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Living with Loneliness

“We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.”  -Albert Schweitzer

I have been lonely in my marriage for decades. Yet to be fair, I have felt lonely for as long as I can remember. Like many people, I believed that getting married would be a cure for the pervasive sense of loneliness with which I grew up. It’s hard to know whether my loneliness is like other character traits, somehow encoded in the genes or if it was a product of the isolation in my dysfunctional family finally culminating in my parent’s violent divorce. How we know ourselves is also how we magnetize what comes to us, so it is not surprising that I would be attracted to someone who would support who I always knew myself to be- lonely. It is one of life’s great ironies, the way that life will give us more of what we have even as we push against it.

Needless to say that the early years of our marriage were painful. It took literally a decade before I stopped being angry at him for all the ways that I was still lonely with him. It was our therapist, Bob, who first suggested to me, in a way that I could finally register, that perhaps my loneliness was not a product of my marriage, but rather something that was uniquely mine to understand and assimilate. I remember being mad at Bob for a while after that, too.

But truth is resonant, and as I grew closer to the revelation that blaming my loneliness on my husband did little for either of us and, in fact, only served to move us further apart. Indeed, I am part of crowd, fully one fifth of the general population suffers with chronic loneliness at any given time, and among older adults, over 60% of the lonely were married and living with a partner. The ironic thing is that, like love attracting more of the same, so it is with loneliness. We were caught in a vicious cycle – the more I suffered with feeling alone and blamed him for my sadness, the less he engaged with me.

It isn’t that I didn’t have a case, my husband is as different from me about things relational as he can be. Whereas, I would choose to be around others over being by myself at most times, he luxuriates in his solitude. As I know myself through talking with others, he discovers his truth in silence. In his early family experience, it was safest for him to go interior. So we were the perfect pair- providing the ideal circumstance for him to break out of his shell and for me to learn to live within mine. It’s odd, how we choose partners who leave us no way out but to learn the most challenging lessons we need to learn to recover the parts of ourselves we lost as children. We often only recognize it in hindsight.

Our arguments about this painful space in our marriage always became more intense around Valentine’s Day. Hallmark holidays about love show in sharp relief all the places we don’t feel loved and amplify what is broken in a couple. Not surprisingly, the day after Valentine’s Day is one of the biggest signup days of the year for women on Ashley Madison, the sight that facilitates affairs. I have walked pretty close to the edge of the departure precipice many a mid-February night. I struggled for years after Bob’s suggestion to create my own relationship to my loneliness even as I buffered the experience with being deeply involved in the lives of my children.

Over the years, something softened in me slowly, maybe in part from watching my children deal with their own experience of feelings of loneliness, mine became less frightening. As my reactivity diminished, I could allow the grief some space. Little by little, the weight of it lifted and, as it did, I could perceive my husband’s enjoyment and need of his alone time as not a rejection of me, but as an entirely different relationship to being alone.

In fact, this is how we have evolved the conversation between us over the years. When I get swept up by feeling lonely, he doesn’t become defensive with me anymore; he calmly reminds me about the difference between being alone and feeling lonely. As he became less responsible for my suffering with loneliness, he also became more responsive. Even though he doesn’t experience loneliness as I do, he has learned a new level of compassion to mine. He couldn’t do that when I was blaming him.

This transformation between us, this getting over ourselves so we could be together took decades. I often see women writing about how their early relationships fail them and do not take care of their emotional needs. And I remember how I once believed that we should know how to care for each other and be capable of doing it from the beginning of our relationships. But believing that we should be able to source most of our emotional support needs from our intimate partner from the get go, or for even by year seven doesn’t give our relationships enough time to grow up. Maybe I am a super slow learner, but if I had quit at year seven, I would have walked out before the game really got going.

Getting through the suffering in relationships has a lot to do with learning to befriend the suffering we each carry. When we give it time, our relationship grows to be a strong container that can hold both you and your suffering so you can see it for what it is. Love takes time, a lifetime.