Everyone’s marriage is different, and no marriage is perfect. That goes without saying. It’s also a fact that life has its natural ebbs and flows, with every happy marriage experiencing moments of conflict and loneliness. And while no one’s definition of lonely is the same, prolonged periods of feeling lonely in your marriage or relationship can cause real long-term damage. Some people might be shocked to find out you can be with someone all the time and still feel isolated in an unhappy marriage. Unfortunately, rates of reported loneliness spiked to epidemic proportions due to COVID-19, even as people live their entire days confined together. The good news is that you don’t have to navigate these feelings alone. There are numerous resources out there, from books and groups to marriage counseling, that can help you figure out how to save a marriage or whether it’s worth saving at all.
Here are a few ways to tell if you’re just lonesome or if something more insidious like emotional abandonment is happening and what to do about it.
What is loneliness in marriage?
First thing first: What does it mean to feel lonely in a marriage? Living with someone but sharing little-to-no connection is a recipe for a lonely marriage. Experts widely agree simply sharing a living arrangement with someone isn’t the cure for being lonely; connection is. It’s shockingly common for married people to feel isolated; in fact, 1 in 3 adults reported being lonely in a recent survey. “It’s very common that people find themselves in long-term relationships feeling lonely,” Niloo Dardashti, a New York-based psychologist, said in an interview with Time.
According to Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., therapist, and president of the Logic-Based Therapy and Consultation Institue, emotional support is a fundamental pillar of marriage. However, there are varying degrees to which one spouse withholds this critical engagement. And Cohen stresses these feelings are “contextually relative” depending on the disposition of the couple and the individual situations. In other words, one couple’s unhappy marriage is another couple’s bliss.
Loneliness in Marriage vs. Emotional Neglect
The most common type of loneliness within a marriage comes along with the natural patterns of life caused by changing work schedules, new hobbies, kids — when, for some time, there’s a lack of common interest and purpose. This period can feel like ships passing through the night and is usually temporary.
However, suppose one partner feels like their reasonable needs aren’t being met and they are left without a functioning support system. In that case, there could likely be a more severe issue of emotional neglect at play. Emotional neglect is toxic and involves one partner who cannot — or will not — provide essential and fundamental emotional support as a habit.
“A life partner who occasionally acts in emotionally neglectful ways (for example, refuses to have sex or acts detached and unfriendly after a marital spat) is not necessarily emotionally neglectful, even though he or she may have acted as such on certain occasions,” Cohen explains, adding, “Only when such actions rise to the level of a disposition or habit can one properly be called emotionally neglectful.”
Am I feeling lonely in marriage, or is it emotional neglect?
Emotional neglect is different from emotional abuse because it’s about a spouse’s invisible behavior, making it difficult to spot right away. “For example, one’s spouse does not verbally assault, does not harass, and does not engage in other forms of aggressive, emotionally harmful activities. The emotionally neglectful partner, after all, does ‘nothing wrong’; so it’s harder to identify what is so wrong with the relationship,” Cohen said.
Emotional neglect isn’t a fixed definition, but generally speaking, it’s when neglect becomes a chronic habit within the relationship it rises to the level of emotional neglect.
What to Do if You’re Lonely in Marriage
Talking with your partner might reveal surprising details about how they feel and might help you appreciate their point of view. “Chances are, if you’re feeling lonely, the other person is feeling lonely too,” Dardashti said.
Here are some tips on how to approach, identify, and resolve these issues:
- Find the root problem. Identifying the issue is a big first step, experts say.
- Open up the discussion. Next, talk to your partner. Chances are, they’re just hung up in their world and would like nothing more than to know how to meet your needs and connect.
- Consider intimacy. Think about intimacy on a physical, mental, and emotional level and how to share experiences, a common purpose, and understanding.
- Change up the environment. Dr. Vivek Murthy, former U.S. Surgeon General, suggests having conversations about marriage trouble during a walk or while doing some other shared activity to relieve some of the pressure.
Suppose you’re dealing with a spouse who is unwilling or unable to confront the loneliness you are feeling. In that case, you need to consider whether the marriage is worth salvaging at all. Finding connections through other relationships can be a sort of substitute for the emotional support of a spouse. If you can’t discuss things with your partner, lean on a friend, family member, marriage counselor, or healthcare provider.
A recent study in the Journal of Family Psychology found a strong correlation between couples who socialized regularly, both together and on their own, were less likely to report being lonely in their marriage. So reach out for help, rather than turning inward or finding solo activities to fill your time, the Journal of Family Psychology recommendations added.
No matter what, remember, if you’re feeling lonely in your marriage, you’re not alone. A Pew survey from 2018 found 28 percent of people who are unhappy with their home life say it’s because they are lonely. Ultimately, it may come down to working on internal issues with a therapist, Dardashti adds, to “confront it and try to build some awareness about it.”
What are the signs of a lonely or unhappy marriage?
More often than not, a lonely marriage has similar signs to an unhappy one. To help you identify the red flags, here are a few things to look out for.
- You barely talk or communicate with each other. When you do speak, you don’t feel like you’re on the same page.
- You feel like your partner doesn’t listen to you.
- You may struggle with intimacy.
What is walkaway wife syndrome?
This is when a wife’s concerns are ignored by her husband for a while. After voicing her needs repeatedly, they are neglected. Instead of her husband taking her complaints seriously, he may pull away from her. The walkaway wife syndrome happens when the wife gives up and feels that change in her marriage won’t happen. This causes her to eventually “walk away” or choose divorce.