By Focus on the Family
“A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.”
~ Mignon McLaughlin
Friendship is one of the most essential qualities of a thriving marriage. But the stress and pressures of everyday life — including work, children, finances, household responsibilities, and media overload — can easily push couple-time to the bottom of the priorities list. That’s when spouses start to drift apart, and loneliness can set in.
Loneliness in marriage is a unique pain
Marriage is called “tying the knot” for a reason. We bind ourselves together —for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer … til death do us part. By its definition, marriage is about oneness and intimacy.
But marriage doesn’t promise to insulate us from loneliness. And living with a spouse doesn’t guarantee connection and friendship. Psychology Today notes that nearly 63% of people who reported being lonely were married and living with their spouse. Further, therapist Darlene Lancer writes:
People tend to think of abandonment as something physical, like neglect. Loss of physical closeness due to death, divorce, or illness can be felt as an emotional abandonment as well. But emotional abandonment has nothing to do with proximity: It can happen when the other person is lying right beside us, when we can’t connect or when our emotional needs aren’t being met in our relationship.
Ironically, this sort of loneliness in marriage can feel even more painful because your spouse is with you physically but not emotionally. You live together, but you don’t do life together. The resulting loneliness and alienation can feel too heavy to endure.
Bottom line? You and your spouse can live in the same house, eat at the same table, even sleep in the same bed, and still feel isolated. Disconnected. Alone. It’s the very opposite of what marriage should be.
So, how can a couple navigate life’s challenges and remain connected?
How to strengthen friendship and connection in marriage
Here’s the reality: Love isn’t self-sustaining. FamilyLife founder Dennis Rainey writes, “Every marriage will naturally move toward a state of isolation. Unless you lovingly, energetically nurture and maintain intimacy in your marriage, you will drift apart from your spouse.”
Your marriage relationship won’t maintain itself. It can’t. Connecting with your spouse requires time, attention and intention. Thriving couples are intentional about spending time together in meaningful conversations and enjoyable experiences that strengthen their bond and deepen their friendship.
Consider these four ways to guard against loneliness and drifting apart, and to strengthen your friendship and connection:
- Deal with underlying issues.
- Create connection rituals.
- Rediscover your spouse.
- Practice emotional availability.
Deal with underlying issues
If you’ve felt lonely in marriage, you may have tried the typical advice to just spend more quality time together. OK. So you lined up date nights, made couple friends, discovered a common hobby, had more sex — and yet you still feel like there’s an enormous gap between you and your spouse. The problem? Everyone has baggage. And the roots of loneliness are too complex to gloss over even with the most proactive bonding activities.
Yes, quality time together is important. And because most of us want to act on a problem, we easily assume that doing equals fixing — so bring on the full calendar! However, when it comes to addressing loneliness, doing more of the same things won’t help. The truth is that real, lasting change starts when you are still, when you first take time to reflect on and deal with underlying issues.
Spend time thinking through what might be driving your or your spouse’s withdrawal. What might be feeding feelings of isolation and loneliness?
NOTE: Marriage struggles can range from minor to serious to crisis-level, with each requiring a different kind of help. If anything from the list below raises a red flag, call 03-3310 0792 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Maybe you’re fiercely independent or self-reliant. You find it hard to depend on someone else — either because you’ve had to fend for yourself at some point in life or you’ve never learned to be interdependent with your spouse (not co-dependent).
- Perhaps you never saw what a strong marriage looked like. If you grew up in a broken home, you didn’t have a solid model for healthy relationships. And that can make the gift of connection in marriage harder to envision and live out.
- Maybe you’re adjusting to a new role — new mum or dad, new job, new move, or caring for an elderly parent. (Even good changes and positive transitions have elements of stress that can drive a wedge between you and your spouse.)
- Secret sins such as pornography, substance abuse or infidelity might keep you from forming a close connection due to overwhelming shame, fear of being found out or pain of confronting past mistakes and lingering problems. Or you may battle self-centeredness, focusing on you and what you want.
- You might feel like your marriage is unsafe. Among other things, there could be high conflict, sarcasm, disapproval and abuse.
- Maybe you avoid intimacy of any kind because emotional vulnerability is scary; you find it hard to trust others.
- Perhaps you struggle to find work-life balance in your marriage.
- You and your spouse might not have talked about long-term plans as a couple. You aren’t pursuing a shared dream for your marriage and life together.
- Or maybe you suffer from FOMO: the fear of missing out. Comparison causes you to treat everything and everyone as more valuable than your spouse.
Loneliness in marriage can stem from seasons of change, character flaws that need humble correction, wounds from the past or fears of the future. Add in the fact that a husband and a wife wrestle with their own worries in addition to concerns about their marital relationship, and it’s no wonder that isolation and disconnection are a constant threat.
What’s the solution? As much as possible, clear the calendar of all commitments aside from work so you can focus on each other and deal with underlying issues.
Create connection rituals
Busyness is the scourge of marriage. Couples often try to cope by having the occasional date night, vacation or holiday gathering to make up for lost connection. But a marriage can’t survive from vacation to vacation or date night to date night. Happy marriages aren’t created by accident or one-and-done moments.
Instead, couples need to be proactive in maintaining emotional connection. One way to do this is to establish intentional, consistent connection rituals. These daily behaviours and activities develop reminders of secure attachment to your spouse. They help create shared meaning, strengthen your emotional bond and nurture a strong sense of “we-ness.” Here are some examples:
- Say goodbye and greet hello with a hug, kiss or loving phrase.
- Leave notes for each other.
- Text or call during the day just to check in.
- Read a book together.
- Drive together.
- Spend part of a morning together in bed talking and holding each other.
- Sit outside over coffee or eat at a favourite restaurant.
- Remind each other that you are partners on the same team. Your spouse is not your adversary.
- Make date night a weekly habit. This isn’t the time to discuss hot topics like in-laws or finances or to chat about the children; it’s time for you to have fun together!
- Use conversation starters for couples and take turns answering the questions anytime you can find 10 minutes to talk at a deeper level — like over coffee, during dinner, driving together or lying in bed.
- Create a 10-minute daily conversation ritual by asking, “What was the high of your day, and what was the low of your day?”
- Go to bed at the same time as your spouse. Whether you have sex or cuddle and have pillow talk, make it a priority to say goodnight before drifting off to sleep.
- Do some of your individual chores together. Make the bed together. Cook meals together. Wash the dishes together.
- Prioritise sexual intimacy in ways that feel good to you both. (Put the children to bed early and turn off the TV!)
- Go on walks together. Talk about special moments you’ve had as a couple.
- Dream together. Develop a vision for your life as husband and wife.
Regular moments together create shared meaning for your marriage and strengthen your bond. Over time, they reinforce the security you have with each other — and they help you rediscover your spouse.
Rediscover your spouse
Our brains are hardwired to steer us toward what’s familiar. Certain things in our lives such as surroundings, routines, food, music and clothes make us feel comfortable and safe. In a similar way, familiarity with our spouse can lead to feelings of contentment and safety — as it should. Unfortunately, it can also lead to complacency. Unlike our standing latte order, presuming predictability in marriage is unrealistic at best and harmful at worst.
After years of marriage, we can fall under the illusion that we know everything there is to know about each other. However, your spouse is not the same person you married — and you’re not the same person your spouse married. You might think you know your spouse’s favourites (food, hobbies, music, TV show, retail store, coffee order, toothpaste and more), but change is the only constant in life. Meaning what? You probably don’t know your spouse as well as you think you do.
Instead of assuming that you know what’s significant to your spouse, regularly “rediscover” them.
What great advice: Learn her ways always. (Or, to the wife, learn his ways always!)
How? Study your spouse. Pay close attention to obvious details as well as the unspoken places of their heart. Notice likes, dislikes, interests, dreams, hopes, fears, desires and passions — and remember that those things can change from day to day! Fall in love with them for who they are today rather than who you first married.
Curiosity keeps passion alive because it revives the interest, intrigue and fascination present in the early years of your relationship. Get to know your spouse in new ways by paying attention and staying constantly eager to learn their ways.
One lifetime isn’t long enough to truly know each other because you’re always changing. So take joy in rediscovering your spouse over and over. Every single thing you learn about each other will lead to deeper friendship and connection.
Practice emotional availability
Marriage expert Dr. Sue Johnson, who founded Emotionally Focused Therapy (one of the most researched couples therapy models), says, “The most important thing we’ve learned … in the last 35 years is that the secret to loving relationships and to keeping them strong and vibrant over the years, to falling in love again and again, is emotional responsiveness.”
Emotional responsiveness has two main components: accessibility and responsiveness.
Accessibility means that you are available and open to your spouse’s emotions
People desperately want to be deeply known. In fact, the essence of intimacy is into me see. Your spouse wants to trust that you will be available when they’re hurting.
Sadly, they often have to compete against children, social media, work obligations and more for our attention. Accessibility requires you to first recognise your spouse’s feelings (emotional awareness) and then be present and embrace their emotions — any hurt, insecurity, frustration or fear.
Responsiveness is how you’re impacted by your spouse’s emotions
When people are hurting, they don’t just want you to recognise that fact; they want you to care. They want to trust that you will respond to them with empathy.
Sympathy is when you feel bad for someone; empathy goes much deeper. Empathy is when you feel bad with someone — when you imagine what that person is feeling and place yourself in their emotions. Teddy Roosevelt once said, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” (This is a great reminder that even if you have an amazing fix for a problem, your spouse won’t care about your brilliance until they know that you care about them!)
When you deeply connect with your spouse’s heart, you send a clear message that they matter. You’re saying, “You are valuable to me.”
What it all comes down to
“Good friends are hard to find,” say Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott. “And when found — particularly in marriage — we sometimes take them for granted.” Don’t let that be you. Don’t merely love your spouse for a lifetime. Like them every day and enjoy friendship with each other.
© 2021 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.