At a time when couples are spending more time together than ever — working from home, eating in and avoiding socializing during the pandemic — some may also discover they’re lonely in their marriage.
Feeling alone while sharing life with a partner may sound impossible to single people, but relationship experts say it happens when the connection becomes disappointing.
With the world in turmoil, emotions may be more raw and intense, leading to wives and husbands feeling they’re not getting what they need from their spouses right now, said Pepper Schwartz, a relationship and human sexuality expert.
“Marriages ebb and flow. They’re environmentally sensitive and you could be in a good marriage in a tough period in history, like we are now. So darker thoughts, worries, feelings start to change the way you see reality,” Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, told TODAY.
“You can have a body right next to you, but if you feel that your deepest fears, thoughts and needs are unseen, unheard or unwanted by your partner, you feel lonely.”
Almost a third, or 31%, of married people 45 years old and older report being lonely, according to a 2018 national survey of adults conducted by the AARP.
Part of the problem may be the high expectations people have of marriage and their spouses in general. A partner is expected to be the best friend, excellent lover, close intimate, fun entertainer, stimulating intellectual and more — but one relationship was never meant to provide such a diverse fulfillment of needs, Schwartz noted.
Married couples are also more “enmeshed,” or treating marriage as their primary social relationship, than in the past, a recent study about marriage loneliness in the Journal of Family Psychology noted.
That puts a lot more stress on the couple relationship, said co-author Ashley Ermer, an assistant professor of family science and human development at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey.
Expectations are so high that partners may think, “I want more out of this and I’m not getting it” even if it seems like everything is going well, Ermer noted.
How the woman feels may be key in heterosexual marriages, she and her colleagues found.
As they studied the loneliness trajectories among older married couples, they found the wife’s initial level of loneliness appeared to be driving both her own and her husband’s pattern of loneliness over time.
“It wasn’t too surprising because there’s a lot of evidence that shows women are the driving force behind all the social features of marriages in heterosexual marriages,” Ermer said. Women are the ones who often plan and organize family gatherings and outings with friends for the couple so her level of socializing — or isolation — becomes his.
Having friendships also seemed key: Spouses who consistently reported good social connections were more likely to avoid becoming lonely in marriage, the study found. Women especially may benefit from frequently meeting up with friends, it noted.
For men, it was more about the tension in the relationship: Husbands who perceived their marriages as strained felt lonelier.
How to speak up:
It’s important to voice what’s going on, but do it effectively.
“It can be hard to admit loneliness, even to a spouse,” said Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general and author of “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World,” in an interview with the University of California, Berkeley.
“It’s not about how many people you have around you; it’s about how you feel about the connections that you have in your life.”
Don't tell your spouse, “I’m lonely and I just don’t feel like we’re close anymore. What are you going to do about it?” Schwartz cautioned. That’s an accusation and it’s not fair to put all of the blame on your partner.
Instead, you could say, “I’m feeling a little disconnected and I want to be more connected, so here are some suggestions,” and have them ready, Schwartz advised. You have to help your partner help you — if you don’t know how and what you need, think about it first so you can give him or her some guidance, she said.
Free-form conversation can be hard, so it may be better to talk things out while doing activities together, like walking, hiking, cooking or playing a sport to help you feel connected.
Reach out to others: A healthy relationship needs the company of friends, family and other caring people: “Having a support system is still really important even if you are married because you need other people, too,” Ermer said.
If feelings of loneliness keep growing, going to a marriage therapist may be helpful. Since the wife’s loneliness level may trickle in to the husband’s, as the study suggested, it’s important both spouses attend.
Ermer found it reassuring that most couples reported experiencing low levels of loneliness in their marriages over time. Still, it’s important to pay attention when things don’t feel right.
“The issues people feel are real and sometimes being in a relationship that’s disappointing is actually more depressing than not being in a relationship,” Schwartz said.