Expert Q&A: Managing Loneliness in a Relationship
Q: How do I handle feeling lonely when my husband spends time with his friends and family without me?
A: Over time, most couples become a flow of being together or apart. When one partner is too busy with work, they often each sense, independently, the distance and express needs for closeness. Couples' timing can be so amazing. Frequently, my husband and I each unknowingly wear the same color. I'll walk downstairs wearing something I haven't worn in quite a while, and there will be my husband in an infrequently worn shirt in the same color. We are going out to dinner—without a plan, and, once again, we each come up with the same restaurant. We may not know it, but we are expressing to each other that we need a bit more closeness.
But not all couples manage so easily the changing stream of being close or apart. Good relationships thrive, in part, on trust and flexibility that allows each his or her own life within the partnership.
One of the common problems that couples face is how to deal with the feelings of loneliness and anxiety when they are apart. Each of the brief scenarios below addresses some of the top issues of dealing with loneliness and independence.
1. Socio-cultural differences. When Courtney asked her grandmother to go with her to a movie, her grandmother said: "Oh, I didn't get married to go out without my husband. We've never spent one evening apart." Courtney was stunned. How could her grandmother not want to go with her—especially to a movie about one of the things they shared—a love of animals?
Courtney felt hurt. She thought her grandmother didn't love her. Courtney didn't realize that one of the many values of her grandmother's era was the expectation that the wife would be home with her husband. After all, numerous wives back then were often expected to cook, clean up, clean up some more, and watch television with her husbands—or remain at home while he went on a boys' night out.
These unwritten rules can be passed on through the generations, even in our so-called modern times. Often, when one partner wants to break these rules, he or she feels guilty and bad. So what do you do if you find yourself with an opportunity that challenges the usual ways with your partner?
Solution: Assure your partner that you love him or her. Emphasize that you are not going out to flirt with danger. One of my client couples decided that to allay their guilt and anxiety that they each would go to the same restaurant but the wife would sit with her friends while he dined with his guy friends. Sounds odd? Happiness for couples is what works mutually enough for both. Another couple client arranged for her brother to come over and watch the basketball game with her husband. It's not easy to change your patterns, but you can get creative without having to create anxiety or control.
2. Family model of "two peas in a pod." On their 15th wedding anniversary Margery realized she felt suffocated. She and Martin did everything together. They even decided not to have children. But when their beloved dog died, she surprisingly felt free. She wanted to take her wealthy sister up on her standing offer to go on a two-week Mediterranean cruise. But how to tell Martin? The anxiety was so intolerable that the only way she managed to go with her sister was to pack her bags at her sister's house and then tell Martin that she was going the night before her flight. "My anxiety almost ruined my trip," Margery said.
Margery's problem was that both her and Martin's parents' marriages were just like "two peas in a pod." They did everything together. "A two-headed, four-legged person," Margery described her parents and Martin's. "I was an accident." Margery's parents took Margery everywhere with her. "I went straight from home to marriage—just like Martin," Margery said. "I never knew that you could survive being without someone by your side all the time."
Margery's and Martin's family models showed them that being alone was scary. No wonder they each confused love with being glued to someone. This "too much closeness" does not breed someone who can develop his or her interests, career, or opinions. You might feel warm and cared for at first, but attempts to separate are met with anger, distance, anxiety, and loneliness.
Solution: Your parents' relationship teaches you a great deal about closeness, flexibility, rules, trust, and personal growth. The power of these experiences is so potent that you often don't realize that you have incorporated patterns and fears.
The first step is to become aware of your family legacy. Talk about it with your partner. Express your needs for independence or your loneliness and fears when you and your partner are apart. Then start taking small steps toward tolerating some independence. You might meet a friend for coffee after work and come home a little later. Add longer time away. You will probably be anxious or even guilty about leaving a frightened partner at home. These reactions are normal whenever one partner wants something different from the usual ways. Build a support group of friends and family who can help you. Or, seek counseling when your feelings are too intense. Martin asked Margery to call her every day from the various ports. By the time Margery returned, they each were proud of their new-found strengths.
3. Losses and trauma. Experiences such as death, illness, rape, or a parent absent due to combat service or incarceration can increase fears of being alone. When Abby married Alan, she thought she found the most understanding man. Abby's father had committed suicide when she was in 10th grade. "It was horrible. Here I was all set to date boys and have fun, and then, after my father killed himself, I just wanted to hide."
She didn't date and just studied. She became a nurse and loved taking care of other people. And then she met Alan, an emergency room physician. She felt safe. Alan came from a family with a long history of military service, and when he decided to serve the U. S. military in Iraq, Abby was overwhelmed with fear. "I was suffering from my inability to avoid any more unhappy endings," she said. She had panic attacks, couldn't keep food down, and couldn't sleep. "I was not a good military wife," she said. She and Alan had talked about his going, and she thought she could handle it. "I wanted to respect his family's tradition. I had no idea that I would react so strongly."
Solution: Separations can trigger alarming reactions if you have a history of loss or trauma. Acknowledge the importance of these experiences, but don't get stuck in believing that bad childhoods or experiences doom you to an unhappy life. Parental divorce, illness in the family, rape, robbery, and childhood abuse certainly can make you afraid of being alone, however. Your experiences might have taught you not to trust in the world or others. When your reactions are interfering with your life, seek counseling and medical help. Set your goals to diminish the intensity, duration, and frequency of your anxiety. Don't hold onto your partner so tightly that you squeeze him or her to death. As I've often said, good relationships are flexible ones.
4. Insecurity about trusting your partner or feeling good about your sense of self-worth. Patricia cried every time her husband Patrick went out with the guys to play golf. She called him numerous times at the worst moment, and soon Patrick thought he was doing the right thing by calling Patricia every other shot. But that approach soon became too wearing to Patrick. When he started to call her after the first nine holes, Patricia accused him of lying and cheating.
The problems were that Patrick had cheated three years ago. He was on a business trip, got drunk with the guys and took a prostitute back to his hotel room. Patricia overheard him talking about it on his cell phone to one of the guys. Patrick apologized, cried, and begged forgiveness.
To make matters worse, Patricia had not yet lost the weight from her pregnancy. "I felt ugly, fat, and no fun," Patricia said. "I went nuts. I hunted him down. Called all the time, even followed his car after work to make sure he was really going to a meeting."
Insecurities, for whatever reason, can erode trust and light a match to your fears of not being good enough.
Solution: Talk about your doubts and insecurities with your partner. Tell him what you fear the most. However, always move toward solutions instead of stirring up past wounds. Patricia and Patrick vowed to trust each other and, most importantly, to talk to each other about their fears the moment they came up. "I was warehousing my insecurities," Patricia said. "I didn't realize how much I feared that Patrick hated looking at my body." When they talked about Patricia's insecurity and lack of trust, Patricia learned that Patrick still thought she looked beautiful. He confessed that his one-night tryst was not very enjoyable. "I felt guilty and wrong," he said.
They also wrote love letters to each other, recounting what they loved about the other. Finally, Patrick wrote a long letter of apology which detailed something that Patricia didn't know: That his father cheated on his mother several times and that his mother tolerated it. "I can't believe I did something that I hated in my own family," Patrick said, "but I guess somehow I saw that it might not be a deal-breaker."
You can recover from hurts and triumph over anxieties, traumas, and your family's messages. It is not easy, but keep in mind that all intimate partnerships consist of the relationship, you, and your partner—three areas that all need nurturing. Being tied to each other only produces an awkward and inept creature.
Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D, MSS, is a nationally recognized psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in women's issues in love, life, work, and family. Sign up on her website, http://www.lovevictory.com, to receive free advice, blog, cartoon, and information about her two upcoming research-based, self-help books for women: The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie—a cartoon, self-help book and Smart Relationships. Follow Dr. Wish on Twitter.
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