I hear from a number of women that although they’re in long-term relationships, they’re feeling alone. Sometimes this becomes apparent as part of adjusting to other changes—like sending the last kid off to college, welcoming a parent into the household, or adapting when one or both partners retire from a career. I asked MiddlesexMD advisor Mary Jo Rapini, a psychotherapist who specializes in intimacy and relationships, what women can do when they find themselves unsatisfied.
The loneliest feeling doesn’t come from being single. It’s being married or living with someone, but feeling alone. This happens when one of the partners checks out emotionally but eats there, does their laundry there, and sleeps there. For all other purposes, though, there is no partnership. This happens to couples who live together as well as couples who date and marry. Many times some type of crisis precipitates a partner’s emotional distance, but sometimes it just happens. You may sense your partner no longer values your judgment. You may notice your partner no longer listens to you, talks to you, or wants to engage with you.
When a woman first begins to feel lonely in her relationship, she doesn’t automatically get help. She’ll usually try to understand what is going on in her partner’s life. She may ask, “You okay?” or “What’s the matter?” Those questions are usually answered by, “Oh, just work,” or, “I’m just tired.”
Sometimes the partner will come back with, “Nothing I say is good enough, and you fight me on everything.” When this happens, the partner who asked the question begins feeling even more alone and more stuck in her loneliness. They may reach out to friends or family, or begin reading self-help books. Her friends may validate that her partner is cruel, insecure, having an affair, or all of the other things friends try to do to make one feel better. The bottom line is, she’s in a bad position. She is committed to someone and very much alone.
The amount of distance in a relationship is determined by the couple and the style they develop. Many of us like more distance between ourselves and others, and this is reflected in how we relate. Just as some people are very private and others extremely open; some couples cannot go to the grocery store without the other, and some travel across the world without each other. It’s a personal preference; neither is right or wrong.
Feeling alone is much different than actually being alone. Feeling alone means the communication is broken. Your partner may be in Africa and you in Texas, but if you are talking on the phone and sending silly texts or emails, you’re together. If he is at your side, but no longer engaging with you, talking to you, wanting to be with you, he might as well be in Africa.
As with most things, this emotional distance is easier to prevent than to fix once the damage is done. But here are three steps to take to feel less isolated in your relationship:
- Ask yourself if you really want this relationship. Sometimes we become lonely when we long for someone or something else. Your partner may sense that you’re not communicating that you feel stagnant or want out. Your partner may be withdrawing as a way of limiting—or pre-empting—the hurt.
- Talk to your partner about how you feel. Does your partner know you feel unloved or distant? No one can read your mind. It’s possible that your partner is feeling the same distance and will welcome you raising the issue.
- Are your beliefs about money, sex, or faith getting in the way of your need to be connected with one another? Couples who are fighting may project the anger from the disagreement onto the relationship. The distance created is actually about disagreeing over a topic. If you talk about this, it will help bridge the distance you feel.
Our relationships are a way to receive—and to give—the love, acceptance, and security we need to grow and evolve. To be physically and emotionally alone in a committed relationship is unbearable because the hope of connection is lost. Study after study has shown what happens to babies who are isolated from human love, acceptance, and security. We never outgrow that need.
If you still feel stuck, get help. Couples therapy has helped thousands of people reconnect. And if your partner isn’t interested, a trained, objective counselor can help you to evaluate where you really are and what your options might be.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.