Together but Alone

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

September 10, 2012

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change ›   relationships ›   The Good Stuff ›   therapy ›  


Climbing Out of Your Rut

The changes that come at midlife sometimes mean that we need to recognize that we’ve fallen in a rut—whether in our health habits, relationships, or sex lives. Mary Jo Rapini, a MiddlesexMD advisor and psychotherapist specializing in intimacy and relationships, offers this advice to recognizing—and then climbing out of—those ruts.

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

–Anais Nin

I believe people can change. It isn’t easy, and most of us don’t want to, but we can. To change is difficult work, and many times it happens only when we are faced with dire consequences. People come to therapy to change. Many times they think they are coming to change someone else or get validated for why they feel the way they do. Those are all good reasons to seek therapy, but the bottom line is if you go to therapy and stick with it, you will change.

Sometimes people become afraid of the change, and they drop out of therapy; they’re often the ones who say therapy wasn’t helping them. Sometimes the patient/therapist relationship just isn’t working, but usually the key factor is whether the patient is ready to look at herself honestly and make changes that will help her to feel better about her situation and herself.

The word that most signifies resistance to making changes is but. When I hear a “but” in a session, I make note of it. I can tell where the walls are by listening for this word. Many people use this word as a way of staying stuck. There is safety in staying stuck; you know your own rut best. It may be a rut, and you may want out, but it’s scary that you don’t know what is outside your rut. Just admitting you’re in a rut isn’t easy.

A professor of mine once told me that we all live in a rut. He likened it to a distorted reality; we all make our own world, and we begin to believe it. This thought comforts me, and I think it has a lot of truth. Except humans are incredible and, once they see that there could be a better way, they will usually strive for it.

For example, if a woman is told all of her life that she is ugly, she will believe it, staying in a rut created by her family. Then someone special comes along and tells her, “You aren’t ugly, you’re beautiful.” She sees a light in her rut, and she will strive to climb up and take a step. It won’t be easy, but she will eventually take the step out. As she comes out of her rut, she will be expected to act like the confident attractive person she was told she was. At this point she can either accept the challenge or say, “But I can’t. I am ugly.” If she goes back to this thinking, the rut begins pulling her back in. Unless she hangs on to something stronger than the pull of the rut, she will slide back in. The strongest thing to hold onto is her own self worth, but what if that was taken from her at a time she was too vulnerable to fight for it? If she has no or little self worth, the rut becomes attractive again. Known pain is more comfortable than ambiguity of not knowing and anticipating pain.

Here are three things you can do on your own to identify and begin to climb out of a rut:

  1. Identify the rut you are in, who is responsible, and what you may lose if you dig out.
  2. Write down every reason you think you should stay in your rut. Many times what sabotages people is that they weren’t honest about what staying in the rut offered protection from.
  3. What do you expect will happen in the next year if you don’t change your circumstance? Is the rut more painful than your image of what is outside of the rut?
We all create our life to a certain degree, and many things happen to us over which we have no control. We do have control over how we react to what we have been given. Whether we react by staying stuck in the rut or climbing out is determined by our ability to avoid the word “but” and just making the change—one step out at a time.

Q: Why does my husband prefer porn to me?

This is such a tough question. I brought one of our advisors, Mary Jo Rapini into the conversation, since she's a therapist who often deals with this issue.

Two things we think it's very important for you to know: First, you are not alone. Porn addictions are becoming a very frequently seen issue in Mary Jo's practice. Second, this isn't really about you, so, as hard as it might be, do everything you can to recognize your partner's problem and work hard at feeling good about yourself.

Your partner may have sex fantasies that he isn't able to tell you about; he may not know how to talk about sex or sexuality. Pornography is so easily available--and requires no face-to-face contact, so it's easy to keep an addiction going and very difficult to combat it.

Both Mary Jo and I recommend couples therapy if your husband is willing, and counseling for you if he's not so you have support in seeing the situation clearly--and yourself as a worthy and lovable person!

Mary Jo has more resources on her website, starting with this article: "When Porn Gets in the Way."

Couples Therapy for (Older) Beginners

Many of the women I see in my practice have been with the same partner for years. These couples have made homes together, raised children together, weathered hard times and enjoyed happy moments together. And now—just as the pressures of career and family begin to ease up, they find themselves at odds with each other, especially in the bedroom.

The physical and emotional changes that come with aging can play havoc with a couple’s sexual relationship. It can feel as if the rules have changed overnight and finding intimacy with the person who has shared your life is suddenly impossible. This is when a couples therapist can help.

Women who have never been in therapy or participated in marriage counseling before sometimes feel anxious when I propose this idea. To help give them and our readers an idea of how couples therapy works and what they can expect from the experience, I asked Ann McKnight, an experienced social worker and psychotherapist, to answer a few questions.

Q: When couples who have been together for a long time come to you with sexual issues, what’s typically going on?

A: One of the most important things in intimacy is to be present and see clearly this person who is in front of us, and to be ourselves as open and receptive as we can be. That’s what makes great sex. In the beginning stages of a relationship, we have all our walls down—it’s exciting, it’s new, and we feel so open and vulnerable. But then as we move on together in life we start to get those walls built up again. Usually it’s our own fears that keep us from being present, from hearing or being heard by our partners. If our partners are unhappy with our sex life, we start thinking there’s something wrong with me, I’m aging, you’re not attracted to me anymore. But what’s going on for our partners may be something totally different. They likely have their own set of fears that we’ve never guessed at or heard at all because we’ve been so caught up in our own.

Q: So the stereotypical story of the middle-aged couple—she’s putting on weight and he’s looking at skinny 20-year-olds—isn’t one you often encounter?

A: I have to laugh, because in my experience, that is so not the case! Maybe those couples are going to different therapists, but I’m just not seeing them. Actually, as men age, they tend to have a greater desire for intimacy, to value their long-term relationships.

I think there’s just so much cultural downloading that women do, so many judgments about aging and what it means and our values around that. And I’m not entirely sure that that’s laid on us by men. I think that we do plenty of it to ourselves.

I think aging, because of life experience, gives us—women and men—an opportunity to be kinder and more understanding of ourselves. We can integrate more fully all the parts of who we are and all the different roles we play—open our hearts even more fully to each other, to really see our partners and all the change and growth they’ve done.

But in long-term relationships it can be hard for both partners to hold the space they need to express themselves and be seen. That’s when a therapist, a third person who can hold that space, who is trained to see where the communication is getting bogged down, where the stuck places are, can be a great help.

Q: What's the best way to find a good couples therapist?

A: Ask someone you know and trust, whether that’s your physician, a friend, your pastor—and then when you do get a name, use the first time you meet to make sure it feels like a good fit. Does this seem like a person who is understanding each of you and proposing a course of therapy you’re both comfortable with? If not, get another name.

Q: And what if the other half of your couple resists the whole idea?

A: Still go. If there’s something going on in the relationship that’s affecting you, that’s part of your personal experience that you’re ultimately responsible for. And whenever one person starts to make changes in a relationship, things shift and get stirred up in the other person as well.

Q: How should a couple prepare for their first session?

A: As a couple—or individually—think about what you really are hoping will come out of this experience so that you can be open about that with your therapist. Sometimes what we really want is not very realistic—I want you to totally change my spouse’s behavior in every way! Just understanding your own agenda is a big help.