The vision of having a special long-term partner or spouse in your life does not always live up to the reality that many experience. Unfortunately, being in a committed relationship does not guarantee that you’ll feel closely connected, satisfied, or fulfilled.
Research shows that about 20% of the general population admits to being lonely, and one recent study found that over 60% of people in older marriages feel isolated from their partners. Those percentages represent many lonely people out there in relationships (and of course many lonely singles as well).
Loneliness is not often considered to be a problem in marriage, and it’s certainly not talked about much. Not many people even admit it to themselves, much less to anyone else — including their partner! It’s something that can feel awkward and embarrassing.
In addition to being an unpleasant experience, chronic loneliness affects our mental health. The risk of clinical depression and related negativity can sink our feelings of self-worth, and also lead to anxiety issues. Loneliness is also shown to negatively impact our physical health by weakening our immune system and upsetting our cardiovascular and digestive functioning, in addition to causing other physical ailments.
Feeling disconnected in our committed relationship is often the result of a lack of having deep conversations with our partner and poor communication in general. In the day-to-day busyness of life, it’s easy to fall into a routine that focuses mostly on basic maintenance: household chores, parenting issues, and paying the bills. Certain sensitive periods in relationships, such as when a first child is born or when having work or health stressors, can also negatively impact our connection.
Unfortunately, what often gets lost are meaningful exchanges with our partner. Our hopes, dreams, life philosophies, and goals do not get shared, the dialogues that may have helped connect us to our partner in the first place.
While it’s not easy for couples to find their way back and recreate the sparks that originally brought them together, it is in fact possible to reestablish their special connection. Here are seven suggestions to help combat loneliness in an intimate relationship:
If you’re feeling lonely, don’t accept it – take action! Share with your partner what you feel is missing, and be specific about what you would like different. Clearly state what is bothering you, and talk about what you feel is going to make you happier. Take responsibility for how you may be contributing to the current state of your relationship.
If you’ve been feeling lonely for a while, chances are that your partner is feeling a similar disconnect as well. Give your significant other equal time to express his or her own needs and opinions on the subject. Listen with compassion, and reflect their thoughts back to them, to make sure they feel heard.
Address, and attempt to resolve, any past or present issues that might be preventing the intimacy and connection you’re looking for. Seek outside help, if necessary. Any longstanding resentment needs to be addressed in order for your situation to change.
Make an effort to increase your physical proximity as well as your emotional connection. Although recreating sexual intimacy is important, start with smaller steps such as sitting next to each other, holding hands, and becoming more affectionate. It’s often these “little things” that have fallen by the wayside when we feel isolated from our partner.
Focus on increasing quality time together. Participate in more shared activities or hobbies. Introduce your partner to something you enjoy, become better acquainted with his/her favorites, and/or try something totally new for you both!
Remember that the key to effective communication is to make it happen consistently. It’s unfortunately easy to revert back to the unhealthier patterns and habits without a determined effort.
If, after several weeks, little has changed in your sense of loneliness or depth of connection, approach your partner about the possibility of going to couples counseling. A trained professional can assist in clearing the air, removing those isolating roadblocks, and help you reestablish the intimacy you once had.
Being in a relationship is more than just living together – it’s sharing your life. Make it as meaningful as you can.
A study published last month in the journal Social, Psychological and Personality Science addressed the age-old question: Does being in a relationship make you happier?
It’s a general myth, accepted by most of society, that relationship status is tied into happiness. When couples break up and marriages dissolve, there is often implicit pressure on each individual to find a new partner, and do so rather quickly. The change from being part of a couple to becoming single can sometimes even make friends and family uncomfortable. Being alone is equated with loneliness and, of course, no one wants to be that “third wheel” in a social situation, right?
The recent research, mentioned above, suggests we need to reexamine these beliefs. With the single adult population on the rise in Western countries (it’s estimated that about half the adults in the US are single), this is an important topic. These latest findings, from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, reveal that single people can be just as happy and fulfilled as those who are coupled.
There are certainly advantages to being single. Making your own decisions, without the need to consult a partner, is an obvious one. Studies have also found that single people tend to have closer relationships with family and friends. Other research points out that singles are generally more physically fit and better rested than those who are coupled — statistics probably explained by having more personal time for self-care and not sleeping two to a bed.
However, according to the above research, the main factor determining whether someone can be as happy single as in a committed relationship, depends on how they feel about relationships in general.
Individuals who view conflict, and the ups and downs of a relationship, as a source of stress do seem happier when on their own. On the other hand, people who do not view the challenges of being in a relationship as troublesome, tend to be more satisfied when coupled.
So what does this mean?
As an experienced relationship expert, I believe there are multiple paths to finding happiness, and I respect each individual’s choice. However, it should be mentioned that just because singles are happy not being in a relationship doesn’t mean they can’t be happy in a relationship.
Someone who is uncomfortable with conflict, and finds it stressful, likely grew up in a high-conflict family environment. Or, alternatively, had a family experience of the opposite extreme and never witnessed any conflict. If you have rarely, if ever, experienced or witnessed a healthy outcome from a disagreement, conflict would naturally be something to avoid — sometimes at all cost.
On the other hand, singles who witnessed give-and-take adult exchanges that ended well at least some of the time, are able to tolerate disagreements without much difficulty. They view conflict as acceptable and don’t avoid it in their own lives. In other words, they associate conflict as a natural part of a healthy relationship, and are happiest when they are in one.
I believe even singles who shy away from relationships, and struggle to tolerate their ups & downs (and the inevitable disagreements that ensue) can in fact be happy in relationships. It typically requires them to go to counseling, and work through the issues that contributed to their stress and conflict avoidant tendencies. However, they can learn to tolerate and better cope with relationship ups and downs, and appreciate the positive aspects of having a partner in their life.
The preference to stay single is perfectly fine, of course. But these individuals need to be honest with themselves. They are choosing to avoid the conflict and stress that is often a part of relationships. I would recommend looking at all lifestyle options, and working through any issues in individual or couples counseling, if appropriate. (Conflict avoidance is a fairly common tendency that also affects many people in relationships too!)
Paradoxically, someone who is truly content and happy being single, is actually in the ideal spot to embark a potentially healthy relationship without any desperation or neediness. Singles are certainly better off staying single until they are ready to be in a healthy relationship for the right reasons.
A recent study conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies confirmed findings previously reported by Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute regarding the benefit of early intervention in saving relationships.
While Gottman found that couples with the most difficulties (and who waited an average of six years before getting help) had less chance of a successful therapy outcome, the Australian findings were even more dire. Their research concluded that couples counseling failed in 25% to 30% of the study participants! That’s a huge number; however, a closer look at this recent study shows that couples in “no-win” situations were included in the data.
Some of the participants deemed couples counseling “failures” were victims of domestic violence, who shouldn’t have been in counseling with their partner anyway. (The violence & anger management issues must be resolved first.)
Other examples of so-called couples counseling failure included situations where one partner showed up in counseling only to tell their partner that they were leaving the relationship. Those who’ve already decided to end their relationship are highly unlikely to change their mind in counseling, regardless of the skill level of their couples therapist.
Including these types of cases in the study’s statistics about couples counseling success rates is really misleading and definitely skewed their results!
The Australian researchers did make some good observations, however. They concluded that if the ability to “self-reflect” (or examine one’s own contributions to relationship problems) is not present, it’s hard for any issues to resolve. Self-reflection is an essential ability to evaluate not only your own personal views, but those of your partner. Without the willingness to compromise and empathize, a successful outcome is quite unlikely.
Another strike against successful therapy outcomes occurs when a couple is severely angry or distressed and only sees “red.” In this frenzied emotional state, couples are unable to process information successfully or even willing to try to resolve any issues. Others who refuse to see their partner’s perspective are also not likely to benefit from therapy sessions.
While couples counseling is much more successful when relationships are experiencing mild or moderate distress (compared to severe distress), there are other factors that influence successful outcomes.
A survey conducted by the Household Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia revealed that households dealing with poor mental health, dependent children, or having only one partner who smoked also indicated a lower relationship survival rate.
Interestingly, the same survey found that differences such as personality, age, education, or race did not seem to affect marital success rates. However, dissatisfaction did tend to occur as time passed, with men expressing the most unhappiness in their 40s, and women in their 50s.
The Australian research also mentioned that government handouts were given in the form of credit vouchers for obtaining free couples therapy sessions. In spite of this financial assistance, only one in five distressed couples in the country took advantage of the service, and it was discontinued after only seven months. It was further determined that 40% of divorced couples never sought out professional counseling help at any point in their relationship.
Unfortunately, the stigma of counseling still gets in the way. It’s connected to one of the biggest myths about counseling (discussed here). Many people view needing or asking for help as a weakness, or a sign that their relationship is over. Instead of utilizing available resources to become stronger, they wait until the relationship is too far gone to survive.
Couples counseling, in reality, should be viewed as “doing maintenance work.” Using your car for comparison, you know that keeping the oil changed and having regular tune-ups helps you avoid major mechanical problems. Isn’t your marriage worth maintaining in “running order” as well? Periodic counseling sessions, before major problems arise, will be less complicated, less time-consuming and thus require less financial expenditure – just like your favorite car.
In my professional experience, couples counseling success depends on developing the quality of the therapist-client(s) relationship (including having a solid therapeutic alliance), the motivation level of the couple, and perhaps most importantly, the clients’ belief that they can have a successful outcome. An optimistic outlook can go a long way toward achieving positive results.
This Australian study really echoes and confirms Gottman’s research (in addition to my own professional experience), that the best way to save your relationship is to seek help sooner rather than later — while both partners are still committed to each other, motivated, willing to work at keeping their relationship healthy, and expect a positive outcome.
The consequences of divorce can be life shattering and usually include emotional and financial difficulties. The decision to separate, even temporarily, can be excruciatingly hard.
Even when couples know they are unhappy, there are many factors to consider, especially when children are involved and/or finances are tight. On the other hand, staying in an unhappy relationship can also take its toll on all involved family members.
Deciding whether to break up or not can be so overwhelming that some couples end up making a hasty, emotionally-charged decision. Others often become paralyzed, caught up in a tidal wave of confusion.
Before finalizing this life-changing decision, it may be helpful to review the following considerations. Use them to examine your relationship and make the most informed, easy-to-live-with choice, regarding the rest of your life:
(#1) Did you do everything possible to work on the relationship?
Most folks who have a healthy divorce feel okay about the outcome and themselves and recover faster from the breakup, when they believe they did everything they could to save the relationship.
In general, those who feel they didn’t give it their best shot often have lots of regrets, and wonder if their divorce was the right choice.
(#2) Examine what you consider to be the biggest problem(s) in your relationship.
It’s important to take the time to determine if your relationship problems are directly related to situational or temporary stressors, instead of more permanent issues or incompatibilities.
Sometimes, too many temporary negatives happening at once are so overwhelming, they can make it seem like your relationship is hopeless. Consider if this is your situation and, if so, realize that situational struggles will usually improve.
(#3) Imagine your future.
Project 5, 10, or even 25 years ahead and visualize both situations: Staying together versus living apart. Evaluate, and rate on a happiness scale of 1 to 10, the different scenarios in terms of your personal satisfaction, finances, and your kids’ wellbeing.
(#4) Reflect on your relationship and determine what individual needs have been met, as well as those that haven’t.
Have you expressed your needs and emotions to your partner in ways that could truly be heard and weren’t experienced as an attack? Have you assumed you did, but perhaps didn’t?
(#5) Equally important, clarify the needs and expectations of your partner as well.
(see #4 above).
(#6) If children are involved, how will they be impacted?
It’s common for parents to ask, “Should we stay together for the kids?” Research shows that the biggest damage to children comes from any conflict between parents, even after a divorce. Will you and your partner be able to maintain a civil relationship for the sake of your kids, and focus on what’s best for them?
(#7) Perhaps the most important piece of advice is to not make a hasty decision.
If you’re in doubt for any reason, it’s generally best to postpone making anything permanent. Consider a trial separation, or waiting six months to have a period of self-reflection.
Often an “in the moment,” emotionally-made decision by one partner can have permanent consequences. The partner on the receiving end may have originally wanted to try and stay together, but the impact of the blow is too much, and they throw in the towel too.
Deciding to break up with a long-term partner is such an important and life-altering decision that all available resources should be utilized to ensure you’re making the best decision possible. In order to process all the above factors, strongly consider seeking couples and individual counseling. Some may also benefit from the advice of a financial planner to help determine your fiscal health in both scenarios.
In order to have the peace of mind that you’ve made the best decision for your situation without any regret, take the time to process all the above considerations so that you can move on in your life in the healthiest way possible. And if you do decide to end your relationship, you’ll be able to do so confidently, without any doubt.
On a recent Howard Stern show, actor/ex-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger claimed that going to couples counseling (with ex-wife Maria Shriver) was “the biggest mistake I ever made.”
What Arnold likely meant – it’s pretty safe to assume – was that couples counseling not only did not save his marriage, it actually contributed to its demise. This assumption perpetuates one of the biggest myths regarding relationship counseling: It will make your relationship worse off, and may even end it.
As happens in any profession, less than competent therapists, unfortunately, do end up working with couples. Although I have no knowledge about Arnold and Maria’s couples counselor’s expertise, it’s more likely that this high-profile couple chose a well-recommended professional with impressive credentials.
Also unfortunate, Arnold isn’t the only person who believes that the purpose of couples therapy is to resuscitate marriages that are on life support. (Couples wait an average of six years before reaching out for help.) This type of (faulty) reasoning allows one to conclude that whenever a relationship ends after couples counseling, the therapist was incompetent and somehow caused it.
Or to put it in technical terms, if event “B” frequently follows event “A,” this doesn’t mean that A actually caused B. When many couples decide to reach out for counseling after years of resentment, it’s foolish to then label the counseling or couples therapist as the cause of their relationship demise.
Couples therapy can help some marriages get back on track, sometimes even if they were on the brink of calling it quits, but it can also help some relationships end amicably. In some cases, it may actually be best, for the health of each partner, for the relationship to end. As research by Dr. John Gottman points out, couples counseling does a much better job of helping moderately-distressed couples than it does helping severely-distressed couples. From media reports, Arnold’s marriage likely fit the latter category.
Here are some other popular counseling myths floating around:
1. “Getting counseling is a sign of weakness. It means we can’t figure this out ourselves.”
The reality: Seeking professional help, i.e., utilizing available resources is a sign of one’s strength, not weakness.
2. “How can someone who doesn’t even know us, help us?”
The reality: A competent (couples) therapist is able to quickly assess you and your situation, in order to provide appropriate care.
3. “If we go to couples counseling, the therapist will take sides” or “the therapist will change my partner’s mind about leaving me.”
Truth: A couples counselor is not a miracle worker and cannot change people’s minds. Therapists are unbiased listeners and facilitate communication, they don’t take sides.
4. “Our problems aren’t bad enough.”
It’s an unfortunate truth that many couples think they must be on the brink of divorce or other disaster, before counseling would be worthwhile. As mentioned above, Dr. Gottman’s research proves otherwise.
5. “My aunt/cousin/neighbor, etc. went to counseling and it didn’t help him/her, so I’m not going.”
Reality: One person’s experience (such as Arnold’s) does not impact other totally different situations and can’t be generalized.
6. “If I go to couples counseling, everyone will know and it will be so embarrassing.”
Therapists are ethically obligated to honor client confidentiality. The only other people who will know are the ones you or your partner tell.
7. “It’s just not worth the money; it takes years of therapy sessions to get results.”
The reality, contrary to Woody Allen movies, is that counseling does not go on forever. And isn’t saving or improving your marriage worth the money!?
8. “Couples counseling will fix us.”
Truth: Sometimes people show up expecting that their problems will magically get better, without any work on their part. This is a totally unrealistic expectation, as effort and hard work are required by both partners to make changes that last.
9. “The therapist will end up telling us to stay together or split up.”
Reality: A couples therapist is not a judge who deems your relationship good or bad, but a trained professional who tries to improve relationships by working on less healthy aspects of your partnership.
10. “Marriage counseling can help you fall madly in love again, like the first year or two of your relationship (the honeymoon period).”
Reality: Unfortunately, therapists don’t have time machines with this capability; however, couples counseling can help you reconnect with your partner. This can certainly lay the foundation for a stronger bond, and sometimes does lead to re-experiencing the passion in the relationship. Although unlikely to actually recreate the honeymoon phase that occurred years ago, couples counseling can provide a stable base for building a much more satisfying future together.
Too bad Arnold didn’t prepare for couples counseling by researching the facts!