I'll never forget when my wife, Erin, said these words: "I feel alone."
We were in the midst of a huge work transition, leaving my father's marriage and family ministry in Branson, Missouri, to begin a ministry of our own. It was not an easy transition: I felt rejected by my family, and I became depressed. And in that emotional state, I began to isolate myself from Erin and our children. She had every reason to feel alone.
Marriage can be a lonely place. A recent study on loneliness reveals that 43 percent of people "sometimes" or "always" feel that their relationships are not meaningful. About half of respondents don't have meaningful in-person interaction on a daily basis. Even married couples can live in the same house, share the same meals, sleep in the same bed and still feel isolated. Disconnected. Alone.
No one imagines a lonely marriage when picking out a wedding dress or planning a honeymoon. They call it "tying the knot" for a reason. 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, NIV), a couple are "united" and "become one." Marriage supposedly guarantees us a best friend so we'll never have to feel lonely again.
It can come as a shock when we learn that living with a spouse doesn't guarantee connection.
Paradoxically, this sort of loneliness can feel even more painful because you have someone. Physically, your spouse is there. But emotionally, he or she is not. You live together, but you don't share life. The resulting loneliness and alienation can feel too strong to bear. Instead of having a relationship that feeds you, you wind up starving.
Erin grew weary of asking for more time and attention. She was tired of the loneliness. At some point, exhausted people may start fantasizing about what it would be like with someone else. And just like that, the marriage is in crisis. Loneliness is a feeling that most people won't tolerate for long.
But I have good news: You absolutely can reconnect even after months or years of loneliness: Erin's and my marriage is proof. I want to give you a few tips that can help your marriage experience the togetherness that God intended.
Step 1: Deal with the underlying issues
The obvious way to combat loneliness is to spend quality time together. But lonely people know that a Grand Canyon of separation won't be bridged by a date night. Real change happens when you deal with the underlying issues first.
When Erin finally confronted me about her loneliness, I initially didn't handle it well. I became defensive and withdrew even more because I felt like a failure. I thought, I've failed at our family ministry and now I'm failing at being a husband and father!
Before I could reconnect with Erin, I had to grapple with a difficult question: What was driving my withdrawal and isolation? I had to deal with my own junk.
What about you? What is your disconnection about?
It could be one of any number of things. You could be fiercely independent, pride yourself on your self-reliance and never really learn to work as part of a team. Maybe you came from a broken home and never saw a good marriage in action. Or the dynamics of your marriage may make it difficult to connect: Maybe you feel unsafe in your relationship because of the level of conflict and disapproval or even abuse.
Secrets can be an incredible burden on relationships, too. When someone is involved in infidelity or pornography, close connection can feel like a threat to those dark secrets.
Or, as in my case, it could be the result of stress and big changes at home or work. Times of transition can drive wedges between you and your spouse.
Eventually I started seeing a Christian counselor. He told me that men often react to stress just as I had — by becoming more withdrawn. We also explored the pain of rejection I was suffering. Putting a name to your emotions is powerful. Through the time with my counselor, I better understood that I felt discarded by my family, and I was better able to seek out God's truth.
First Peter 2:4 really spoke to me: "As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious." I meditated on this verse often, and when I felt discarded, I would repeat the phrase, "In the sight of God chosen and precious."
This journey took some time, and God used it to change my life and marriage. Ezekiel 36:26 came to life: "And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh." God ultimately redeemed this painful situation and, over time, I restored the relationships with my family. The depression that was causing me to withdraw from Erin began to heal.
Step 2: Embrace togetherness
As that healing process ran its course, Erin and I also worked on our marriage. Our first step was creating a change of attitude: We reminded each other that we were part of the same team. Erin is not my adversary. We began to do things together.
Sure, some of our togetherness revolved around the serious issues we were facing, and rightly so. We'd take long walks together to process all our disappointments and pain. I'd share with her what I was learning in my counseling sessions, and she talked about her own thoughts and feelings about the loss of our family ministry. But looking back, some of the most important moments of healing came in our not-so-serious moments.
We reinstated our weekly date night and made a rule not to discuss my family, our finances or the kids on those evenings. It was all about having fun. We found a bunch of conversation starters for couples and took turns asking each other questions wherever we were — during dinner, on a walk, in the car — anywhere we could find 10 minutes to talk. We went to bed at the same time, and we prayed together before falling asleep. We prioritized sex. We started even doing chores together: making the bed, cooking meals, cleaning the cars. Later, I even learned to chip in and wash the dishes.
And as we went through these weeks and months discovering how compatible we were, we developed a shared vision for our life together. We rediscovered a dream that we'd long had of working together on a college campus. And through that rediscovery, we found positions at John Brown University that allowed us to teach together and speak into the lives of students.
Things didn't instantly change for the positive. It took work and time for us to reconnect. But eventually we overcame the loneliness. It reminded me of something that journalist and author Mignon McLaughlin once wrote: "A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person."Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author or co-author of several books.
How strong is your marriage? Find out today with the Focus on Marriage Assessment. This reliable assessment is based on the research and experience of Focus on the Family's marriage experts Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley. Take this free assessment now.