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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