much within that normal spectrum.

Then, when we start to get to the edges of the hill and start to slope down on one side or the other, this is where attachment issues begin to be more pronounced. They're both on a spectrum. You can go from that normal, secure attachment to slightly anxious attachment. As we continue sloping further down the hill, and we kind of get to that tippy end. That is, is where you'll find severe attachment issues. It represents a very small part of the population. 

Most people are somewhere in that secure spectrum. Whatever happened with their caregivers or early life experiences was good enough—does not have to be perfect, it has to be good enough. When we start getting to the sides of the hill, it means that there are some non ideal things that left tendencies either towards avoidance or towards attachment, much more rare in terms of a percentage of the population. 

Then at the very tippy ends of the slopes are those serious attachment issues that I was describing for you earlier on the show, where people fundamentally have serious issues in their relationships where they cannot feel safe and secure with other people. They're very anxious, they become very controlling and demanding, or, on the other side, they are avoidant to the extent that they essentially block any efforts at attachment.

Those, again, are rare and are associated with serious things. I've had clients who do have those more severe kinds of attachment issues. Every single time it has been associated with things like being in foster care infancy, being raised by addicted or mentally ill parents who were not functional enough to meet children's needs consistently. 

Attachment Style Quiz

If you are curious to know if your life experience is kind of consistent with that serious attachment injuries, you might consider taking the ACEs questionnaire. ACEs stands for Adverse Childhood Experience scale, I think. Anyway, Google it. It has a number of questions, and if you have a relatively high ACEs score, it means that you have had fairly extensive adverse childhood experiences, trauma experiences that would be consistent with those kinds of attachment disorders. 

If that is the case and you're having these consistent issues in relationships, my sincere and heartfelt advice is that you take this to a psychologist—a very good, qualified, licensed therapist. You could see a clinical psychologist. A licensed marriage and family therapist will also have specialized training and education in attachment styles to be able to work with you on some of these things. For the rest of us, we're somewhere on that spectrum, right? 

Why this matters is because the other thing that happens that confuses people is that, again, going back to the very first thing we talked about, because we humans are built to bond, we have hardwired machinery essentially in our brains and in our bodies that create attachments to people. Whether we want them to or not, I mean, we spend a lot of time with a person and kind of have a trajectory towards particularly a romantic relationship, you will develop attachment bonds.

One of the things it's important to know is that these bonds are created and maintained at nonconscious levels. They are related to human survival drives. Our ability to attach and bond to other humans is as fundamental to life. Human life continuing as like feeding yourself and not freezing to death from an evolutionary perspective because humans are a collective species. 

We would not have survived out in the wild without being in tribes, in groups of people who were connected to each other, loyal to each other, and these were often groups based around family bonds, kinship bonds. Then, certainly, when it comes to the attachment bonds that parents have to their children and the partners have to each other, it gets even stronger.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective because a parent cannot walk away from an infant, that infant would die. Similarly, partners, I mean, if there's a couple that has had a child together, and it's 100,000 years ago, that the female and the infant are going to be highly dependent on the male, or I don't know, maybe, depending on the culture of the tribe, it was the other way around.

But there's so much energy that goes into raising human babies, people literally cannot do it alone. The attachment bonds that people formed with each other held them together, even when things got hard. Even when there's a drought, or a famine, or a war, “I'm not going to leave you.” Because if people were left, people were abandoned, that's it: lights out, right?

These bonds exist in humans the same way that they exist in animals. You're seeing those documentaries of, like, mother bear or little bear cubs, and the mom is trying to, like, take care of the babies; same thing. These are very, very, very old, deep parts of your brain that are older and deeper than the part of your brain that is conscious. It's only the outermost layer of our brains and new parts of our brains that have conscious thoughts. 

They visualize things; they think in words; they think into the future; they can make sort of interpretive associations or have creative ideas. That is the very outermost layer of your brain. That is what separates humans from animals. We have that sitting on the surface, but the rest of our brains, the inside, is still very much that old mammalian brain, and that is the part of your brain where attachments are formed and maintained.

There are some things that are a little bit different with human attachments, obviously, but it's important to understand that these are just so deep and so powerful, and they are baked into the machinery. I don't know how many of you listening have been pregnant before. But I remember when I had my first baby and was pregnant, I was fascinated by all of these things that my body was just kind of automatically doing that I had no idea. 

It could do, like, all this stuff, just sort of like going on autopilot and things happening. It's like, “Oh, I was built for this. My body was designed, and it knows exactly what to do in order to create another human.” There were all these little mysterious, like, architectures and things that sprang into life when it was time to grow a child, right? The same is true for your brain. You have structures in your brain, you have hormones that get activated, neurotransmitters that get activated when we develop attachment bonds. 

Interestingly, and I've shared this in other podcasts, particularly related to why it can be so difficult to end a relationship, like, some of the breakup recovery podcasts I've done, is that there is evidence to suggest that the parts of your brain responsible for those attachment bonds are the same parts of your brain that have opioid receptors and dopamine receptors.

When we think about becoming addicted to, like, illegal substances, or heroin, or cocaine, or whatever, the reason why people can get addicted to those illegal substances is because those drugs use the parts of your brain that nature originally developed to bond to other people. They essentially hijack it. I think that's very interesting and also important to know that bonding process is a natural, healthy, normal, addictive bonding process, but is just as powerful. 

Attachment Issues in Adults

Biology aside, the reason why it's important to understand how fundamentally just human this is, is because attachment bonds happen in every single relationship. Wow. In the example of two securely attached people who get together, and they have a nice relationship, and generally speaking, they feel comfortable being close to each other. They aren't terribly preoccupied about their partner, worried about things. 

They will, if their relationship becomes distressed, have these attachment kind of flare ups, because our attachment bonds mobilize in efforts to restore kind of balance, or equilibrium in a relationship. 

For example, if you are married to a nice person, you're having a nice time and something changes. I don't know, maybe you start⁠—maybe you had a child, and now all of a sudden, you know, who's taking out the trash or getting up with a baby is more fraught than it was, right? The totally normal, unexpected, but what can happen is that people can experience these kinds of relational problems as a threat to their attachment bond.

“You're leaving me with all this housework, you're not getting up with a baby on an emotional level,” that turns into, “Don't you love me? Don't you still care about me?” When these attachment bonds are threatened, all this emotional machinery flares into life.

What happens is that partner will kind of move towards the anxious end of the spectrum and say, “Hey, why aren't you doing this? Where are you? I need you to do these things. Please help me with this.” They become elevated, can sometimes even become aggressive in pursuit of getting their needs met, because they're trying to restore equilibrium into their relationship. 

On the other side of this same situation, nice secure relationship and all of a sudden, one of the partners is now experiencing their formerly calm, kind, generally loving partner as being aggravated with them, snappy with them, frustrated with them, and on an emotional level, their attachment becomes threatened. It turns into, “Oh, I am not safe with this person anymore. I need to kind of keep away, move away, distance.”

That will sometimes turn into disengagement, defensiveness, kind of in our narratives around, “Oh, you're just being ridiculous. It's not that big of a deal.” That is reminiscent of someone with an avoidant attachment style. That is also efforts to kind of maintain equilibrium in a relationship. This is very common. 

I would struggle to think of a couple that I've ever seen over my decades-long career as a marriage counselor who was in a distressed relationship and coming in for help, and who was not having an attachment bond kind of flare up as a result of it.The most common combination we see is a pursue-withdraw kind of orientation where one person is aggravated, angry, semi-hostile, accusatory, and the other person is withdrawn or avoidant in response to that.

This pursue-withdraw, kind of round and round the thing, not fun, but very normal. Because the pursuing partner is feeling anxious in the relationship and is trying to get their needs met from their partner through outreach, that can often be angry and can often sort of come across as being controlling, right? Nobody starts this, and it's nobody's fault.

The normal behavior is to kind of withdraw in response to somebody who is—you're experiencing is threatening or critical or kind of out to get you, and vice versa. If you are in a relationship with somebody where you aren't getting your needs met, they aren't behaving in ways that make you feel loved and respected, the very normal and natural response to that is to say, “What the heck? Are we still doing this? Are you still there?”

The reason why I wanted to get into this a little bit is because these patterns are very, very common in relationships and have nothing to do with anybody being fundamentally securely or avoidantly attached when they show up. Two people standing at the tippy top center of that hill in any kind of relational distress will always start to fall onto one side or another with each other. 

You can also have different experiences in different relationships. You can be in a relationship with one person who was maybe a little quieter or shut down or did not speak your love language and it made you start to feel a little bit anxious. You will begin to have anxiously attached tendencies in that relationship as a result of your reactions to that particular partner.

In a different relationship, you might be with somebody who's coming on a little strong, who wants to spend more time talking than you do, who maybe wants to have sex more than you do, wants to spend all their time together. You'll be like, “Yeah, I think I need to see some other friends right now,” or “Okay, it's a lot. No more talking.”

It could even be like an introversion-extroversion thing. I mean, there could be all kinds of reasons why there can be these sorts of differences. But in response to that person, you're going to try to regain equilibrium by pulling away a little bit from them. If you think back on your life experience with different people that you've been around, and can observe yourself kind of showing up differently in different relationships. 

That's why our relationships are systems, which means that we react to other people, and then those other people react to us. This is why relationships and and couples counseling honestly can get so complex, is because there's this interplay of attachment, potentially, attachment styles, but also like attachment responses, and understanding these systems, right?, and the way that people relate to each other.  

That is why, like, a marriage and family therapist—a licensed marriage and family therapist will be able to understand all of these systemic pieces. Whereas if you go to couples counseling for a regular therapist, either an LPC or just a psychologist who doesn't have that systemic training, and they will look at both of you sitting in their office and be like, “Oh, well, you're avoidantly attached, and you're anxiously attached, and you guys are not—I can't believe you found each other. What are the odds.” 

There's this tendency to kind of look at individual psychology as opposed to that systems psychology. What winds up happening is that one or both of you gets pathologized. It turns into being about your issues, as opposed to understanding that dance that you two are doing together, so that you can resolve it together, which is what a marriage and family therapist does. As an aside, if you are going to see couples counseling, look for a licensed marriage and family therapist.

But back to the attachment piece. The other thing that can happen here with attachment stuff is that when people don't really understand how significant and severe, very real, like, attachment issues are, they can look at the experiences that they are having in their relationship, either how they are feeling in their relationship currently, or how they are experiencing their partner, and they can also begin to label and pathologize these.

The same way that if you went for couples counseling with a clinical psychologist who may have had one class in couples theory and techniques, there is a tendency to begin pointing the finger. If you are with a partner who is withdrawing, who is uncommunicative, who is not responding to you the way that you want them to, and you read some article or see somebody dancing on TikTok talking about avoidant attachment styles, it's like, “Oh, my partner has an avoidant attachment style.” That's what's wrong. 

Ironically, what that turns into is, first of all, a lack of awareness of how your partner might be experiencing you—that is leading them to kind of avoid, and move away, and experience you as being more hostile and critical because now you're pointing your finger and calling them avoidantly attached and, “You're broken psychologically,” whatever. 

It's really to the detriment of real relationships to pathologize our partners in this way, or vice versa to be in a relationship with somebody who wants more love and affection and attention than you've been giving them. 

If you read a little bit of pop psychology, you might want to label them as having an anxious attachment style, which then gives you permission to basically invalidate everything they say next, because you've already decided that they have broken attachment styles and they're just being ridiculous, so you don't have to change anything about your behavior in this relationship, because it's not your problem, it's their problem, because they have an anxious attachment style.

Again, not helpful. If this is a relationship that you're interested in keeping, it's important to understand systemically what people do in relationships in response to each other. That involves these signature attachment styles in relationships.

Now, of course, it is also possible that you are actually connected to somebody who has adverse childhood experiences that has resulted in nonideal attachment styles. If that's the case, also, just be cautious and understand that these things exist on a spectrum. That nobody is perfectly secure, or avoidant, or anxious. Again, other people might seem different than you based on cultural factors or what was normal in their family, which might be different than yours. 

Also, that there's a wide variety of “secure” in the middle on the top of that hill there, so give people the benefit of the doubt. If you are experiencing somebody as being avoidant, or attached in their interactions with you, it's okay to have a conversation about that. 

I listened to this podcast about attachment styles, and I realized we might be doing this thing together. Listen to—you can get somebody to listen to this podcast with you and say, “I feel like we're doing this. I feel like you might have sort of anxious tendencies with me, and I could feel myself kind of stepping back from you. I wonder what we can do to both help each other feel more stable and secure again.”

Because again, all that means when people start behaving this way is that they're not feeling secure in their relationship. Either they're experiencing danger that they need to move away of, or they're experiencing a lack that they need to pull out of their partner, right? 

Just to be how we'll have a conversation, like, “I feel like we're probably doing this with each other, and I'd like to get back to center again. What would help you feel safer and more secure with me?”, and to have a conversation about that. 

Now, of course, if this has been going on for a while in a relationship, and bad feelings have been happening as a result, what you will also see is that people, their core narratives about each other start to change, it turns into “always/never” kind of language. “She is always complaining. I can never do enough. She's never satisfied. She has unrealistic expectations.” It's fundamental to her character, or “He is just unloving. He's dense. He has zero empathy. I think he might have Asperger's. He's incapable of loving me the way I need to be loved.”

It turns into these, like, global kinds of narratives that we hold about each other. That is a serious danger sign in a relationship, and one of the key indicators that it is time to get in front of a competent marriage counselor quickly, because if that goes unchecked, that'll snowball into a lot of disconnection. 

The on-ramp to this is often just having those interactions with each other where these attachment styles are being expressed. People don't get to that core narrative without having had experiences with that person over and over and over again that teach you, “He will not understand how I'm feeling. He doesn't have any empathy for me. Why try? I'm just gonna give up right?” There's a long on-ramp to that, so just be aware of that. 

Now very lastly, on the subject of those attachment styles in relationships, I will also say that if you believe that you are in a relationship with somebody or that you yourself are kind of on one side of that hill or another. So either an anxious attachment style as evidenced by consistently worrying about how not just this partner, but all your partners feel about you, whether or not you're loved, looking to specific behaviors to confirm whether or not you're loved. If you aren't getting those behaviors, feeling really bad and upset, needing a lot of reassurance and kind of safety seeking in your relationships.

One thing you might do—if you scroll back through my podcast feed, I did a podcast about trust issues in relationships, so you might want to check that out. But also recognizing that the other side, too. 

If you or your partner are on the other side of kind of an avoidant attachment style, so the other side of the hill, there's a lot of distancing from people, a lot of criticism of other people, a lot of ambivalence about relationships, like, “Not quite sure I want to be here with you. Are you really good enough for me? I don't know.”, so like hot and cold kinds of things. 

If you or your partner are either of those, the first step is achieving awareness that that's a thing, it's global, and breaking the idea that you're only feeling this way because of the specific person. If you have real attachment issues, it will be global. It will show up in all of your relationships, not just the one that you're in currently, so that's kind of the big sign. 

Then, also, it's important to understand that just like people are harmed in relationships, that attachment machinery can change in response to what we experienced in very early infancy and childhood, and also through relational trauma later in life, I should add, not to the same extent. But okay, probably too much information.

Just like how people are wounded in relationships, people are also healed in relationships. The best thing that you can do if you have an anxious tending attachment style or an avoidant tending attachment style is to be in a healthy relationship with a person who is somewhere in the middle. Somebody who has a secure attachment style will be able to kind of ride the waves and the ups and downs of life with somebody who has anxious or avoidant tendencies and kind of help restore equilibrium.

They will not be as reactive, and it will be an emotionally safer relationship. Although you can take the most securely attached person in the world and put them in a relationship with an anxiously attached person, they will exhibit avoidant tendencies in response and vice versa. 

The most perfectly securely attached person in the world, match them with somebody who has an avoidant attachment style, and they will become anxious in that relationship with that person in efforts to kind of restore that emotional equilibrium. 

But recognizing this and working towards achieving a healthy, secure relationship with that person will not just  feel better for everybody, but it will also be very healing. You might want to check a podcast that I recorded a while ago now with one of my colleagues, Dr. Paige, here at Growing Self, who specializes in relational trauma and talking about the power of healing relationships. 

Even if you did have negative experiences early in life, and you might always feel a little anxious or a little ambivalent about people as a result, if you understand that about yourself and create a healthy healing relationship with a partner, you will have corrective emotional experiences that essentially retrain your mind, retrain your body, retrain that really deep attachment, bonding place in your brain that other humans are okay, they can fundamentally be trusted, and that you are fundamentally okay. You are worthy of love and respect. You're good, and you can expect generally good things from other people, too. 

When you have those experiences over and over and over again, no matter what stage of life you're in, it is fundamentally healing. You deserve to have that. Healing relationships are key. I would invite you to go back and check out the podcast on healing relationships. Also, if this is an area where you'd like to work on yourself, I would strongly suggest that you get connected with a really good therapist who can help you unpack all of this, uncover the blind spots, and help you gain the self-awareness that we talked about so much during this episode. 

Very lastly, there is another resource that I have for you on a previous podcast where we addressed attachment styles and relationships. I did a attachment style quiz that is really more of like a self-assessment and almost like a mini workbook. It's totally free. But if you want to check it out, you can text 55444 and then text the word “attach”. Wait, I’m embarrassing myself now⁠—“attach” to 55444. 

Anyway, you'll get an email with this activity that I created for you. It is a series of questions that isn't, like, some trite true/false, “Oh, this is your attachment score.” It's really more complex. It'll invite you to walk through, like, some journaling questions. You'll have some prompts to like reflect on your experiences growing up, some of those core assumptions, and I designed it to help you gain some awareness around those old patterns in yourself, so it's a useful tool. 

If you have a therapist, you could certainly show it with them and do it with them. It might even be something interesting for you and your partner to do together if this is something that you're working on together as a couple, provided that you can have emotionally safe conversations about it together. 

But anyway, it's a nice set of activities that can help you get clarity, but also even, I don't want to oversell it. You're not going to resolve attachment issues just by participating in the activity, but it will get the ball rolling, so there's that. 

Again, you can text 55444—to text that number and then just type in the word “attach” and you'll get the link to the activity. Okay, that is all for now. Thank you so much for spending this time with me today. I hope it was helpful to you and I will talk to you soon on another episode. I'll be back next week.

All right.

Feeling Lonely in a Relationship

Feeling Lonely in a Relationship

Feeling Lonely in a Relationship

Feeling Lonely in a Relationship

“Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone. It has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new.” — Ursula K. Le Guin

Why Do I Feel Lonely in My Relationship?

Most of the couples who see me for marriage counseling or couples therapy are not in the middle of an acute relationship crisis. They are not lobbing vicious words around the dinner table. No one is sleeping with their boss, or gambling away the kids’ college fund at the casino. 

More often, when couples land on my couch, it’s because nothing is happening between them. Over the years, their relationship’s life force has dripped away, so gradually that they didn’t notice it happening. They’re in each other’s presence day after day, but they feel alone, and they don’t know what to do about it. 

Feeling lonely in a marriage or a long-term relationship is more common than you might expect. And it’s not an indication that you chose the wrong partner, or that some supernatural “spark” has gone out and can’t ever be reignited. It’s simply what happens to everything we create, without proactive intervention: dust settles on the shelf, weeds overtake the garden, and our strong connections to each other slowly wither away. 

The good news is, you do have the power to intervene, and on this episode of the podcast, I’m going to tell you how. You’ll learn all about what makes a relationship feel lonely, and how you can close the gap between yourself and your partner and create a closer, more satisfying connection.

I hope you’ll tune in, on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Feeling Lonely in a Relationship

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Feeling Lonely in a Relationship: Episode Highlights

Loneliness happens when we don’t have as much felt love and connection as we would like to have. It’s a pain signal that our brains emit, letting us know that we have emotional needs that are not being met. When we’re feeling lonely in a relationship, it doesn’t mean we’re with the wrong person, or that our relationship has died and can’t be revived. It simply means we need to find a way to connect more deeply with our partner. 

Reasons for Being Lonely in a Relationship

Once you get to the point of disconnection, you’re not constantly fighting with your partner — you probably long ago “agreed to disagree” — but by blocking out the conflict, you’ve also blocked out emotional intimacy and all the joy, love, and connection that comes with it. 

Most often, feeling lonely in a relationship is a sign that you and your partner are not having a real emotional exchange. You might be having daily conversations about relatively superficial topics, but rarely sharing your deeper feelings with each other. 

It’s the difference between informing your partner that you’re starting a new project at work, and sharing with them that you’re feeling worried about performing well on the project, and about what could happen if you don’t. When you’re open about your feelings, your partner has an opportunity to see you, validate you, and offer support, helping you feel more connected and less alone. 

When you aren’t having a real emotional exchange with your partner, you feel unheard and unseen. And since your partner is the person you’re counting on more than anyone else to see you and hear you, going without that emotional intimacy will leave you feeling incredibly lonely. 

Another possible culprit behind lonely relationships? Speaking a different love language than your partner. 

If you feel close and connected when you’re having intimate conversations, and they feel close and connected when you’re doing fun activities together, a relationship that’s full of camping trips and motorcycle excursions, but devoid of deeper conversations, will probably leave you feeling lonely, while your partner feels great. When you broach the topic, they might respond by saying something like, “What do you mean you’re feeling lonely? We had so much fun together this weekend!” You’re simply speaking different love languages. 

Finally, feeling lonely in a relationship can mean that there’s a conflict you’ve been unable to resolve, or sources of pain between you that have not been fully addressed. Once you get to the point of disconnection, you’re not constantly fighting with your partner — you probably long ago “agreed to disagree” — but by blocking out the conflict, you’ve also blocked out emotional intimacy and all the joy, love, and connection that comes with it. 

Relationships with untreated wounds are more than hollow, they have something painful sitting in their center. Having productive, healing conversations can help you and your partner dislodge it once and for all. 

How to Stop Feeling Sad and Lonely in a Relationship

Many couples think that the antidote to disconnection is spending more time together. When they plan elaborate date nights hoping it will bring them closer together, only to sit across from each other chewing in awkward silence and feeling worse than before, they believe they’ve tried everything. Too often, divorce is the next step. 

This is a mistake. There is a path to changing a lonely relationship, and it’s restoring emotional intimacy between yourself and your partner, not simply “spending time” together. This requires being vulnerable and authentic about how you’re feeling, and that doesn’t necessarily happen just because you’re physically together. 

Restoring Emotional Intimacy

When you’re falling in love, a flood of dopamine and oxytocin make bonding easy. But those feel-good chemicals don’t keep flooding your system forever. To maintain an emotional connection for years, you and your partner have to intentionally cultivate emotional intimacy. 

This does not happen automatically; it’s something all couples have to work at. Every long-term couple has periods where they’re feeling less connected, and they need to find their way back together. If they haven’t developed the skills to keep their relationship healthy, things get increasingly disconnected until the relationship feels hollow and lonely. 

Start here: What conversation are you avoiding? You might be avoiding an emotionally charged conflict because you’re afraid of damaging the relationship, but not having the conflict has created a block to connection. You might be afraid to express how you’re feeling, because you risk being rejected, dismissed, or invalidated

At the very least, you and your partner have your feelings of loneliness to discuss. Start by telling them how you’re feeling. Tell them you miss them, that you’re feeling lonely, and that you are longing to feel closer. This can be scary, but if the conversation doesn’t go well the first time, keep trying. This is where working with a marriage counselor can be incredibly helpful. 

Often, when we’re feeling hurt or sad, we express those feelings as anger or resentment, because it’s less scary than showing our soft underbelly and risking a painful rejection. You might be having weird little fights about petty stuff, while dancing around the true problems: feelings of emotional abandonment, and the uneasiness that comes with having an attachment bond that you’re not confident is secure. 

If you can resist the urge to lead with anger or criticism, which will only provoke defensiveness and anger from your partner, you can have a productive conversation rather than another fight. Tell them how you’ve been feeling, and ask them how they’ve been feeling about your relationship. Then it will be your turn to practice listening non-defensively. 

Relationships with untreated wounds are more than hollow, they have something painful sitting in their center. Having productive, healing conversations can help you and your partner dislodge it once and for all.

The Risks of a Lonely Relationship

A lonely relationship is not a weird or uncommon occurrence, but it is something you need to address sooner rather than later. Not only because you deserve to have the closeness and connection that every human needs, but because, if you allow this to drift, the disconnection will only get worse, and reconnecting with your partner will only be more difficult. 

When people aren’t getting their emotional needs met in their relationships, they’re vulnerable to turning to emotional affairs to meet those needs. They may try to alleviate their loneliness by striking up a Facebook affair, or developing a crush on somebody else. These relationships can easily snowball into full-blown sexual affairs that make salvaging your relationship a thousand times more difficult. 

Infidelity is often the language of the emotionally starved. Communicate your feelings directly, before they come out in a deeply damaging way. 

Show Notes

[3:27] Being Lonely in a Relationship

  • Even couples in healthy relationships have fluctuations in their connections.
  • Especially in long-term relationships, couples drift apart and then have to find their way back to each other.
  • Feeling lonely in a can happen even when couples are physically together. 

[8:52] Why You Feel Lonely in a Relationship

  • Loneliness in a relationship stems from a lack of deep, meaningful connection.
  • This lonely feeling can also be due to differences in love languages.
  • It's important to understand that what you're feeling is not necessarily the same as what your partner is feeling ⁠— people have different needs.

[11:51] What to Do When You're Lonely in a Relationship

  • Have conversations with your partner where you're both vulnerable and authentic to restore the emotional connection and intimacy. 
  • Restoring this connection doesn't mean spending more time together. Rather, it is putting energy into connecting on a deeper level. 
  • If your partner opens up to you, don't be defensive and dismissive of their side. 

[21:06] When You Are Lonely in a Marriage

  • If discussions with your partner about loneliness turn into arguments, seek help from a couples counselor specializing in marriage and family therapy. 
  • A qualified therapist can help create a safe space for you and your partner to discuss matters and guide you toward conflict resolution.
  • It's better to acknowledge problems in your marriage rather than to minimize or downplay them. Remember that issues are common in any relationship, but they need to be resolved. 

[35:30] Lonely Marriages and Relationships: Conflict Resolution

  • Buried trauma should be resolved so that it does not resurface in your current relationship.
  • Avoiding conflict is only a short-term solution. In the end, the problems in your relationship are still there. 
  • If you're fighting and going around in circles with your partner, get professional help. A marriage and family therapist will assist you through difficult times.

Music in this episode is by Idealism with their song “Lonely.” 

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://idealismus.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast. Uh-oh. Yeah, we're talking today about loneliness in relationships, and how difficult it can feel if you are with someone that is absent, and you're both kind of floating around wanting more. It's a difficult place to be in, but we're going to tackle it together on today's podcast. 

Our intro music today, I think, is a perfect mood setter for our topic. This is the song Lonely by Idealism. Thanks to Chillhop Music. You can check it out, Chillhop—find them on Bandcamp. 

All right, so let's turn to our topic today about lonely marriages or lonely relationships, why they happen, and most importantly, what to do to restore the connection in your relationship if you're in one. If this is your first time listening to the show, I'm so glad you're here and that you've found us.

I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching. I'm a licensed psychologist; I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist; I'm a board-certified coach. But truly, I love working with people around healthy relationships the most. Of all three of those qualifications, I most identify as being a marriage and family therapist, and I'll tell you why.

Our ability to have healthy, secure, positive relationships is just so vital to our lives. I know it is for me personally, for other people I know, certainly for my clients. I also get so many questions from you, my listeners, related to your relationships. Thank you so much, by the way, if you've gotten in touch with me lately on Instagram, @drlisamariebobby, or through our website growingself.com, with your relationship questions. 

Lately, many of them have been centering around this topic of lonely marriages and just how painful it is. I just wanted to acknowledge this and how real it is. I mean, so many of the couples that I've worked with throughout the years for couples counseling, that is, at the core, one of the biggest things that drives people into marriage counseling or couples therapy in the first place. It's not screaming, drag-out fights, or some dramatic betrayals of trust—it is this sense of being alone and disconnected in a relationship with your partner.

Like they're there, you're sitting next to them on a couch. But there is not an emotional connection; that’s one you can feel and that is just so fundamentally painful. My hope with today's show is to just help you understand what might be going on, and to offer some ideas for how to potentially resolve this with or without professional support. But first of all, I did want to validate how common this is, and that if you're feeling this way, it is not just you. 

Being Lonely in a Relationship

I will also say that even in fundamentally healthy, strong, enduring relationships, there can be an ebb and flow in feelings of connection, right? It's not a straight line. We drift apart. We find ways back towards each other again, over and over again, through a long-term relationship. Just because you're having this experience does not mean your relationship is doomed. Just know that, but it also does need to be resolved, right? I mean, we don't want to stay here. 

I think it's also, too, important to address the concept of loneliness, because I think sometimes that word conveys, like, being alone, literally, in our minds. It's not the same thing as social isolation, you know? So, social isolation could be literally alone, like an elderly person who lives alone, and does not have anybody there, doesn't have visitors—could go for weeks or longer without talking to somebody. Single people can sometimes have this experience.

There's a Japanese term, apparently it's becoming an issue in Japan, called hikikomori, where young people completely withdraw from society and become reclusive. They don't talk to anybody, and that is being alone. Being alone is not the same thing as feeling lonely. Feeling lonely—loneliness—can happen even when we aren't literally isolated. It can happen when you're talking to people all day long; it can happen in your friendships; and it can also certainly happen within a relationship.

It can look like a lot of different things. That hypothetical couple, sitting in a restaurant, just sort of chewing your food and not talking about anything. But also not a comfortable silence, because that's different. We can also have comfortable silences. It could also look like just going about life, sitting in the same room night after night, not talking, just kind of watching a program or doing life stuff, taking care of kids, going through the motions, right? Sitting next to each other in bed and sort of flipping through your phones night after night. 

But it can even just look like never scratching the surface. I think some people can routinely be talking to their partner about things: schedules for your week, “What are we doing this summer?” But it never kind of gets down to that deeper level where emotional connection happens. Even if you're living with people, you're talking with them, you are interacting, you can still feel very lonely on an attachment kind of core level. 

When you're in a relationship that leaves you feeling lonely, and it's felt that way for a while, it can be really hard to know how to fix it, and how to try to get that closeness that you want. I also just want to validate for you the fact that feeling like you need it, like you need connection, you're not wrong, you do actually need it. We know from scientific research, if you want to get all official, that loneliness is bad for you. Like, there are consequences to physical health, mental health, if you experience chronic loneliness.

But also, it is a foundational need of humans to have positive connections to others. If it feels like your connection, particularly with your most important person, is, like, hollow in the center, your really wanting that to be different is not a statement about you. I think we have a myth in our culture that we need to be happy by ourselves. If we love ourselves, we won't need things from other people. This western ideal of independence is very much a myth. 

As I've said many times in this podcast, people are born to bond. We need connections with others in order to be well. The fact that you are missing closeness, that you are aware of the deficit, that you're longing for more closeness and connection would tell me that you are a normally functioning healthy human who is experiencing, essentially, a pain signal. 

Like your stomach rumbles when you're hungry or like it's too hot in here, so you take off your sweater. Those are physiological and, to a degree, emotional cues that you're supposed to listen to. You're supposed to listen to this one too. If you're feeling lonely in an uncomfortable way, that is a sign that it's time to try to fix it and find a way to move closer again.

Why You Feel Lonely in a Relationship

The experience of a lonely relationship is common. The core, the reason why it happens is when we don't have as much felt love and connection as we would like to have. While you can certainly feel this way while you're spending time with your spouse, it's often an indication that you don't feel seen or heard on a deep level—that you feel that there is a lack of exchange on an emotional level or on a meaningful level. 

It can also be related to even, like love languages. If you are in a relationship with somebody who, for them, the pinnacle of connection is running around doing fun things together, doing activities, and you are going on vacations, and going to the vintage coin collectors show, and going to the farmers’ market, and have plans every weekend. They might feel vibrantly happy because you and they in their mind are doing the things and having a fantastic relationship that is exactly what they want it to be.

If you are someone, for him, your love language is related to deep, intense conversations about intimate and personal things. And in all of the farmers’ markets and social nights and happy hours and camping trips, you're not doing that with them. You're going to have a very different experience of connection in that relationship than your partner will. You are going to feel like, disconnected, alone—a lack of intimacy that is very real for you, and that should be understood and respected.

But it is important to understand that it can feel different—just because—what I'm trying to say is that just because you are feeling lonely in your relationship does not mean that your partner is also feeling lonely in a relationship. They could be just fine. When you try to talk about your feelings, they could legitimately and honestly say, “What are you talking about? What? We did all these fun things. We're doing this next week.” 

It's just important to know that, and the reason why I want to bring this up, and we're going to be talking about more, related to this is that when people feel lonely, it is a subjective experience that is very much based on their expectations for what should be happening in a relationship—their love languages. People have different needs for closeness and connection. It shows up in many different ways.

What to Do When You're Lonely in a Relationship

While it can look very different, the path to changing this is to restore emotional intimacy, which means a scary thing. It means needing to be vulnerable and authentic in order to restore connection. 

Sometimes when I go in this direction, it surprises people because, I think, sometimes people expect to hear that you should be spending more time together, you should be doing mutually enjoyable activities together, or maybe it means you are fundamentally incompatible, you're never going to get your needs met in this relationship, and maybe whatever. I don't think that either of those things are true. 

What tends to happen in relationships, particularly when people are together for a long time, is that it's just really easy to go on autopilot. A lot of time can go by where we're not really thinking that much about it. We fall into habits, we fall into patterns, we fall into routines. 

If we're not intentionally putting energy back into our relationships in order to maintain and cultivate emotional connection and emotional intimacy with our partner, those things will always atrophy over time.

Like, okay, let's see here. What is one of the laws of thermodynamics? Things fall apart—the entropy, whatever that is. Relationships are very much the same. It doesn't mean that there's something fundamentally wrong because it's happening. It happens to every relationship. If you don't put energy in, things fall apart. 

What will also happen—and here's the hard part—when we are experiencing loneliness in a relationship, it means, kind of by definition, that we have gotten out of the habit of connecting on a deep level with our partner. We're not having the conversations that we should be having, and nothing is happening as a result, right? In order to change the situation, it requires you to notice what's happening in the absence of that connection.

Take a chance. Take a risk of being vulnerable, authentic, and courageous, and rocking that damn boat and saying to your partner, “I feel lonely, and I feel disconnected. Here's why,” in a non-accusatory way, by the way. But the reason why this is so hard is because in lonely relationships, nothing is happening, and so nothing is wrong a lot of times.

They're calm. They're quiet. Nothing bad is happening. It is not dramatic. It's just like you're sort of slowly starving to death emotionally. Many times, this is actually perpetuated by rationalizing away your feelings, “Oh, don't make a big deal out of it. It's just going to cause a fight.” 

Truly, avoidance of what feels like an emotionally charged, potentially dangerous conversation where you open up about how you're feeling in a vulnerable way and risk saying, “I miss you. I want more of you. I miss what we used to have together. I feel lonely. I like talking to you, and I want to talk to you more. Like, are you still there? Do you still care about me?” in a vulnerable way.

It's very scary. It's very hard to do that. Because when you do, you risk getting into a conflict, but also you risk rejection, right? If you say, “I miss you. I'm lonely. I need you,” and he’s like, “What are you talking about? It's fine.” That is wounding, isn't it? You’re like, “Okay, I'm just going to go back into my box, and we're not going to talk about this again.”

There is the risk, especially going back to that first idea. Like, if you're having a different experience in your relationship with your partner, and you broach the loneliness conversation, and they see things differently, it's very easy to take that as feeling minimized, invalidated, shut down—confirmation of the fact that they don't care and you are emotionally abandoned in this relationship. 

It's easy in that moment to give up and to say to yourself, “I tried. I tried talking about it, and they shut me down. They told me I was wrong. I am truly alone.” Like, kind of spin out into this narrative. Nobody would fault you for doing that because that was your experience in that conversation. So that's risk number one. We feel like we're trying to connect, and then we have the experience of being rejected, and then we give up.

When you do that, and it turns into, “I will always be lonely in this relationship. There is nothing here for me. You can't get blood from a stone.” That's where—next stop is the divorce lawyers' office if we keep going down that trajectory. Be very careful of what you're telling yourself and notice what is happening in your mind.

The other risk for broaching these topics and creating more emotional connection in your relationship is that it is very scary to be vulnerable in a relationship. Like, that door number one scenario that we were just talking about. It's much safer and more common, honestly, to be angry in a relationship. Like, if you have been feeling unloved, and uncared for and emotionally lonely in your relationship for a long time, it is likely that you are feeling resentful of your partner.

When we are feeling resentful of our partners, it's also very easy to get annoyed by them and all the things that they're doing or not doing. When we do broach the topic of feeling lonely in a relationship, it can often happen in the context of having lots of little skirmishes or weird fights about bacon, or what day the laundry should be washed on. “You said this,” “No, I didn't.” 

I mean, like, when couples start to have weird little fights about weird little things. It is because there is an emotional disconnection at the core of it. I don't know if you caught a recent podcast episode about attachment styles in relationships—is when there is kind of sniping and aggression or withdrawal in relationships, it is often a function of feeling that the attachment is unstable.

If you have been feeling lonely in your relationship, your attachment is no longer stable, and so that's likely been coming out in a variety of ways, right? When we have the conversation about feeling lonely, usually the person who initiates that conversation is feeling upset about it. It's very, very easy and common for that conversation to be very sincere and heartfelt and well-intentioned but to sound like criticism and accusations to the ear of the listener. 

Somebody who has been feeling lonely say, “We never do anything. You never talk to me. You don't ask me questions about my day. Let me tell you about all the things you're doing wrong, and why that is making me feel lonely in this relationship,” which will very predictably elicit feelings of defensiveness, “No, I'm not. That didn't happen.” All of a sudden, you're having a fight about what is or is not happening. 

So it's not a vulnerable moment where you're making a courageous bid for connection. It is now an actual argument that is also reinforcing this fundamental idea that you are lonely in this relationship, and that it is impossible to talk to your partner, and even when you try, they don't understand anyway. It's really hard to have a productive conversation about feeling lonely in a relationship, I'm not going to lie.

When You Are Lonely in a Marriage

That, I think, is one of the reasons why couples, so often and wisely so, by the way, come to marriage counseling for help with this, is because there are so many weird little, like, emotional and psychological things that can happen in the space in between two people. When there has been emotional disconnection and one person is trying to reconnect, it is vulnerable, there are a lot of emotions there, and it can very easily go sideways.

One of the biggest benefits of working with a couples counselor is that they can prevent you from having a fight in the room and instead help you have a productive conversation where you can say how you're really feeling and what it's really about. So in that vulnerable way, and where the other person is assisted in receiving that information in the way it was intended, and not react in a way that creates a fight.

There are, of course, many other things that good couples counselors do besides supervising couples to play nicely together. But that is one of the most important parts of having a third person in the room: is to facilitate the conversation in such a way that you're talking about the important things without having weird emotional reactions to each other. That when you're out in the wild together, it disintegrates. It just turns into an argument that perpetuates loneliness.

I am not saying this as an infomercial for couples counseling. You can absolutely have a conversation about this on your own, but be very careful that you are addressing this in a courageously vulnerable way. Try to create a lot of emotional safety for your partner when you bring this up, so that reduces the chance that they'll get really defensive and reactive. Also, make space for the fact that your partner may legitimately be experiencing this differently than you are. 

So that if they are, like, “What do you mean?” You don't interpret that as invalidation because that might not be what's happening. They might be sincerely surprised that you are experiencing the relationship this way. With those tips, try to talk about it with your partner. If it is consistently not going well, that would be a sign to call a good couples counselor for support. This is because if we just let it go—the easiest thing to do is always to not do something, right?

It takes so much courage to make it a big deal. Like, “No. We need to do something here.” It's much easier to just sort of, like, let it drift, “It's fine. It's not a big deal. I kind of like the show, too. It doesn't matter,” right? When we rationalize that to ourselves for too long, and it goes, couples can drift very, very, very far apart. When that happens, first of all, it's harder to reconnect the longer it goes, right, and weird things can also happen when people are too disconnected for too long. 

Again, some of it is just normal long-term relationship stuff. There is ebbs and flows in every relationship, and you will always go through periods with your partner where you feel more connected to them than others. Sometimes, if you are in one of those spaces where you're feeling alone, you want emotional connection, it feels like you've been trying to connect with your partner and they're just not getting it, or maybe you have a good conversation, but nothing is changing. It just sort of goes back to the way it was. 

It can create vulnerability to becoming attached or emotionally involved with somebody besides your partner. We haven't talked about emotional affairs in a while on the show, but it is related to the topic of lonely marriages, right? To think about being in this space and feels like you can't talk to your partner. You have stuff going on in your life that you want to share, and you want to connect around and for whatever reason, it's not happening in your relationship.

It can, understandably, feel like a breath of fresh air if you connect with somebody who is interested in what you have to say, who is excited about the same things that you are, it feels like there's a joining energetically—maybe you're into the same stuff or same activities that your partner doesn't seem to understand. It can be very easy to get seduced in some way—not in a sexual seduction sense. 

Although if you have listened to my podcast episode of married with a crush, you will understand that having that emotional connection is not infrequently the on-ramp to a more serious, like, a sexual affair. It always starts with a friendship, right? Or an infatuation. That's just one thing to be aware of. 

if you begin sort of comparing your partner to somebody else in your mind, or thinking about how you really enjoy your interactions with “Joe in Accounting” so much more than you do your partner—it's not anything bad about you. Nothing to be ashamed of, but it is important to recognize that that is happening. It can also be a sign that there is a significant disconnection in your relationship that really does need to be addressed. 

It would be a mistake to downplay it or not take these things seriously. It's easier to do in the moment, but that is also how real problems happen in a relationship when people have been minimizing or downplaying things for a while or not being fully conscious of the things that they're doing in their relationship.

To be lonely in a marriage is very common and normal and needs to be resolved. The path to connection is by extending yourself to connect. I once had an interesting conversation with somebody, and you may be aware, there's a lot of really trite advice that comes from, typically, a couple's—or I should say—therapists who are providing couples counseling but do not have specialized training and education in marriage and family therapy.

One of the things they'll often do is tell couples to go on a date night. So a couple will come in and say, so predictably, “We're feeling disconnected and lonely. We want to find our way back to each other.” So a therapist who does not specialize in couples and family therapy will say, “Great. Go on a date night. That's your homework assignment.”

The couple will dutifully go on the date night and not realize that just because you are spending time with somebody does not mean that you're going to connect on an emotionally meaningful level. In fact, many a date night has been spent in awkward silence with each person wishing something different would be happening than what it is, but neither feeling brave enough to either broach that vulnerably. If anything, it often comes out sideways in snippy comments, right? 

That turns into a fight, and they go, “That date sucked. I'm never doing that again,” right? Again, very important not to look for Band-Aid solutions if you're feeling lonely in a relationship. A much more reliably effective way to handle this is to see if you can have an open authentic relationship with your partner and talk about not just how you're feeling but ask them how they are feeling. 

Could go one of two ways. They could be like, “What? We're doing this tennis tournament, and we went shopping for whatever. It was great. I love you so much.” That could happen, or you may also have the experience where they tell you, “I've been feeling kind of bored and lonely, too. Let me tell you why.” If your partner is brave enough to go there, then it will be your turn to figure out how to listen to that non-defensively without saying, “No, I didn't,” right? 

Just to be open to hearing their thoughts and feelings. Ideally, it can turn into a really nice conversation about things like love languages. I did another podcast on the topic of love languages, if that's helpful for you guys to listen to together, because we feel connected in different ways, and those are important to understand. It could also turn into conversations about practical aspects of your relationship and routines and habits. 

Now, this is going to sound like trite advice, I will assure you it's not. It is trite to tell people to go on date nights, whatever. But when it comes to, like, lifestyles and routines, particularly couples who have crossed the threshold into parenthood and have demands of family and jobs and stuff, and are managing a lot of different things, it can become so easy to prioritize other stuff besides a relationship. 

It's really important every once in a while to just reassess our routines. What are we doing together as a couple and as a family that prioritizes our needs for authentic connection with each other, as well as with our kids, as well as with our friends? For some couples, it could be establishing a weekly date night or weekly lunch. It could be a new family routine of going for a walk after dinner or having opportunities to connect. It is often—it looks different for every family. 

It is a mistake to think that the routine itself, so the habit of spending more time doing something together, is not going to resolve this unless it is coupled with emotionally meaningful activities for one or both partners at the same time. That's where it ties into love languages. If your way of connecting is through deep, emotionally, intimate conversations, whatever routine you build into your life has to include that.

It doesn't have to be a date night at a fancy restaurant. It could be going on a walk and just having a conversation. For other people, it's sexuality—the emotional intimacy is really strongly correlated with physical intimacy. Even if you're talking all day about feelings, it is not really going to change things for you without that physical component. Being aware of specifically what that connection experience is for you and your partner is vital. 

If you find out that one of the ways of emotional connection that is super meaningful for one or both of you, but not both of you—I should say that. Wait, back up—the emotional connection through conversation is important. Well, no, actually, that's true for one or both of you, but that is not always easy to do. 

There are actually some training wheels to help this be more successful and easier. There are conversation topics. There are card decks. There are 100 questions for couples is an awesome article that I will link to in this podcast post. The Gottmans of the Gottman Research Institute put out an app that actually has open-ended questions for couples, so that you can, like, take turns asking each other questions that elicit authentic conversations about things that you wouldn't ordinarily think to talk about. 

That is, for many couples, the on-ramp to connection, so it's not just the time, it's the conversation. Now, it will also be remiss of me not to talk about another important thing that can and does create lonely relationships and also perpetuates lonely relationships. That is more than the drift that always happens, and it is also more than the miscommunication and rupture that happens when people try to address loneliness. Loneliness in relationships can also be a function of having unresolved perpetual problems that are painful and that feel impossible to resolve, but that are real.

Lonely Marriages and Relationships: Conflict Resolution

Conflict in relationships can be difficult to resolve effectively. It's also true that in every couple, there are what we call unresolvable problems. They're just differences in personality, of values, of ways of doing things, or core beliefs that are not resolvable and are also completely okay. We do not have to resolve them in order to have a positive relationship with somebody. 

But when there are sources of pain or hurt in a relationship that did not get addressed, or resolved well enough, even if it was finding a way to appreciate and tolerate each other anyway, and really, genuinely move on from it emotionally.

Having unresolved conflict in a relationship can kind of be like that grain of sand in an oyster, right? The original conflict was a grain of sand, and if it wasn't resolved, it starts to become calcified, like it builds up over time. We don't talk about it. We're not doing anything about it. It's still there, and now we're kind of avoiding it.

By proxy, avoiding each other in order to maintain the stability of our relationship because if we did have a serious conversation and try to attain emotional intimacy, whatever that was would come up. It is painful. It feels dangerous. Like on the map, there'd be dragons, we're not going to talk about that. We're not going to talk about anything as a kind of protective mechanism for the relationship.

It sounds weird to think about protecting a relationship by avoiding emotional intimacy. But, people can do a lot and go a long time just going through the motions. We can take care of the kids, we can go to work, we can make nutritious meals, we can have a house, we can have a social life, and we can do all the things. But in the core between us, it is not just hollow, there is a black pearl sitting in the center that is keeping us apart.

Because if we did go there and try to tackle that thing, it might turn into a really dangerous-feeling fight for us. It may feel painful. We do not know how to resolve this conflict. We've tried. We've had 27 fights about it, and none of them have ended well, so let's just agree to disagree. Keep on our own respective sides of the bed and the couch and the dining room table.

Pros and cons, right? You're not having the fight, but you're also having a lot of disconnection. If anything that I am saying right now feels true for you, that would also be an indication that it is really time to get professional help—to get an experienced marriage and family therapist who can help you come together. 

All three of you will look at that pearl together, whatever it is, and be able to have emotionally safe and productive conversations that will help you unearth those old, old layers of whatever happened, and be able to have productive healing conversations with each other that do really heal it for once and for all. 

Not only will that old conflict or old trauma or old wound be resolved—when it is resolved, it will also make it safe again to reconnect emotionally in the present moment and be emotionally vulnerable with each other, be authentic with each other, tell each other how you're feeling and what's going on. You will have had the opportunity to practice having emotionally safe conversations, so you'll be better able to do it.

But also, there isn't like that old abscess, that old infected thing that if we get down to two or three layers out, there it is again, right? It'll just be emotionally safer to stay connected. I think it was Brené Brown—all fonts of wisdom and good things go back to Brené Brown sooner or later, don't they?

But she has some kind of saying where when we numb ourselves to pain, we also numb ourselves to joy at the same time, unintentionally. The same thing happens in relationships. When we are avoiding things to prevent conflict or unpleasantness in a relationship, we're also blocking ourselves to emotional connection with our partner, and authentic joy, and love. We have to keep it all away. You can't choose one. 

Anyway, I hope that those ideas are helpful. Main takeaways. Emotional disconnection and loneliness in marriage is common. It goes in ebbs and flows. If it happens, just say, “Oh, time to reconnect.” That reconnection can happen through authentic and vulnerable conversation with your partner where you tell them how you feel, ask how they're feeling, and stay in the ring emotionally with each other to have a productive conversation that ideally will lead to changes. 

Sometimes those changes are based on love languages and doing more of what each of you feels like they need to feel loved and connected. If you cannot do this, and if it turns into a fight that leads to just increased disconnection or sort of reinforces disconnection, that would be one sign to get help. 

Another thing to know is that in a space of disconnection, you can be vulnerable to connecting with other people outside of your relationship. If that happens, just notice it and stop that. Cut it right off and come back to center. Focus on reconnecting with your partner. Get help if you need to. 

Then, thirdly, emotional disconnection can be a function of unresolved conflict. In order to stop feeling lonely in the here and now, we’re going to have to go back into the past and heal whatever hurt happened however long ago in order to reconnect emotionally with your partner in the present.

I really hope that those ideas are helpful and useful to you. I'll be interested to hear how things go. If you want to try this at home with your partner, resources we talked about were the attachment podcast, attachment styles in relationships. We also talked about the love language quiz. We also talked about married with a crush—that podcast if you think that might be happening.

Then also, I did a few podcasts, just communication techniques. Let's see what would be the best ones for you. Emotional safety in relationships is a really good one, because you're going to have to have a lot of emotional safety in this conversation in order for it to be productive. We also talked about feeling, oh, invalidated. You might want to check out that podcast as well if that is what is happening. 

Then, outside resources, check out the Gottman Card Deck for conversation starters and 100 conversation starters, no, 100 questions for couples—the article that I referenced. All will be available for you as links on the post for this podcast on growingself.com/lonelymarriages. It is all there for you. I hope you take advantage of it, and thank you so much for spending this time with me today. This was a good talk, and I will be back in touch with you next time with more love, happiness and success.

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