Married But Lonely: What Causes The Feeling & What To Do, From Therapists
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
It's easy to assume that being in a long-term relationship such as a marriage must automatically protect you from loneliness, but in reality, it's very possible to be married but lonely.
Is it normal to feel alone in a marriage?
It's actually relatively common to feel alone in a marriage: One in three married people over age 45 report being lonely, according to a 2018 AARP national survey. But that doesn't mean loneliness in a marriage is necessarily normal. If you feel alone in a marriage, it's often a sign that there's an underlying issue in the relationship or in your own personal life that must be addressed.
Why it's possible to feel lonely while married.
A marriage is a long-lasting, committed partnership between two people, but that doesn't mean that married people can never feel lonely. That's because there's a big difference between being alone and being lonely, says Kiaundra Jackson, LMFT, a licensed marriage therapist and author of Hard Work or Harmony. Being alone simply means you are in a physical state of not being around or attached to anyone else, whereas being lonely has more to do with how much your relationships nourish you and how full your life feels.
"Loneliness is a deeper thing because it's more of a psychological state where people feel like their relationships, the quantity of their relationships, the quality of their relationships, are not where they need to be," Jackson explains. "You can be lonely and not be alone. You can literally be surrounded by a whole bunch of people and still feel like you're lonely."
In the context of a marriage, if your marriage isn't fulfilling your need for companionship, love, affection, or other social needs, you may very well feel lonely despite technically having a life partner.
"Physical proximity isn't the sole factor when it comes to experiencing closeness in a relationship," explains licensed marriage therapist Beverley Andre, LMFT. "You have to consider emotional proximity—how in tune are you with your partner? If there is an emotional gap [or] chasm in the relationship, your partner could be sitting next to you, and still feel oceans apart."
What causes loneliness in a relationship or marriage:
1. There's a lack of connection.
When partners aren't emotionally connecting with each other, Andre says it can feel like there's a distance between them—which can feel very lonely for one or both people. She notes that this usually happens after there has been some sort of shift in the relationship: "At a certain point, the couple stopped being in alignment with each other, hence the distance."
Here are some things that can cause partners to feel distant from each other and therefore feel lonely, according to Jackson and Andre:
- Feeling like your partner doesn't listen to you
- Feeling like you're not having enough sex
- Poor communication or lack of communication
- Money issues
- Life transitions
- Day-to-day stressors
2. There's a lack of effort or attentiveness in the relationship.
"People get lonely in marriage when they go through the mundane waves of life," Jackson says. "They go to work, they come home, they go to school, they take care of the kids, they cook dinner, and they just go through the regular day-to-day motions, and there isn't any specific time to connect with their spouse."
When couples fall into the monotony of daily life without making intentional time to connect as a couple, the relationship can begin to feel stale and lack affection. This can create feelings of loneliness if one or both parties feel like they're not receiving special, romantic attention, time, or energy from their spouse.
3. Parental responsibilities are getting in the way.
Sometimes couples struggle to separate the role of being parents and the role of being spouses, focusing entirely on their parental responsibilities and neglecting their relationship. "Our role as a parent is very important, but you also have to give time and energy into your marriage," Jackson says. "And when you don't? You can feel lonely."
Spending all your energy on caring for others and not receiving any dedicated affection yourself can feel isolating, not to mention draining.
4. Partners are overly dependent on each other for feeling fulfilled.
In a 2020 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology on almost 1,400 heterosexual married couples in their 50s through their 70s, the researchers noted that married couples are dealing with increased enmeshment, wherein their lives are unhealthily intertwined. When couples exclusively rely on each other as their primary social connection, it can put a strain on the relationship—and leave the individual people susceptible to loneliness when the relationship inevitably goes through phases of disconnection.
It's easy to fall into the trap of making your spouse wholly responsible for your sense of fulfillment and validation, Jackson says. But people need to be able to feel full and complete on their own as individuals, whether they're in a long-term relationship or not. In other words, your marriage cannot be the only thing that keeps you from feeling lonely.
"You shouldn't be seeking full validation from your partner when you're married," Jackson says. "You can't look for another person, whether that is your spouse, to fulfill you 110%. You have to be happy with you. You have to give your own self joy. You have to have your own career goals. You have to have your own passions."
If the idea of having a feeling of a totally complete life outside of your partner—and having goals and relationships outside your marriage that make you feel full—makes you feel uncomfortable or scared, it's probably a good sign that this is something you need to work on.
What to do about loneliness in a marriage:
Tell your partner.
Both Andre and Jackson emphasize the importance of telling your partner how you're feeling. The Journal of Family Psychology study found that, in a heterosexual marriage, husbands' and wives' levels of loneliness weren't correlated—meaning it's fully possible that your spouse has no idea how lonely you are.
"People often think that their partners are mindreaders, and their partner is not a mindreader," Jackson says. "You might be feeling lonely or alone in your marriage, but your partner might not be feeling that way."
So say it out loud to your partner so they know something is off in your marriage, Jackson says. Once they're on the same page as you, then you can work together to figure out how to help you feel less lonely.
Figure out what has changed in the relationship.
Andre says that often when people start to notice they're feeling lonely in their marriage, it's because there's been a recent shift in the relationship that's thrown the partners out of sync and created that feeling of distance. If you can pinpoint what caused the shift, you'll know what to focus on as a couple to heal the divide.
"Backtrack and see if you both can identify when the shift started happening, and collaborate on ways to mitigate the feelings of loneliness," she says. "If this is proving to be difficult, seek professional help in order to work strategically as a unit."
Learn each other's love languages.
The five love languages are words of affirmation, physical touch, quality time, acts of service, and gifts. Each person has one primary love language that's their preferred way of receiving love. Jackson recommends couples who are trying to feel more emotionally connected with one another learn each other's love languages and start more actively giving that form of affection.
"When you can speak your partner's love language," Jackson notes, "there's no room for them to feel lonely because they're going to feel loved and appreciated and heard and respected."
If you and your partner are struggling to work on this issue or simply don't know where to start, both Andre and Jackson say working with a couples' counselor or therapist can be a helpful way to get on the right track.
There are also a plethora of relationship resources, such as books about relationships, online courses, and virtual couples' events, that can help couples get some more support. Jackson recommends The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman, Ph.D., and Nan Silver.
Know when it's time to leave.
Loneliness in a relationship doesn't mean the relationship is over, nor does it necessarily mean you don't love each other anymore. That said, once you bring up your feelings to your partner, pay attention to whether they really step up to help you feel secure and loved in the relationship again. Additionally, notice if you feel yourself lacking the motivation to work on the relationship, Andre advises.
"I believe if both parties are intentional about doing the repair work together, progress can happen," Andre notes. "However, if the level of investment changes for one or both in the marriage, and there is no self-motivation to fight for the marriage, a conversation may need to be had about what decisions protect the mental wellness of the parties involved."
Develop your own friendships and inner world.
It's important for couples to not depend solely on each other for their sense of fulfillment and aliveness, Jackson points out. If you're feeling lonely, it may not be because there's anything wrong with the relationship itself or with your partner—instead, it could simply be a sign that you are missing the strong friendships, community, and contentedness in yourself that are necessary for any person to feel whole.
If this is you, it's time to move your relationship from codependent to interdependent by prioritizing your own wholeness. What fills you up? What hobbies and passions can you lean into to light up your world, outside of your marriage? How can you start to nurture the other relationships in your life, including friends and family? It may be time to start making some new connections (here's our guide on how to make friends as an adult, if you need it!), in addition to working toward an internally sourced feeling of fulfillment.
The bottom line.
It's actually common to be married but lonely, but that doesn't mean it's something you should expect or accept in a marriage. Often loneliness in a marriage stems from a lack of connection, a lack of effort in the relationship, or a lack of individuation—or some combination of these factors.
If you're feeling lonely in your marriage, start by talking to your partner about what you're feeling and how you can increase feelings of intimacy between you. At the same time, look within: How can you find ways to feel full on your own, as an individual?
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