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Couples Therapist Insights – What To Do If You're Feeling Lonely In A Relationship

Written by: Shan Merchant, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 
Executive Contributor Shan Merchant

We think love and loneliness are opposites – that if you're feeling lonely you must not be in a love relationship, or that if someone loves you, you could never be lonely. Surprisingly though, people in committed relationships often report feeling very lonely. It's certainly true from my point of view as a busy couples therapist. I can tell you that feeling lonely in a relationship is way more common than you would think.

Woman sitting on a field of flowers

In fact, an eight-year study of 1,398 couples by Ermer, Segel-Karpas, and Benson (2020) found that 28% of those couples experienced loneliness. Another research study by Barbour (1993) examined spousal loneliness in marriage and found that 20% of wives and 24% of husbands were significantly lonely, and as loneliness increased in the relationship, so did sadness and depression.


Loneliness in long-term relationships or marriage feels especially distressing because it doesn't match what we expect or hope to experience in a relationship. Most of us expect to feel increased happiness, affection, love, and support in a partnership. When we experience the opposite; feeling unwanted, not appreciated, or treated like we're unimportant when we expect to be cared for; it impacts how we feel physically, emotionally, and spiritually.


Numerous studies show that chronic loneliness is associated with poorer life expectancy. The 80-year Harvard Study of Adult Development has unequivocally shown that humans live longer in happy marriages or relationships and die earlier without them.


What not to do: Don't ignore your relationship issues


There are many reasons why you may find yourself feeling lonely in a relationship and I will discuss these in depth below. However, the one thing I want you to take away from this article is that ignoring relationship issues, such as chronic loneliness or avoiding confrontation, is common but deadly. Leaving these things unaddressed leads to erosion of trust and further damage to your relationship.


What to do: Learn better relationship skills


Couples therapy is the place to learn communication and relationship skills to work through all your issues constructively. Make this your first port of call. Research shows that couples therapy positively impacts 70% of couples receiving treatment. Be proactive.


What does a lonely marriage or relationship look like?


So, let's talk about how it feels to be in a lonely marriage or relationship. It may not necessarily involve constant arguing or visible distress. It might be characterised by a pervasive sense of isolation and disconnection. You may find yourself neck-deep in the details of your partner's life, yet paradoxically feeling distanced and alienated. The bond you once cherished is somehow slowly fading.


Signs of a lonely relationship could include a lack of quality time spent together, a scarcity of engaging conversations, a feeling that your emotional connection has lessened or even shut down, and physical intimacy becoming a thing of the past. It's essential to recognise these signs and to take steps to address them, because prolonged relationship loneliness can significantly negatively impact your mental, emotional, and physical health.


What are the reasons for feeling lonely in a relationship?


From my couples therapist's chair I see several factors that contribute to feeling lonely in your relationship.


Lack of communication


Lack of communication is one of the top reasons. This is when partners no longer share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with each other. John Gottman describes this as a 'turning away' from each other – partners withdraw their interest or fail to respond to one another in a way that is encouraging or engaging. This turning away creates emotional distance and feelings of neglect. It's like being in a conversation where your words fall on deaf ears, leading to frustration and loneliness.


Withdrawal in a relationship often creeps in slowly over an extended period, like months or years. This withdrawal can manifest in many forms, such as spending less time together, engaging in separate activities, or not discussing important issues. In Imago Relationship theory we call this a Parallel Divorce where you are both physically still present but emotionally checked out. When withdrawal and parallel divorce occur, it is usually a significant contributor to feelings of loneliness in a relationship.


Another reason for loneliness in a relationship is emotional disconnection, where one or both individuals are not emotionally available or involved. An emotionally available partner is open, present, and receptive to your emotional needs. An emotionally unavailable person is less open, less present, and less receptive to your emotional needs. It feels like they are unwilling to listen, engage in open and honest communication, and offer reassurance or support. Instead, they are guarded, defensive or distant.


A client of mine once described the pain of this to me: "Nothing breaks my spirit more than the rejection of not being heard. To me it's the ultimate feeling of 'I don't matter'."


Loneliness is often felt most intensely when there is a lot of criticism present in a relationship. This usually goes hand in hand with defensive behaviour. Clients of mine have described this to me as "feeling like I'm constantly walking on eggshells", and "I feel like my partner doesn't even like me anymore". The partner who feels criticised reacts and retaliates. The partners begin to treat each other like they're 'the enemy'.


'Relationship exits' and the temptation of escape


Loneliness can be so uncomfortable that partners may seek refuge outside the relationship. This might involve distractions to avoid the conflict or challenges in your relationship, such as disappearing into work and parenting commitments. You may throw yourself into building your career or diving into fitness, hobbies, gaming, social media, friendships, or sports.


More catastrophic relationship exits include engaging in the allure of new relationships. Instead of facing the real issues at the core of your relationship, an exit can seem like an easier way out; a temporary balm for the pain of feeling unwanted, unneeded, or unnoticed.


Feeling lonely is often why husbands and wives cheat


It's no surprise to learn that feeling lonely is one of the most common reasons people cheat in relationships. A 2019 study by Ashley Madison, a married dating website, showed 30% of women cited feeling lonely/ bored in their relationship as the number one reason for cheating.


Loneliness can be the turning point in your relationship


Before jumping into that alluring escape hatch, consider this: Loneliness can be a turning point. It's the wake-up call that signals the need for change and growth in your relationship. Instead of seeking refuge in distractions or new relationships, I'd recommend being proactive and seeking couples therapy as a safe place to address the core issues within your partnership and learn new skills. Instead of turning away, turn in and focus your energy into building a long-lasting, supportive, and happy relationship that you both want to be in.


Introducing the power struggle stage of relationship and imago relationship theory


If you are feeling lonely in a relationship, it's likely you have entered the Power Struggle stage of your relationship. Never heard of it? You're not alone.


Most couples don't know what The Power Struggle is, how to recognise it, or what to do to get through it. The truth is, it's a stage of relationship that all couples enter. The danger of not recognising you are in this pivotal stage of your relationship is that you will stay in it and suffer there for longer than is necessary (couples can be in it for years or even decades). Another danger is that you fall into the arms of someone who gives you the love and attention you crave (and later regret), or you misinterpret what is happening and see your loneliness as a sign that your relationship is doomed and file for divorce.


What is the power struggle stage of relationship?


In Imago Relationship Theory, which was developed by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, the Power Struggle stage of relationship is the phase directly after the Honeymoon Phase ends. It usually starts 6-18 months into a relationship.


The Power Struggle stage begins when the initial magic of a relationship starts to wear off, and you begin to notice differences and disagreements with your partner. You might have previously thought your partner was perfect, but now you're realising that just like every other human on the planet, they're not. At the same time, your partner is realising the same about you. Tensions escalate over time as, in most cases, neither partner possesses the required level of communication or relationship skills to navigate the challenges of this stage. It's often called the stage of disillusionment as constant bickering creeps in alongside patterns of negativity, such as blaming, criticising and defensiveness.


Couples begin to wonder, where has our love gone? The sex might dwindle – it may even disappear – and often one partner withdraws. The pain of The Power Struggle stage is that it often leaves you feeling sad and lonely in a relationship despite being in a committed relationship.


The purpose of the power struggle stage


It's important to understand that the Power Struggle stage is not a sign of failure or a doomed relationship; its purpose is healing and growth. You are meant to go through the Power Struggle. As adults, even though our childhood is over, we all have unfinished business from childhood that we carry into our adult romantic relationships. Mainly this 'baggage' is around how we longed to be loved as children but weren't. We carry those unmet needs into our adult relationship.


When we get into adult romantic relationships, we think 'I want to meet The One'. However, because of the unmet needs we carry all the way from childhood, we are unconsciously attracted to people who resemble our parental caregivers – not physically, but energetically. For example, if you felt criticised and not good enough as a child, you might tend to find yourself in a relationship with someone who you feel criticised and unloved by.


In Imago Relationship Theory, we say when we find a partner who echoes a deep emotional wound like this, we have found our Imago Match. This is how our childhood patterns replay in our adult relationships. The partner we choose therefore has the potential to hurt us in the exact same way we were hurt as children. They also have the potential – through Imago therapy practices – to systematically heal this old wound. This can only happen if you can both become curious about what's occurring at this unconscious level and what these childhood wounds may be.


The Power Struggle stage serves as an opportunity for healing and growth because it forces us to confront these unmet needs and the underlying wounds from our past. We are meant to work these hurts through. We finish childhood through the container of an adult relationship – sort of like a finishing school for relationships. Many couples want to steer clear of the conflict the Power Struggle brings, but really it is just growth trying to happen, and you've chosen this partner to help you heal and grow.


The Power Struggle is nature's savage gift


The Power Struggle is like nature's savage gift – painful; brutal even; yet necessary. Why? Because it's the phase where your partner becomes an expert at poking your deepest childhood wounds. They know precisely which buttons to push, and it's not by accident.


You might be thinking: "I did not sign up for this." Well, you did, unconsciously, by seeking a love relationship. You see, this phase is your golden ticket to personal growth. It's a chance to tackle those childhood scars that have been hiding in the shadows for years. Those needs for love and understanding that weren't entirely met during your early years are now laid bare in your relationship. So, your partner's talent for pressing your red-hot buttons? It's all part of the plan. Without these triggers, the growth you need wouldn't stand a chance. So, when you feel like you're drowning in conflict, just remember – it's the universe's way of saying: "Time to grow, my friend."


How to exit the power struggle stage


A lot of couples I work with don't initially realise that the Power Struggle stage of their relationship is just a phase they're meant to pass through. The next stage of their relationship is Peace. This is where all the joy, fun, affection, love, trust, intimacy, and support lie.


To exit the Power Struggle, you need to engage in conscious and intentional work.


This requires both partners to be able to:

  • Communicate and listen to each other in a non-defensive way

  • Learn to see each other's point of view without fighting over who is right or wrong

  • Own your part in how you contribute to the frustrations in your relationship

  • Learn to have empathy for one another


Many couples need help to learn how to do this and couples therapy is a supportive and accelerated place to move beyond the Power Struggle and into the next stage, Peace.


Feeling lonely in a relationship can also come from changes in your life circumstances


Life is full of curveballs. Whether it's uprooting your life to a new city, the rollercoaster of parenthood, or diving headfirst into a fresh job, these transitions can wreak havoc on your connection with your partner. These transitions are often demanding and can disrupt the equilibrium of a partnership, leading to emotional disconnection. In our busy modern life, there's also often a lack of quality time spent together, which can add fuel to the fire and cause feelings of loneliness.


Moving to a new place


Relocating to a different city or country can be a challenging experience. It can result in feelings of isolation as you leave behind familiar surroundings, friends, and support networks. Adjusting to a new environment and making new connections take time. So, during this adjustment period, you and your partner may feel more isolated from your usual sources of social and emotional support.


Having a baby


While the arrival of a new baby is a joyous event, it brings significant changes and challenges. The demands of caring for a new-born or toddler can be overwhelming, leaving partners with less time and energy for each other. Sleepless nights, increased responsibilities, and the shift in focus toward your child can create a sense of emotional distance between partners, contributing to loneliness.


Starting a new job


Beginning a new job or career can be time-consuming and emotionally taxing. The stress and demands of a new position can leave you with less energy for your relationship. You might find yourself preoccupied with work-related matters, and your partner may feel neglected as a result.


Lack of quality time


Quality time is essential for maintaining a strong connection in a relationship. When couples are unable to spend meaningful, uninterrupted time together due to busy schedules, it can lead to feelings of loneliness. Quality time is when you engage in deep conversations, share experiences, and connect on a personal level. Without it, emotional distance and loneliness can grow.


Take action to deepen your connection


In all these situations, it's crucial to acknowledge that change is a natural part of life and relationships. While these transitions can be challenging, they also present opportunities for growth and deepening the connection between partners. To combat feelings of loneliness in the face of these changes, open and honest communication is key. Partners should actively work together to make time for each other, express their needs and emotions, and support one another through these transitions. Couples therapy is a very supportive place to do this work and by doing so, couples can navigate life's challenges while maintaining a strong and resilient bond.


Losing someone you love can result in feeling lonely in a relationship


The loss of a close friend or family member can have a profound impact on a romantic relationship. It can serve as a stark reminder of what's missing in the partnership, such as a deep emotional connection or a strong support system. When you lose someone close, the grief and emotional void can reveal the existing gaps in your relationship. The absence of the friend or family member's emotional support, understanding, and companionship can underscore the areas in which your romantic relationship may fall short.


The grieving process can be incredibly isolating, and the absence of a strong support network in your relationship can magnify these feelings of loneliness. Moreover, if your partner struggles to provide the comfort and understanding you need during this challenging time, it can lead to additional feelings of isolation and distance. In such moments, it's essential for partners to communicate openly about their grief, support each other, and seek to bridge the emotional gaps, ultimately deepening their connection through mutual understanding and empathy.


How do you know if the loneliness stems from you or your relationship?


Identifying the root cause of your loneliness can be a bit of a labyrinth. It’s vital to evaluate whether it's a personal issue or if it's stemming from your relationship. This differentiation is critical as the remedial steps for each scenario vary significantly. If you've been feeling isolated even when you're spending plenty of time with your partner and you feel a deep connection, you might be dealing with personal loneliness. Feeling neglected, unseen, or undervalued by your significant other points towards relationship loneliness. By identifying whether the loneliness you experience is personal or relationship-driven, you can start working towards an appropriate solution, thus improving your overall mental health, relationships, and quality of life.


If you're feeling lonely in a relationship and you'd like to learn powerful communication and relationship skills to get the love you want, I can help. Book a free 15-minute clarity call with me now here.


Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!

Shan Merchant Brainz Magazine
 

Shan Merchant, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Shan is a relationship coach and couples therapist who takes professional couples from the brink of divorce to peaceful, reconnected, and unafraid of conflict in 90 days or less. Shan teaches couples a simple communication skill that takes them from the ‘Power Struggle’ to the ‘Peaceful’ stage of their relationship. Testimonials from her clients across the globe range from, “We put our wedding rings back on,” to “Things are a million times better between us.”

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