Marriage can be lonely: Why it happens and what to do (2024)

At a time when couples are spending more time together than ever — working from home, eating in and avoiding socializing during the pandemic — some may also discover they’re lonely in their marriage.

Feeling alone while sharing life with a partner may sound impossible to single people, but relationship experts say it happens when the connection becomes disappointing.

With the world in turmoil, emotions may be more raw and intense, leading to wives and husbands feeling they’re not getting what they need from their spouses right now, said Pepper Schwartz, a relationship and human sexuality expert.

“Marriages ebb and flow. They’re environmentally sensitive and you could be in a good marriage in a tough period in history, like we are now. So darker thoughts, worries, feelings start to change the way you see reality,” Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, told TODAY.

“You can have a body right next to you, but if you feel that your deepest fears, thoughts and needs are unseen, unheard or unwanted by your partner, you feel lonely.”

Almost a third, or 31%, of married people 45 years old and older report being lonely, according to a 2018 national survey of adults conducted by the AARP.

Part of the problem may be the high expectations people have of marriage and their spouses in general. A partner is expected to be the best friend, excellent lover, close intimate, fun entertainer, stimulating intellectual and more — but one relationship was never meant to provide such a diverse fulfillment of needs, Schwartz noted.

Married couples are also more “enmeshed,” or treating marriage as their primary social relationship, than in the past, a recent study about marriage loneliness in the Journal of Family Psychology noted.

That puts a lot more stress on the couple relationship, said co-author Ashley Ermer, an assistant professor of family science and human development at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey.

Expectations are so high that partners may think, “I want more out of this and I’m not getting it” even if it seems like everything is going well, Ermer noted.

How the woman feels may be key in heterosexual marriages, she and her colleagues found.

As they studied the loneliness trajectories among older married couples, they found the wife’s initial level of loneliness appeared to be driving both her own and her husband’s pattern of loneliness over time.

“It wasn’t too surprising because there’s a lot of evidence that shows women are the driving force behind all the social features of marriages in heterosexual marriages,” Ermer said. Women are the ones who often plan and organize family gatherings and outings with friends for the couple so her level of socializing — or isolation — becomes his.


Therapists explain what couples can learn from 'Marriage Story'

Having friendships also seemed key: Spouses who consistently reported good social connections were more likely to avoid becoming lonely in marriage, the study found. Women especially may benefit from frequently meeting up with friends, it noted.

For men, it was more about the tension in the relationship: Husbands who perceived their marriages as strained felt lonelier.

How to speak up:

It’s important to voice what’s going on, but do it effectively.

“It can be hard to admit loneliness, even to a spouse,” said Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general and author of “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World,” in an interview with the University of California, Berkeley.

“It’s not about how many people you have around you; it’s about how you feel about the connections that you have in your life.”

Don't tell your spouse, “I’m lonely and I just don’t feel like we’re close anymore. What are you going to do about it?” Schwartz cautioned. That’s an accusation and it’s not fair to put all of the blame on your partner.

Instead, you could say, “I’m feeling a little disconnected and I want to be more connected, so here are some suggestions,” and have them ready, Schwartz advised. You have to help your partner help you — if you don’t know how and what you need, think about it first so you can give him or her some guidance, she said.

Free-form conversation can be hard, so it may be better to talk things out while doing activities together, like walking, hiking, cooking or playing a sport to help you feel connected.

Reach out to others: A healthy relationship needs the company of friends, family and other caring people: “Having a support system is still really important even if you are married because you need other people, too,” Ermer said.

If feelings of loneliness keep growing, going to a marriage therapist may be helpful. Since the wife’s loneliness level may trickle in to the husband’s, as the study suggested, it’s important both spouses attend.

Ermer found it reassuring that most couples reported experiencing low levels of loneliness in their marriages over time. Still, it’s important to pay attention when things don’t feel right.

“The issues people feel are real and sometimes being in a relationship that’s disappointing is actually more depressing than not being in a relationship,” Schwartz said.

A. Pawlowski

A. Pawlowski is a TODAY health reporter focusing on health news and features. Previously, she was a writer, producer and editor at CNN.

Marriage can be lonely: Why it happens and what to do (2024)


Marriage can be lonely: Why it happens and what to do? ›

Talk to a couples' counselor: It may be that your relationship just needs some TLC. If your partner's willing, some therapy time with a couples' counselor may help you and your partner explore what could be contributing to loneliness in the relationship or marriage. A therapist may even suggest ways to work past it.

How to fix a lonely marriage? ›

If you are feeling lonely in your marriage, you can take steps to fix the problem. Talking to your spouse is an essential first step. Spending more time together can also help you feel more connected. Couples therapy can also be effective for improving different aspects of your relationship.

What causes loneliness in marriage? ›

In some cases, loneliness may be the result of an underlying issue, such as past trauma, mental illness, or an insecure attachment style. Individual therapy can help you work through any personal issues that may be impacting your relationship. If you are experiencing trauma, support is available.

Is feeling lonely in marriage normal? ›

Being lonely is not just an emotion reserved for those who are single or alone. But there are ways to work through it. “It's very common that people find themselves in long-term relationships feeling lonely,” says Niloo Dardashti, a New York-based psychologist and relationship expert.

How to stop feeling alone and unwanted? ›

This page has some tips and suggestions for managing feelings of loneliness:
  1. Learn more about being comfortable in your own company.
  2. Try and open up to people you know.
  3. Take it slow.
  4. Make new connections.
  5. Try not to compare yourself to others.
  6. Look after yourself.
  7. Try talking therapies.

What is the walk away wife syndrome? ›

So, what exactly is walkaway wife syndrome? In essence, it refers to wives who become so emotionally disconnected and dissatisfied with their marriages that they eventually decide to leave—often after years of built-up resentment. This isn't your typical cold feet or mid-life crisis.

What is a silent divorce? ›

A “silent divorce” or an “invisible divorce” generally refers to the same concept. Both phrases describe a situation where a married couple remains legally married but has effectively ended their emotional and often physical relationship.

Why do I feel unloved in my marriage? ›

Feeling alone and unloved in marriage can also be triggered by depression as well as jealousy and anxiety. These strong emotions can alienate a partner such that you fall into a vicious circle. All these are symptoms though that could mean something much deeper is going on.

How much alone time is too much in a marriage? ›

This means that, ideally, you should spend 70% of your time together and 30% of your time apart. During the time apart, you do you. You can continue your hobbies and enjoy your interests with other people. Remember, 70/30 is a guideline and is a great place to start.

What is emotional neglect in a marriage? ›

Emotional neglect occurs when a spouse fails on a regular basis to attend to or respond to their partner's emotional needs. This is marked by a distinct lack of action by one person towards the feelings of the other, including an absence of awareness, consideration, or response to a spouse's emotional wellbeing.

How do you drive away loneliness? ›

Loneliness is a common feeling, but there are steps you can take to help feel more connected. Listening to music, calling a friend, taking a walk outside, and other activities may reduce your sense of isolation. Loneliness is going around, and it's having a pretty big impact.

What can extreme loneliness do? ›

Some research suggests that loneliness can increase stress. It's also associated with an increased risk of certain mental health problems. For example, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and sleep problems. My anxiety and depression isolates me from people and stops me from being able to do the things I'd like to do.

Why do I feel so unloved? ›

Childhood trauma is a leading cause of adults feeling unloveable. This might have been the loss of a parent or sibling, being abandoned or neglected by a parent, having a mentally unwell or addicted parent. Childhood sexual abuse in particular leaves children with a damaged view of themselves.

Can an unhappy marriage be fixed? ›

If you and your partner are both willing to put in the work, are able to truly acknowledge your part in contributing to the current state of your marriage, and will actively attempt to change your behavior in a way that best suits your relationship, then your marriage can be fixed.

What is the detached wife syndrome? ›

The name comes from the feeling that your wife is ready to walk away at any moment. Walkaway wife syndrome isn't necessarily someone's fault. It usually stems from a lack of effort and a lack of communication on both sides of a relationship that slowly culminates into emotional disconnection.

Can an unhappy marriage survive? ›

Staying in an unhappy marriage is a very personal decision. And as long as the marriage isn't abusive and partners are reasonably respectful of one another, it can actually work for some couples.

How do you coexist an unhappy marriage? ›

What to do When You Can't Leave an Unhappy Marriage
  1. Show up for your partner. ...
  2. Nurture your friendship. ...
  3. Check-in with your partner daily. ...
  4. Avoid making assumptions about your partner. ...
  5. Acknowledge and take ownership of your part of the argument. ...
  6. Be open to negotiation. ...
  7. Practice self-soothing.
Feb 14, 2024

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