This is a big question.
Are you lonely in your marriage?
That is not a fun place to be, but there is good news – growing your intimacy can expel loneliness from your marriage and stop it from creeping back in.
There is a bit of a chain reaction when it comes to loneliness in marriage. It’s clear from the research that we’ll look at in a bit that loneliness can arise from a lack of intimacy. Loneliness and intimacy are affected in turn by the quality of communication and emotion skills in the marriage. If we can build up these two skill sets, then your marriage will see more intimacy. If there is more intimacy, obviously we’re going to help stave off those feelings of loneliness.
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The Problem of Loneliness in Marriage
Loneliness is not as uncommon as you might think. Ironically, if you’re out there feeling lonely, you have company! Caleb and I have even had times of this in our own relationship despite having a marriage that we enjoy very much.
Research reveals that individuals in intimate relationships often feel lonely because the level of intimacy in the relationship is not meeting their desires or expectations.[i] That is why we’ll look at intimacy as well as loneliness in this post.
So, how many people are experiencing loneliness in their marriage?
A study from 2009 found that between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 experienced moderate to strong emotional or social loneliness.[ii] That’s sad. That is a high number. Given that loneliness appears to affect the quality of our intimate relationships,[iii] we have a vicious cycle going on. Loneliness affects relationship quality which makes us lonely which affects our relationship quality which makes us lonely…
What Causes Loneliness in Marriage?
Many factors can contribute to loneliness in marriage, but two major ones we look at today are communication and emotional skillfulness. A lack of these two things will significantly contribute to loneliness.
Researchers, in 2009, looked at married couples and compared the extent of their loneliness to the functioning and quality of their marriages. They found that stronger emotional and social loneliness was found in those who did not receive emotional support from a spouse and who did not have frequent conversations with their spouse.[iv]
A second article found that married folk who were lonely displayed fewer positive behaviours than non-lonely individuals. Lonely marriages displayed:
- Fewer positive attempts to make interactions pleasant
- Less openness, including fewer direct conversations, less advice, and less listening to one another.
- Fewer assurances
- Fewer social networks and relied less on friends and family
- Fewer shared tasks such as performing routine chores together.
All this research just shows why it is particularly helpful to focus in on these two areas of communication and emotion skills. And more good news – learning skills is something that anyone can do. It’s something you can add to your marriage and something new that you can bring to your relationship to strengthen it and help move yourselves away from loneliness and toward intimacy.
Let’s talk about building intimacy first by learning emotion skills and second by learning communication skills.
Building Intimacy Through Emotion Skills
A group of three researchers wanted to specifically test the theory that emotional skillfulness affects the intimacy process in relationships. In other words, they wanted to see how being good at handling emotions impacted marital satisfaction. They found that:
- There was a link between the ability to identify/communicate emotions and marital adjustment. (Marital adjustment in this context means how well the spouses are connecting)
- Intimate safety was a mediating factor on the impact of these skills on the marriage. You can have all the skills in the world, but if your marriage atmosphere is caustic or cynical, then being able and willing to be emotionally vulnerable is going to be choked by the lack of safety. It’s good to note that if you want your spouse (or yourself) to be more emotionally present then you also need to work towards making sure your marriage is a safe place.
- Men had more trouble communicating emotions than women, BUT men were equally able to identify emotions. Often women say of men, or the men of themselves, that “he’s not a very emotional person. Well, we completely disagree, as does the research. Men are just as emotional as women. They may not be as skilled at communicating those emotions or not as comfortable giving expression to them, but they definintely have them!
So, all that to say that gaining skills in identifying and communicating emotions will build intimacy. How does it work?
Well, one theory is that being able to identify your own emotions and the emotions of your spouse can lead to greater empathy and also make you better at reading the social cues of your spouse. That means you’re going to be more sensitive to where your spouse is at emotionally in any given moment and position you to respond more accurately.
In marriage therapy we call this attunement. It just means you’re dialled into your spouse and in the moments when he or she is vulnerable you’re better able to respond in an intimate, positive way. That’s the detection or listening side of things.
On the communication side, learning to give voice to your emotions and to put words to your fears or tears is one of the primary ways that spouses can behave vulnerably towards each other. This pushes you both towards intimacy and becomes a skill we can learn to communicate positive emotions such as joy and love, as well as non-hostile negative emotions such as sadness.
Building Intimacy Through Effective Communication
We’ve just looked at communicating positive emotions and non-hostile negative emotions to build intimacy, which is great in theory, but unfortunately we all get our “ugly” on once in a while and have hostile negative emotions and communication like contempt, criticism, blame and withdrawal.
The irony of this ugly communication is that when we use it we are often asking intimacy. For example, yelling “You spend more time with your stupid buddies from the hunting club than you do with me!” is clearly a wife asking for intimacy. Clearly, she is not going to get it…
It is not unusual for one person in a marriage to want more intimacy than the other. There is nothing wrong with that. How we ask for more intimacy though, is very, very important.
Researchers found that when intimacy was asked for through criticizing, blaming or withdrawing, the receiving spouse was actually less likely to fill the need. Think about these things for a minute:
- Criticizing is attacking character. “You’re a workaholic – just admit it!” – can you hear the intimacy request in there?
- Blaming: “You never take me to the mall”
- Withdrawing: Silently trying to say “I want you to pursue me”
The intimacy needs represented in these actions is legitimate. However, the way in which they’re being asked is defeating the intent. It makes sense, doesn’t it? You say it because you’re hurting and lonely; but these tactics result in less intimacy satisfaction and less relationship satisfaction. They do not produce the desired outcome.
On the other hand, when the research participants asked for intimacy through more positive means of communication, they were more likely to have thoses needs met.
Having a positive conversation asking for greater intimacy seemed to create more intimacy in and of itself. This is because one spouse was opening up and expressing vulnerability about a sensitive issue, so greater intimacy resulted from the act of asking for intimacy.
The other thing is that having this conversation seemed to have some lasting benefit. The spouse asking for intimacy also had greater likelihood of those intimacy needs being met in the future as well.[v]
In summary, loneliness is painful, but there are two key strategies you can learn to eliminate loneliness from your marriage. One is to work on emotion skills, and the other is to work on communication skills. Just working on these skills is a huge help in and of itself. And be encouraged – these are skills that can be learned.
[i] Young-ok Yum, “The Relationships Among Loneliness, Self/Partner Constructive Maintenance Behavior, and Relational Satisfaction in Two Cultures,” Communication Studies 54, no. 4 (Winter 2003): 451–67.
[ii] Jenny de Jong Gierveld et al., “Quality of Marriages in Later Life and Emotional and Social Loneliness,” The Journals of Gerontology 64B, no. 4 (July 2009): 497–506.
[iii] Yum, “The Relationships Among Loneliness, Self/Partner Constructive Maintenance Behavior, and Relational Satisfaction in Two Cultures.”
[iv] Gierveld et al., “Quality of Marriages in Later Life and Emotional and Social Loneliness.”
[v] Jennifer S. Kirby, Donald H. Baucom, and Michael A. Peterman, “An Investigation of Unmet Intimacy Needs in Marital Relationships,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 31, no. 4 (October 2005): 313–25.