“Are you there for me, can I count on you, do I matter?”
Although when we think of loneliness, we automatically equate it with isolation, we can feel desperately lonely even within a relationship if we feel detached from our partner. Disconnection can occur for many different reasons as life gets in the way. External stressors like work, finances and family demands can mean that emotional and physical energy become so depleted that partners put each other at the bottom of their ‘to do’ list. Over time, they might get into the habit of giving the best of themselves to their career, children, friends and hobbies.
There are some good reasons for this – our survival instinct drives us to work hard, we are biologically programmed to prioritise our kids and taking care of friendships maintains our evolutionary need to be part of the pack. However problems arise when these outside stimuli end up fulfilling our need for stimulation, contact and recognition, so that we put less and less of our time and energy into the relationship.
But neglecting to invest in each other, update and adapt, leads to problems. Partners can end up taking each other for granted, making little effort and speaking to each other in a way they would never dream of doing to anyone else. They forget to view each other as individuals, with appreciation, admiration and respect. Complacency and a careless lack of interest or curiosity about the other mean that the distance grows ever further. Of course every relationship realistically goes through periods of disharmony. The key is to repair the conflict as it occurs. Walking on eggshells and avoiding argument can be as damaging as constant volatility – both lead to resentment and distance over time. As emotional intimacy wanes, physical intimacy tends to reduce in tandem. Though both may be unhappy, it gets harder and harder to address the elephant in the room.
Different communication and attachment styles also play a part. While some people need to address relationship stress by moving towards their partner, seeking out conversation and togetherness, the other may respond to relationship stress by moving away and needing space. This leads to a classic ‘pursuer/distancer’ dance. One is left waving a red flag, trying to make urgent fixes to the relationship and feeling ever more abandoned, while the other makes desperate efforts to get away from the conflict. Both are left feeling anxious, overwhelmed and ever further apart. Once emotionally disengaged, couples can get swept up in a narrative so that they view everything their partner does in a negative light, missing or turning away from even positive gestures.
Those who understand the importance of turning towards each other, are more able to speak honestly but respectfully about their feelings, needs and wants. This promotes a sense of closeness, connection and security. Generosity or lack of it plays a part. How often a couple show each other love and affection, express respect or admiration or perform small acts of kindness are predictive of closeness and contentment. Do they show appreciation in the way they do to friends or colleagues? Do they compliment their partner and say thank you when they do things that make them feel cared for? Do they listen without competition to each others worries? Do they share without blame, when they’re feeling disconnected?
When couples become entrenched in their positions and a stalemate occurs, they wear their resentment like a shield. If one can just lower their shield a little, and peep over and say ‘what do you need from me’, it can be a good place to start.
As US Relationship Expert Esther Perel says ‘It’s so easy to focus on what’s missing in the other person. It’s so easy to go critical. It’s so easy to think if you were different, my life would be better, rather than sometimes to switch it round and think if I was different, my life would be better. And maybe if I was different with you, you would be different with me’.
Louise has been a practising counsellor in Altrincham, UK, for the past 9 years. Committed to providing counselling and psychotherapy in a safe, confidential and non-judgemental environment, Louise is BACP Registered and Accredited and adheres to their Ethical Framework for practicing counsellors and psychotherapists. Louise has contributed widely to various national newspapers and magazines as well as national radio on a range of counselling issues.