Days after returning from their honeymoon, Troy and Sarah* packed their belongings and moved across the country to follow Troy's military job.
Sarah had entered marriage with the romanticized idea that she would frequently enjoy quiet, candlelit evenings bonding with her husband. The gap between her expectations and reality was filled with a deepening sense of loneliness. The demands of Troy's military service meant that they would sometimes be apart for days or even months. "Troy was busy preparing for his second deployment," she remembers, "but I had no one — no family, no friends, no co-workers. I was so lonely."
At the dawn of recorded history, one of the first things we learn about marriage is that the husband-wife relationship offers an antidote to loneliness. God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone" (Genesis 2:18). But most married couples will tell you that loneliness does affect this sacred relationship at times. Although it can't be avoided, the challenge is to recognize and even anticipate those lonely periods, learn how to navigate them and turn them into growth opportunities.
Experts identify three seasons of marriage that are typically prone to producing loneliness.
Season 1: After the honeymoon
Sometime during the first two years of marriage, the thrilling emotions of the honeymoon stage inevitably fade, and the reality of daily life crashes in. It happens to every couple. And it can lead to disillusionment and even loneliness.
Newlyweds often disagree about the division of household chores and other expectations going into marriage. Even if these issues were discussed in theoretical terms during courtship or premarital counseling, putting them into practice can be tough.
Dr. Greg Smalley, Focus on the Family's vice president of marriage and family formation, and his wife, Erin, gained up-close experience with the impact of loneliness. "We became victims of the 'chore wars,' " Dr. Smalley says. "In my mind, we had already settled the question of husband-wife responsibilities. I would work full time, and Erin would work part time while also maintaining our home. I didn't understand that my desire to keep our responsibilities completely separate left Erin feeling isolated and alone."
In her book Your Spouse Isn't the Person You Married, marriage and family therapist Teri Reisser summarizes the tension: "Who will be responsible for dealing with dishes and dirty clothes? Perhaps the groom's mom took care of these chores at home, but the bride doesn't want to assume the role of solo housekeeper. Who will take care of things that break or malfunction around the new living quarters? Perhaps the bride's father was Mr. Fix-it, and the groom doesn't know one end of the hammer from the other."
Geremy Keeton, Focus on the Family's director of counseling, notes that if one of the newlyweds is deeply enmeshed with his or her family of origin, the other spouse can quickly begin to feel lonely. "It's common to have longing or loneliness for one's extended family that disrupts the marital relationship," he says. Maintaining ties to one's extended family is reasonable, but some spouses may need to establish better boundaries with their family of origin in order to prioritize their marriage.
Family-of-origin pressure points can indicate that the couple needs to openly address the issues before they fester for years, leaving one or both spouses feeling resentful, misunderstood and lonely.
Season 2: The arrival of children
Terrence and Julie were reeling after the birth of their first child. Although they loved the new baby with all their hearts, they both felt exhausted and shellshocked from late-night feedings, nursing complications and the complete disruption of their routine. Julie felt isolated and lonely as a stay-at-home mom, and Terrence felt neglected.
From the moment the first baby arrives to upend a couple's sleep schedule, sex life and division of labor, child-rearing will consume virtually 100 percent of your marriage — if you let it.
Dr. Robert Paul, one of the architects of Focus on the Family's Hope Restored marriage intensive program, says that it is common for couples to become so child-centered during these years that they can seriously damage their husband-wife relationship. "Especially when both parents work," Dr. Paul says, "they become incredibly focused on the children when the family is together in order to compensate for the guilt of working outside the home."
Without giving attention to the marriage, the emotional distance between these couples will only grow as the child-rearing years progress. The feelings may go unnoticed by one or both spouses until the day one of them is so lonely that the realization of just how much the marriage has suffered hits home.
Season 3: The empty nest
Isaac and Jennifer were in their late 40s when the last of their three girls moved out of the house. Up to that point, their home had always been full of chatter, especially around mealtimes. When their daughters moved out, Jennifer realized she and Isaac hadn't talked at the dinner table in years. "Suddenly the only noise in the house was from ‘Wheel of Fortune,' " she says.
Isaac had trouble relating to Jennifer's predicament. He was still active in his career and had established an identity outside of being a father.
The empty-nest stage is often the point at which all of the emotional distance created between couples during the child-rearing years finally becomes apparent. Husbands and wives suddenly scramble to find common interests after years of devoting all their time and attention to the kids.
According to Keeton, if couples reach this stage of life without having established patterns and habits that enable them to connect, they can both end up feeling profoundly detached.
Strategies to combat loneliness
Although the reasons for loneliness may be different in each stage of marriage, the tools and techniques that couples can use to combat it are applicable to any stage. Three strategies in particular can help couples reconnect during any marriage season.
Dr. Paul says that couples who feel disconnected and alone need to find time to talk openly about their unmet expectations, but without casting blame on each other. By sharing, they can work together to determine which expectations are realistic and which ones are not. Dr. Paul notes that confessing to your spouse that you feel alone in the relationship can have a positive effect.
"By saying you're grieving or hurting or lonely," he says, "you're actually telling your spouse how much you love him or her. You're saying, 'I don't just want to be with anybody — I want to be with you.' "
Couples can also combat loneliness by putting proper boundaries in place to safeguard their relationship. For newlyweds, this might mean occasionally saying no to a night out with friends or a visit to the in-laws in order to share some quality couple time.
For those in the child-rearing years, this could involve telling the kids they are limited to just one extracurricular activity per semester. This frees up precious time for Mom and Dad to spend together. For empty nesters, a solution might be saving up for a modest vacation that will provide a common goal and help the couple get to know each other again after the kids have left home.
Marriage and family counselor Tim Sanford calls this process "choosing your noes carefully." He says, "Even if you're saying yes to a lot of good — such as activities for the kids or a voluntary out-of-town sales trip for work — you're saying no to the opportunity to connect with your spouse."
Schedule times for intentional connection
"Couples must realize that a relationship that is not attended to will die slowly," Keeton says. "Intentional connection is an ongoing process."
Dr. Smalley recommends asking deeper questions during date nights or other scheduled couple times such as "What has been the most positive spiritual experience that we've shared as a couple?" or "What three things have you done in our marriage that you're most proud of ?"
Conversation starters move couples from talking about work, household issues or the kids to topics that reach the heart.
In his counseling practice, Keeton uses the phrase "face time" to describe a key communication principle. "Couples need to establish a daily and weekly rhythm to get face time with each other," he says. "It's a mix of business time and fun time. Sometimes couples need to connect and talk about the budget or the weekly calendar, and other times they just need to watch their favorite TV show together and make jokes during the commercials."
Troy and Sarah visited a marriage counselor, who helped them work through their expectations for the relationship — both realistic and unrealistic. "I had this expectation that my new, darling husband would replace family, friends and co-workers," Sarah remembers.
The counselor helped both of them adjust their expectations, encouraging Sarah to remember that Troy could not single-handedly fill the void left in her life when they moved away from home. She also gave Troy advice on how to empathize and connect with Sarah, even with the demands of military life. Sarah says, "Together we changed our expectations, compromised and learned how to move forward."
Terrence and Julie attended a marriage seminar for pointers on how to combat the loneliness and isolation they were experiencing. One of the speakers encouraged them to make their morning goodbye a time of connection. He challenged them to say a quick prayer for each other — just 10 seconds — every morning before Terrence left for work. After praying, they would kiss on the lips for at least five seconds — no quick kisses blown across the room! Within a few weeks, they emailed the speaker and said that those brief prayers each morning helped them feel more connected.
Isaac and Jennifer had to be intentional about learning to talk again. He learned to empathize with Jennifer, who was grieving the changing of seasons in their home. "His voice had grown quiet in a house full of females," Jennifer says, "and he learned to re-engage and come alongside me in my grief, rather than try to fix the situation."
In the evenings, he would join her in the kitchen to help prepare dinner — something their girls used to do with her. They turned off "Wheel of Fortune" and engaged with each other. "We had to learn to talk about things other than kids and chaos," Jennifer says.
Loneliness in marriage is a fact of life. No matter what stage you're at, there are likely times ahead when one or both of you will feel alone, even as you're sleeping in the same bed. The good news is that you don't have to settle for that kind of existence. Through being vulnerable, setting proper boundaries and committing to a robust level of intentionality, you can turn those times of loneliness into moments of connection and growth.
*With the exception of Greg and Erin Smalley, the names of all couples have been changed to protect their privacy.Don Morgan is the senior director of Focus on the Family's Office of the President.