Loneliness In A Relationship
The idea of loneliness within a relationship may seem contradictory since we assume that the lonely people are the single ones. After all, we bond in order to relate and connect, and once we walk up the aisle or settle down together, surely loneliness will become a thing of the past. However, the truth is that relationships don’t always protect us against loneliness, and there are many people who have a partner but still feel lonely. In fact, being in a relationship where there is no real connection can actually increase loneliness.
The impact of loneliness
Loneliness is not the same as the feeling of aloneness or the state of being physically alone. Loneliness is a very painful heart feeling where we feel a deep lack of connection to those around us and particularly to our significant other.
Loneliness causes acute emotional pain. It can affect our physical health making us more susceptible to disease. It also puts us at risk of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. My website has more information about the mental and physical effects of loneliness.
Within a relationship, loneliness is the feeling of wanting to connect with our partner but being unable to do so, perhaps because they are emotionally ‘unavailable.’ Long periods of felt loneliness can lead to feelings of anger, despair and hopelessness about our partner, our relationship and about life as a whole.
What causes loneliness in a relationship?
The fundamental cause of loneliness is disconnection. When two people first meet, date and create a relationship they are drawn together through the intense happiness of falling in love, sexual attraction, and shared common interests. It appears as if these things that brought them together will be adequate to maintain the relationship over time. However, this isn’t the case. The normal stressors of life (such as work pressures or having children) or the lack of connection on a deeper emotional level may cause the couple to become isolated from each other and feel lonely in the relationship.
Emotional disconnection can happen in a moment, and if these moments add up, without connection, it can affect the quality of the relationship. Feeling disconnected can also happen slowly, gradually increasing through the years. The amount of quality time spent together grows less and less. Meaningful conversations which share our feelings, interests, hopes and dreams, gradually cease. Conversation becomes purely practical, transactional, or focused on parenting. All couples experience emotional disconnection. It is not the disconnection that damages the relationship, it is the inability to connect again that negatively impacts the relationship. Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) is an evidence based therapy for couples wanting to know how to connect emotionally for life.
Significant disconnection can also occur when partners have experienced relational trauma. Trauma is not just about physical injuries or accidents.
One common scenario which signals emotional distress for a couple is when one partner is angry, demanding, critical and the other partner avoids conflict, moving away emotionally to create distance or safety. Inevitably, this makes the first partner angrier and more demanding than ever and so the emotional distance between the couple increases.
General signs of disconnection include:
- Becoming emotionally closed off, perhaps in order to protect yourself against a partner’s anger
- Your frustration and anger is increasing with no solution in sight
- Withdrawing, becoming closed and angry, or shutting your partner out with work, TV, the internet, hobbies, or even alcohol
- You can’t stop your anger or being critical as your partner moves away or shuts you out even more
- One partner pushes for ‘emotional connection,’ the other just doesn’t know what he/she is on about
- You are beginning to lose hope for your relationship
- You feel/act like room mates rather than lovers
- When one gets angry and demanding, the other withdraws and becomes silent
- One feels unimportant/unvalued, the other feels like a failure and hopeless
Read more on other Couples Counselling and other problems that couples face.
Why emotional connection is so important
We all have a deep human need to emotionally connect, a need which lasts from cradle to grave. In practice, emotionally connecting with your partner happens through an effort to understand how he or she feels, and to ‘tune in’ to him or her. This tuning in is not dissimilar to the relationship between a mother and her infant. Upon hearing the baby’s voice or call the mother is able to interpret the needs behind a baby’s distress or the source of his joy. The mother then attends to that need, by feeding, changing diapers and so on, and by soothing the baby. When the child is happy, the mother repeats the action or behaviour that promotes this joy, thus creating further delight for the baby.
The baby gradually learns that he/she is seen, heard, cared for, loved and not alone and that mother will come when he/she needs her. In adult love relationships this ‘tuning in’ creates the same felt sense of being important to your partner; being cared for, being safe and secure, and most importantly, knowing that you are not alone. Your partner is there for you when you call. You can turn to him/her when you are upset, uncertain, or unwell, and also when you want to share in your joy and happiness.
How to create a deeper emotional connection
So how exactly do you ‘tune in’ to your partner? One way is to look beneath what your partner is saying. Beneath every critical, demanding or angry partner is someone who longs to feel important, safe, listened to, heard, held and loved. Beneath every distant, dismissive, seemingly passive, retreating/withdrawing partner, is someone who longs to feel adequate, who wants to feel safe enough to approach the other partner and meet their needs.
Often, both partners are ‘stuck’ in the way they ask for what they need. This may translate onto problems in their sex life and mental health. With attention and care, these patterns can be changed, but this requires time and a different way of listening and of attending to what your partner is saying. It requires that both partners take the risk of being vulnerable. Doing this requires courage and may require professional help from a qualified counsellor or psychotherapist.
Meanwhile, see if you can start looking at your partner and relationship differently. If your partner is critical, demanding or angry, see if you can ‘tune in’ and see their hostility as you would a baby’s cry for its mother. Ask yourself, ‘What is it she or he really saying beneath the anger and criticism?’ ‘What does she/he really need from me?’ If your partner is distant, passive or withdrawing, you can ask yourself, ‘What is going on for right now that makes him unable to move closer to me? What makes him want to retreat/withdraw? Does he feel unsafe, needing to protect himself and the relationship?’
It’s easy to assume that we know how our partner is feeling or what they are thinking, particularly if we have been together a long time. Yet this may not be the case. Imagining how the world looks from their point of view allows you to express greater compassion and understanding towards them, making them feel heard and validated, bringing you both closer and forging stronger emotional bonds.
It’s important to take the initiative, if things are to change. While this may feel risky at first, it can be useful to know that if you feel lonely and emotionally isolated, it’s probable that your partner feels the same way. Using this process of tuning in and communicating is not dependant on skills or intellect. It is a skill that comes from the heart. If you are able to offer this kind of understanding and attend to the softest and most vulnerable parts of each other, emotional connection will follow.