You can be lonely in marriage if you aren’t aware of each other’s burdens. Because of the coronavirus, I finally understood a burden my wife had carried for 28 years. What burdens are unknown in your marriage?
The coronavirus impacted society in almost every way imaginable. I never thought it’d affect dinnertime, though.
On March 26, 2020, my wife, Erin, and I learned that Colorado’s governor had just announced a statewide “stay-at-home” order because of COVID-19. Soon our three adult children moved back into the house. With our youngest still at home, that meant there were six of us together again.
And for me, it was great. At first. But after a few days of what felt like a staycation, I noticed some problems. And one of the most unexpected was in our kitchen. Cooking three meals a day for a much larger family was taking its toll on Erin. She finally laid it out on the literal kitchen table for us.
“I’m exhausted,” Erin said. “You all need to figure out who else is going to take on the cooking responsibilities.”
The kids and I responded by doing the spiritual thing: We cast lots! I lost, and suddenly, I found myself responsible for cooking dinners.
For my first meal as head chef, I asked Erin to join me in my new adventure. I thought it was a chance for us to do something fun together (and for the family to have a decent meal).
We lasted 15 minutes before we slid into conflict.
As I began browning the ground beef, I found Erin staring at me.
“Everything OK?” I asked.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
I looked at the beef in the skillet. Was this a trick question? “I’m cooking meat,” I answered.
“No, you’re not.” Erin said, motioning towards the meat. “Not like that. You have to break it. You can’t leave it as one big log … that would be meat loaf.”
“I know that,” I said. Then under my breath I mumbled, “I’m a grown man. I know how to brown ground beef.”
It was a rough start, but over the next few days I embraced my newfound role. Each morning I’d rummage around the kitchen and then Google recipe ideas based on what I discovered in the bowels of our freezer.
But then I started noticing something strange. Throughout the day, I would find myself fretting about dinner. What time do I need to begin defrosting the meat? Would I have time to run to the store for a missing ingredient? How would I be able to please the gluten-free person and the dairy-free people? Will the family even like what’s on tonight’s menu?
One day as I was mentally debating between two recipes for pork chops, Erin walked up.
“Whatcha doing?” Erin inquired playfully.
“I can’t decide how I want to prepare the pork chops,” I said.
Erin gave me the sweetest smile and said, “I trust you, Chef.” And she patted my backside.
It was nice to have my backside patted, but I was still a little steamed. Why won’t she help? I lamented. Why is this all on my shoulders? And then I had a massive epiphany.
“Is this what you did?” I asked. “Did you worry all day about what to cook for dinner?”
“Yes,” she said. “It’s a lot of pressure, right?”
I was dumbfounded. My wife had carried this burden alone for the past 28 years. I had never suspected that all during that time, she’d experienced this daily worry and frustration.
In that moment, I felt a deep sense of sorrow and regret. All I could say was, “I’m so sorry that you’ve carried this burden by yourself for all these years.”
(By the way, I chose the honey garlic pork chop recipe … and it was delicious!)
Unfortunately, Erin isn’t the only one feeling lonely in marriage. Many women are in the same boat. According to an analysis of new census data published by USA Today, Americans missed a record amount of work due to child care issues last year. Who bore most of the burden to care for those children? Women. In fact, the number of child care-related absences nearly doubled. In this age of COVID, women are doing more cooking and caring while they also comprise half the U.S. workforce.
Not only do they feel overworked: They feel overlooked — and lonely.
Are you lonely in marriage?
A marriage can be a lonely place. In a recent study referenced by Psychology Today, nearly 63% of people who said they were lonely were married and living with their spouse. We can live in the same house, share the same meals, even sleep in the same bed and still feel isolated. Disconnected. Alone.
It’s the very opposite of what marriage should be. No one imagines a lonely marriage when choosing a wedding dress. In marriage, we bind ourselves together “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer … till death do us part.” By God’s own definition (in Genesis 2:24), marriage is about oneness and intimacy: “Two united into one.”
So it’s a shock when we learn that marriage doesn’t always insulate us from loneliness. Living with a spouse doesn’t guarantee connection.
Paradoxically, this sort of loneliness can feel even more painful because you have someone. Physically, they’re there. But emotionally, they’re not. Instead of a relationship that should feed us, we wind up starving instead.
Are you defensive?
I’ll admit that whenever I hear statistics about women doing more housework and childcare, I often get defensive. What about all the things that I do? I think to myself, I work full time and help out around the house! I help with the kids plenty!
But the “who does more” debate is never productive. It’s actually a complete waste of time. One recent Gallup study suggests that our perceptions about who does what and, most importantly, who does more can differ sharply between spouses in the same home. “Men and women are each more likely to say that they personally perform an equal or larger share of the work than their spouse does,” writes Megan Brenan of Gallup.
Even if you could definitively say who does more, why would you? If your spouse feels lonely in marriage, you can’t argue him or her out of that emotion.
Where does your spouse feel alone?
Instead, try to really understand your spouse. Ask your spouse where he or she feels alone in the marriage. But don’t immediately try to fix the problem: Just listen.
Once I realized that Erin felt alone because of the cooking responsibility, I took time to better understand her emotions. After your spouse tells you where he or she has felt alone in your marriage, encourage her to unpack that feeling. Say something like, “Interesting. Tell me more about that” or “Help me understand what you meant when you said …” This leads to a deeper understanding.
That first step may lead you to the next and much more important one — moving from understanding to empathy. Empathy is the opposite of loneliness.
When the Apostle Peter writes, “live with your wives in an understanding way” (1 Peter 3:7), the word understanding also means “empathetically aware.” Sympathy is when you feel bad for your spouse. But empathy is much deeper than sympathy. Empathy is when you feel bad with your spouse; you imagine what he or she is feeling and place yourself into his or her emotions. When you deeply connect with your spouse’s heart, it sends a clear message that he or she matters.
As you work toward empathy, ask questions such as, What has that been like for you? How has that affected you? How has that made you feel? What was the most upsetting part? What do you feel underneath all that?
These questions show that you’re curious about how your spouse is truly feeling and that you’re not judging, rejecting or minimizing his or her emotions. You don’t have to agree with the emotion. You’re just trying to communicate this: “Whether or not your feelings make sense to me, they matter to me.”
Can you lift the burden?
Empathy connects hearts and helps us “bear each other’s burdens,” as the Apostle Paul tells us in Galatians 6:2. As I wrote in “9 Reasons to Get Married,” Paul makes a distinction between carrying our own load (Galatians 6:5) and bearing one another’s burdens. One is a little like a backpack; the other is more like a steamer trunk. We should help others when they’re going through something too big to carry alone.
For years, Erin had been carrying the burden of cooking for our family. Although the act of cooking was like a backpack, something she was able to do on her own, the constant daily mental anguish about what to cook — designing meal plans, catering to individual tastes and diet restrictions, verifying ingredients, etc. — had become a steamer trunk.
In Galatians 6:2, the Greek word used for “bear” has two slightly different meanings. First, it can mean to help carry the burden. To do that, I could have lightened Erin’s load by helping her cook and prepare meals (hopefully minus the coaching on how to brown ground beef!).
The second meaning, though, is to completely remove the burden. As I thought about Erin shouldering the cooking chores alone in our marriage for 28 years, I felt compelled to lift this burden. I told her I wanted to do the cooking for this next season, however long that might be.
And this is my challenge to you. Figure out where your spouse feels lonely in marriage. Where is he or she most alone and stressed? Does your spouse carry the full responsibility for cooking, cleaning, childcare, laundry, paying bills, planning family activities, lawncare, washing dishes, trash removal or something else that has become a burden? Then do the job yourself. Bear the burden. Do this as a way to sacrifice for your spouse.
Over time, bearing this burden will give you amazing empathy for your spouse. Make sure you give this gift freely, without expectations of which burdens your spouse might “bear” for you.
Loneliness is terrible, whether we’re in a worldwide pandemic or not. But we don’t have to be lonely in marriage. Take care of your spouse. After all, you made a promise that he or she would never be lonely again. Own that. Give of yourself. Find the empathy your spouse needs. Your husband or wife will love you all the more for it. And you might even learn some new skills in the kitchen.