Attention — 06 April 2004
Loneliness in relationships

Loneliness is one of the most painful emotions of all. Being lonely is defined as “being apart from fellows or companionship, characterized by sadness, desolation, or the feeling of emptiness.” Does being in a relationship provide immunity from loneliness?

The need for connection is vital for survival and emotional well being. The human infant is born with the capacity to cling that Freud termed the “grasping instinct”. This instinct for physical contact starts the course of interpersonal soothing. Babies are comforted by being held, rocked, talked to, smiled at and caressed. They become attached to those who provide these behaviors for safety and survival reasons. Learning to attach is the infant’s first task and becomes a life-long quest to find and maintain a satisfying connection. Children with adequate nourishment but little human contact may die.

When people are not in connection to others their world feels unsafe and their purpose for living is questioned. This need for human interaction is so strong that the absence of it brings deep unremitting emotional pain. Elvis Presley’s lyrics in the song “Heartbreak Hotel” said it clearly: “I get so lonely I could die”. This is not just a dramatic overstatement, but a very accurate description of the deep devastation that lack of contact brings. Shunning people who do not conform is a severe punishment in some groups. Human connection energizes life.

Loneliness is often associated with being alone. We conjure up images of lonely people who may be ill and alone without family or friends, passing their days in sadness and emptiness. “Nobody cares if I live or die” may be their tragic refrain.

The sights of loneliness are shattering. The faces of people in nursing homes who receive no visitors, or of those, who live alone and see no one, often tell the story of their agony. These individuals manage to survive physically – but are barely alive emotionally. They struggle to understand the reason for existing and may become suicidal.

We also have less devastating examples of people suffering from loneliness, such as many anonymous people in a big city. Individuals, who may work and be among others, but return to empty apartments to no one with whom they share their lives. These friendless, sad and isolated people yearn for connection, while suffering the misery of isolation.

The picture of loneliness is not commonly associated with people in relationships since they are not alone and isolated.
Loneliness, however, is not just about being alone – it is about not being connected.

Many people are astonished to find themselves lonely within a relationship. They feel pain about not being seen, recognized, known or even noticed by their partners. They do not complain about a bad relationship, fights, discounts or trauma, just a void in connection. Others are unable to define their pain as loneliness; they just feel unhappy by being cut off from attention and meaningful emotional exchanges in their union.

Partners who are taciturn by nature may feel perfectly comfortable with fewer verbal exchanges with their mates. If their loved ones are undisturbed by the low level of verbal exchanges, the relationship may be fine for both. However, more commonly, the partners of more silent individuals feel ignored, unimportant or even invisible. For them, the infrequent talking feels discounting and isolating. They develop doubts about their value to their quiet partners and begin to question their own worth.

The “silent treatment” is sometimes deliberately used to terminate uncomfortable conversations. Here again, the speaker is desirous of an exchange that will acknowledge or even rebuff his or her position. Receiving no response leaves the talker to wonder why he or she is unworthy of a response and ends up feeling ignored and isolated.

Loneliness in a relationship also results from being frequently misunderstood. If one expresses an opinion, wish or thought that is often misconstrued to mean something else, the sense of not being seen arises. “How can you constantly not get what I am saying- do you really even know who I am?” This is a statement uttered by an individual who feels unseen and alone.

Another pattern of couple interaction that leads to a feeling of loneliness is the repeated assumption of one mate about the other’s ill intentions. “After all these years of marriage, you still think I would do this to hurt you? I guess you still do not know me”. A reflection of a negative, mistrusting or accusatory stance by a partner may be very deeply hurtful to the mate and seen as a sign of lack of recognition of his or her true nature.

People also feel insignificant and excluded when decisions are made without consulting them or opposite their stated wishes. Many couples struggle with this issue in regard to decisions about the children. A partner who feels frequently overruled ends up feeling alone and isolated. “I feel like I don’t even belong in this family.” This exclusion from family participation renders this partner alone and lonely.

If you feel lonely in your relationship:

  • Identify and label the precise emotion you feel as loneliness and isolation rather than use the term “unhappy”.
  • You have a given right to belong and feel connected in your relationship.
    Loneliness is a sign of a serious malfunction in a relationship.
    Identify the ways in which you feel alone, isolated, ignored, unseen or not recognized.
    Recruit your partner’s help in remediating these situations. If you can not do it together, seek professional help.
  • Undealt with loneliness is hazardous to your emotional and physical health.
  • Addressing the loneliness you feel can result in the necessary changes toward a healthy connection in your relationship.

April 4, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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