No marriage is perfect — the two people in a relationship are human, so you can expect the occasional conflict and disappointment from time to time. That said, there are a few things you can expect from a healthy partnership. You should feel like you can trust and rely on your partner, not only for everyday logistics, but for emotional connection. In the absence of that kind of intimacy, you might find yourself feeling like your spouse is more of a roommate than a partner — and that can be incredibly lonely.
There are a few reasons loneliness can occur in a relationship, and it’s important to identify them so you can work on them. Before you confront your partner, first, look within yourself. According to Grace Dowd, a therapist in Austin, TX, there are times when your expectations in a relationship could be unrealistic.
“If you’re not opening up to your partner regularly but you’re expecting to feel connected, then chances are, you’ll feel lonely in your relationship,” she says. “But marriage is a two-way street, and both parties share responsibility for building emotional intimacy.”
Other times, loneliness can be a slow burn — maybe you felt close with your partner early on in your relationship, but over time, distance grew. Dowd says that drift is common in couples, who may feel more comfortable with one another over time and, as a result, forgo the emotional check-ins that were common amidst the excitement of a developing relationship.
Parenting can make a marriage feel lonely, too. Kate Borsato, a U.K.-based therapist, points out that fathers often feel lonely or left out when they have children, especially as the partner’s attention shifts to the child. That’s especially common, Borsato says, when a mother is breastfeeding or has taken on the primary parenting role. “Dads can witness their partner shifting her primary relationship from him toward her child, which is normal but can be shocking and sad,” she says.
This transition into parenthood may also trigger feelings of loss. The birth parent may experience a loss of self when they become more focused on their new role, and dads may feel they are losing that version of their partner. “This comes with a loss of intimacy, loss of fun and freedom, and loss of ease,” Borsato says. “Relationships can go from feeling easy to strained and that creates loneliness.”
No matter why you’re feeling lonely in your relationship, there are a few steps you can take to overcome it..
1. First, Acknowledge It
The first way to overcome loneliness is simply to acknowledge it. Once you identify that you’re feeling lonely in your relationship, you can explore what’s causing it — and the steps you need to take to rebuild a connection.
Therapist Juliana Hauser, PhD, suggests a thorough self-reflection that allows you to honestly assess the origin of your loneliness. Be honest with yourself about whether your loneliness could stem from your own unrealistic expectations or lack of vulnerability, or whether it’s a two-way street. Once you take some time to think about what’s going on with you or your relationship, be ready to make changes, whether those changes are individual or a result of your dynamic as a couple. Keep an open mind, knowing that taking action — necessary as it is for a healthy relationship — may feel overwhelming at first.
“Action steps are a deeper level of commitment to change and this can be scary for some who have tolerated the loneliness for the trade-off of having familiar elements instead of seeking fulfillment, meaningful connection, and happiness,” says Hauser.
2. Establish Regular Check-in Points
In an ideal world, you’d have a weekly date night with your spouse to catch up and build a connection. But as a parent, or someone with a busy job or schedule, that’s not always possible. Even if you can’t leave home, make an effort to establish regular check-in points with your partner. For example, you could talk for 10 minutes every night after the kids go to bed about how your day went and what you need emotionally and logistically the next day. Or, you could carve out some time each Sunday night to connect before the coming week.
Either way, Dowd says it’s important to delve beyond surface topics and share vulnerably. “It’s healthy to have recurrent moments where you share how you feel and ask your partner how they’re feeling in the relationship,” she says. “That way, you can both make an effort to work on the points of struggle or conflict.”
3. Be Realistic About Your Needs
While your partner should be a source of support, it’s not realistic that they’d meet all your emotional needs, all the time. In fact, Dowd says expecting too much of your partner, a fellow human with limitations, can have the opposite effect. As you work on building intimacy and connection with your spouse, find other ways to outsource your emotional needs. Talk to empathetic friends or family members about what you feel or experience, or enlist a therapist for support. “When you have other means of support, you may feel less lonely both in your overall life and your relationship,” says Dowd. “Plus, you’ll bring more to the table when your own ‘bucket’ is full.”
4. Seek Out a Therapist
Re-establishing a connection is about learning to express yourself vulnerably with your spouse (and creating a safe space for them to do the same), says therapist Adam Blum, If you need help doing that, he says it may be time to enlist the support of an objective expert, like a couples therapist.
Couples counseling isn’t only for when shit is hitting the fan, adds Dowd. Going to a therapist with your spouse is a great way to build emotional intimacy as you share your struggles and learn healthier patterns of communication that set the tone for connection in your everyday life.
It may feel intimidating or overwhelming to open yourself up when you’ve felt lonely in a relationship, but the effort is worthwhile. “All relationships involve the risk of having your feelings hurt,” says Blum. “Learning to be vulnerable, rather than just being frustrated, angry, or lonely is a skill that can change your life.”