Driven and frantic, we couple up, finding partners to share our lives with. We were raised on Disney romance where the arduous search ends with `Happily Ever After.’ I’m a succor for romance and easily distracted from boy meets girl romances. I pretend not to be interested when my mother-in-law turns on the Hallmark channel; but I’m ashamedly sucked into the predictable drama. Life—real life—is more complex. Not every romance ends with joy. Many marriages work, bringing richness to experience and mitigating the sorrows. However, a significant number of other marriages fall flat, failing to provide human companionship. The couple exist together but suffer in loneliness, condemned to a life of this shared loneliness in marriage.
Marriage is Healthy; Loneliness in Marriage is Not
Studies overwhelmingly support the benefits of marriage. Marriage partners become increasingly important to fight loneliness as we age (Hsieh, N., & Hawkley, L. 2018). Marriage alone isn’t sufficient. Many couples discover loneliness during the golden years. More than 1 in 5 older married people suffer from loneliness (de Jong Gierveld, J. et al. 2009).
Loneliness, when not flowing from social isolation, is difficult to pin point the origin. Typically, the feelings don’t magically appear, but slowly grow from gradual distancing. Couples grow apart during the business of middle life, raising kids and absorbed in careers. And then, somehow, although sitting together at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and reading the paper, the deep ache of loneliness is realized. They are lonely in marriage.
Jordan and Margret Paul describe loneliness in their book, Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by You as: “Loneliness is a searingly painful feeling that radiates through the center of our being when we cannot connect lovingly with another, either because the other is closed or because there is no one available to us” (2002).
“Couples grow apart during the business of middle life, raising kids and absorbed in careers.” ~T. Franklin Murphy
What is Loneliness?
We feel lonely when we perceive a discrepancy between our desired and our actual experience of quantity and quality of social connections (Mund, M., & Neyer, F. 2018; de Jong Gierveld, J. et al. 2009). Loneliness is a subjective and negative experience or in Paul’s poignant description—a searing painful feeling. Our physical and mental health depends on supporting others to give us the essential belongingness our heart craves. When we subjectively lack sufficient acceptance and validation from others our entire being feels misaligned, self-esteem suffers, and security crumbles. Sometimes this occurs within the walls of a relationship. We lack connection where we are mostly likely to find it. We are lonely in marriage.
Self-Actualization and Loneliness
Abraham Maslow placed belongingness at the second rung of his hierarchy of needs pyramid. He saw the security of intimate connection essential for self-actualization. Researcher connect loneliness to many severe negative health and cognitive maladies (Evans, I. et al. 2019). We derive self-esteem from a true sense of belongingness, love and acceptance (Schulz & Rodgers, 1980, p. 25).
We need to belong. We need others to flourish. Psychology professor John Cacioppo describes the impacts of loneliness this way, “But more complex cognitive functions, including the complexities of social behavior, demand lifelong self-regulation. It is these social cognitions and behaviors that go haywire when our sense of belonging takes a hit” (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2009. Location 678). We create a shell of a relationship where we pretend to be secure. Yet, for many the relationship is just a different form of loneliness. They are lonely in marriage, missing the grand blessing of connection and safety.
Belonging is our inheritance. In the engaging book, the Evolution of Love, the author writes:
The mammalian mothers were the first in evolution to feel concern about others, and they set the cradle for the evolution of love, the dependence of every individual on proximity, belonging, being cuddled. Throughout evolution, love, first as touch and then as a rich cluster of loving behaviors, has become a need, and even a prerequisite, for physiological and psychological well-being. This is true mainly in babies; but extends to humans of all ages.
Taking Time to Foster Belonging
Several years ago, I met a man at a local convenience store. The clerk called the police because the man was threatening customers and throwing items. Although California enjoys fairly temperate weather, the winters on the street are not comfortable. This man just suffered through his first cold week on the street.
His life was a shattered puzzle of broken relationships, destroyed opportunities, and saddening addictions. As his story began to unfold, his tough protective exterior began to shake, and tears started to stream. Here stood a man that neglected prime opportunities during his life to belong, destroying connections he needed for later healthy development. First, he was lonely in marriage; then he was alone and lonely.
This particular man’s wife eventually kicked him out of the family home. However, many relationships end emotionally while structurally still together. Each partner, while sharing the same house, experiences loneliness in marriage.
Our lives move fast. As we look back, the years blend and blur. Each moment is precious, to be developed and embraced. The ease of connection when we are younger easily is lost as we move through the stages of life. Opportunities disappear, friends pass on or move away. Our children become intimately involved in their own lives, relationships and careers. We are left to enjoy the richness of connection with our partner or shrink lonely in marriage together. Reach out with loving arms, give the five A’s—attention, affection, acceptance, appreciation, allowance (Richo, 2007). With attentive effort, we can build a heritage of love to be enjoyed in the waning years of our lives.
Cacioppo, J. T. & Patrick, W. (2009) Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition. Retrieved from Kindle.
de Jong Gierveld, J., Broese van Groenou, M., Hoogendoorn, A., & Smit, J. (2009). Quality of Marriages in Later Life and Emotional and Social Loneliness. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 64B(4), 497-506.
Evans, I., Llewellyn, D., Matthews, F., Woods, R., Brayne, C., & Clare, L. (2019). Living alone and cognitive function in later life. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 81, 222-233.
Hsieh, N., & Hawkley, L. (2018). Loneliness in the older adult marriage. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 35(10), 1319-1339.
Lampert, A. (1997). The Evolution of Love. Praeger. Retrieved from Kindle.
Mund, M., & Neyer, F. (2018). Loneliness effects on personality. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 1.
Paul, J; Paul M. (2002). Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by You: Second Edition. Hazelden Publishing. Retrieved from Kindle Books.
Richo, D. (2002). How to Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving. Shambhala; 1 edition. Retrieved from Kindle.
Schulz, D. A. & Rodgers, S. F. (1980). Marriage, The Family and Personal Fulfillment. Prentice-Hall, NJ.