NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Loneliness and Lack of Intimacy in a Relationship

Loneliness and lack of intimacy in relationships is not unusual. People who are lonely in their relationship usually don't like to admit it, except, maybe, to their closest friends or their psychotherapist because there is often a lot of shame associated with this.

People who feel lonely in their relationships often feel that loneliness only occurs among people who are, well, alone, and that if you're in a relationship, you shouldn't be feeling this way.

Loneliness and Lack of Intimacy in a Relationship

But there are lots of reasons why relationships that start out well can, over time, devolve into relationships where one or both people feel lonely and the emotional and sexual intimacy go out the window.

Let's look at the following vignette which, as always, represents a composite of many different people, so that there is no identifying information that represents any one particular person:

Steve and Susan:
When Steve and Susan met in college, they fell in love with each other almost from the start. They had a very passionate one year relationship before they got married. Both of their parents wanted them to wait a year or two before they got married to give them time to get to know each other, but they couldn't see any reason to wait, so they got married right after college and moved into a small apartment in Manhattan.

A year into their marriage, Steve began to feel that there was "something missing" in his relationship with Susan. He wasn't sure what it was and he didn't even have words to describe it, but he knew that something had changed. He and Susan both had demanding jobs, so they spent almost no time together during the week. On the weekends, they were often both exhausted and too tired to go out, so they spent a lot of time watching TV. Whereas they had sex a few times a week during the first six months of their marriage, now, they only had sex a couple of times a month, which concerned Steve because he and Susan were still in their early 20s.

As time went on, Steve began to feel lonely and disconnected from Susan, even when they were spending time together. He often felt that when she was with him, she "wasn't there" emotionally. He felt that it was as if they were "going through the motions." Whereas he used to feel excited and alive when he was around Susan, he now felt bored and that the relationship had gotten into a rut.

Steve tried to talk to Susan about his concerns, but Susan was not someone who liked to talk about what she considered "negative feelings." So, whenever he tried to talk to Susan about it, she dismissed his feelings and told him that all relationships settle down after the first year or two and he shouldn't expect that they would feel the same kind of passion that they felt when they first met.

But Steve knew that there was more to it than that. He didn't feel close to Susan any more, and he was concerned and upset that he felt lonely around her. In the past, when he was single, it wasn't unusual for him to feel lonely, but he couldn't understand why he would feel lonely when he was with Susan.

As Steve's concern grew, he continued to try to talk to Susan about their relationship. But the more he tried, the more annoyed Susan felt and the more she avoided talking to Steve about his concerns. And the more Susan avoided talking to him about their relationship, the more Steve sensed that Susan was putting up an emotional "wall" between them that seemed to be growing thicker by the day. 

He knew that he still loved Susan, but he wasn't sure if he was still in love with her. And he resented that she refused to discuss their relationship, as if there was something wrong with him for having these concerns.

As time went on, Steve felt more and more distant from Susan. They had friends and they socialized, but Steve began to feel that his marriage was a sham. He felt that there was a disconnect between what he felt internally and how he felt he was expected by Susan to behave with her.

One day, when one of his coworkers, Laura, began to confide in Steve over lunch that there were problems in her marriage, Steve felt himself opening up to Laura about his own worries. Laura seemed to understand completely. She said she felt the same way in her marriage, and her husband refused to talk to her about it too.

This was the first time that Steve had a chance to tell anyone about his problems, and it was a great relief to feel heard and understood. Soon after that, Steve and Laura began having lunch more frequently, and Steve felt an attraction building for Laura. He knew that she was also attracted to him because she began flirting with him. He liked that she laughed at his jokes and that she admired him at work.

So, after a few weeks, when Laura told him that she had a friend who would let them use her apartment during their lunch break or after work, Steve was not surprised. 

Although he was flattered and he felt a strong sexual desire for Laura, especially since he and Susan were hardly having sex any more, he was not prepared to start cheating on Susan, so he gently and tactfully declined the first time that Laura suggested that they get together sexually. 

But as he continued to feel more and more emotionally and sexually frustrated in his marriage with Susan, he told Laura that he was ready to spend time with her at her friend's apartment.

On the day when he was supposed to meet Laura at her friend's apartment, Steve had a change of heart. He really didn't want to ruin his marriage, and he decided to try to talk to Susan one more time and, if that didn't work, before he began a sexual affair with Laura, he would rather separate from Susan first and think about getting a divorce.

That night when he went home, Steve told Susan that he thought their relationship was in serious trouble and if they didn't go for marriage counseling, he didn't think they would survive. Usually, Susan put up a wall whenever Steve tried to talk to her about their relationship but, somehow, he got through to her that day, at least enough to get her to agree to go for marriage counseling.

When Steve and Susan came for their first marriage counseling session, Steve was very open about his feelings and concerns. He talked about feeling lonely and disconnected in their relationship and how disappointed he felt that there was almost no emotional or sexual intimacy between them any more. Susan sat next to Steve and stared straight ahead. Whenever Steve looked at her to tell her how he felt, she continued to stare into space.

When it was her turn to talk, Susan had a lot of difficulty expressing her feelings. With some encouragement, she began to talk, but all she could say was that she wasn't sure what she felt any more, and people in her family almost never talked about their feelings and they certainly never went to marriage counseling to talk to "a stranger" about their feelings about their marriage. Not only was she anxious and angry, Susan also felt deeply ashamed to be sitting in a marriage counselor's office.

During the first few marriage counseling sessions, Susan continued to have a lot of difficulty identifying her feelings and talking. She retreated behind a wall and she seemed greatly relieved when the therapy hour was over.

It was only after Steve admitted in session that he was beginning to have feelings for his coworker, Laura, at work, that Susan's wall began to crumble. Steve told her that for a long time he had been feeling that maybe there was something wrong with him that he felt so lonely and empty whenever he was around Susan. 

But, he said, when he realized that he had sexual feelings for Laura and he felt close to her, even though he had not been sexual with her "yet," he realized that what he was feeling was a problem between him and Susan and not something that he alone was going through. He also told Susan about how he almost went to Laura's friend's apartment to have sex with Laura.

Steve told Susan that he still loved her and wanted to repair their marriage, but if she wasn't willing to do the work too, he was considering leaving her and having a sexual affair with Laura because he wanted to feel "alive" again.

When Susan heard this, she looked like she had been struck in the face. She began sobbing in that session and told Steve that she was terrified of exploring and talking about her feelings. She said that during the early stage of their relationship, she felt carried along on a wave of passion and love, but once their relationship settled down, she began to feel too afraid of the emotional intimacy of everyday life together and she shut down.

This was a breakthrough moment for Susan. After that, Steve agreed not to spend any more time with Laura, and Susan agreed to enter into her own individual psychotherapy with another therapist at the same time that Steve and Susan continued to come to marriage counseling.

During the course of their marriage counseling, it came to light that Susan and Steve had very different experiences in their family of origins with regard to expressing feelings.

Steve's family was very open to expressing their feelings. And Steve's mother and father had a close, loving relationship.

Susan's family was more reserved. Her parents never showed any affection for each other around Susan, and they almost never talked about their emotions. When Susan was growing up, whenever she tried to talk to either of her parents about anything that was bothering her, Susan felt like she was being a nuisance. Her mother often told her, "No one likes a whiner." So, she learned to stifle her feelings.

That's why Susan was so surprised that she felt the depth of feelings that she did for Steve during the early stage of their relationship. When it was new and exciting and they were getting to know each other, she felt carried along by the excitement. But she felt uncomfortable with the growing emotional intimacy that was developing after they got married, and she realized that she had shut down emotionally to protect herself from her own feelings of vulnerability.

Susan also realized that her emotional shut down lead to Steve's feeling disconnected from her and lonely when he was around her. And this was only made worse when Steve tried to talk to her about his feelings and she avoided these discussions.

And, for his part, Steve also realized that by acting out with Laura and almost having a sexual affair, he was also checking out emotionally from his marriage and putting up his own emotional barriers with Susan. 

He realized that even though he and Laura never had sex, they were starting to have an emotional affair because they were confiding in each other a lot and comforting one another. He also realized that even though Laura excited him, any affair that he had with her would have been motivated more by anger towards Susan than any sexual or tender feelings he felt towards Laura.

Steve and Susan remained in marriage counseling for two years. During that time, they learned to improve their communication with each other. Through the marriage counseling and in her own individual therapy, Susan began to feel more comfortable expressing her feelings with Steve. A few sessions with a sex therapist also helped them to revive their sexual relationship.

It wasn't easy but, over time, their relationship improved. As the emotional and sexual intimacy improved in their relationship, they both felt more connected to each other and more satisfied in their relationship. Steve no longer felt lonely when he was Susan, and Susan stopped defending against her feelings by shutting down emotionally.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you and your spouse are experiencing problems with loneliness and lack of intimacy in your relationship, you're not alone. Many couples go through this.

The important part is to admit that there's a problem and get help with an experienced couples therapist.

A skilled couples therapist can help you to make changes so you can both be happier.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I have helped many individuals and couples to revive their relationships.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up an appointment, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.