When two is the loneliest number

Not doing things together, or doing them resentfully, is among the symptoms of a strained relationship.

My girlfriend has a strange relationship with her partner. She gets up at 6am and goes for a jog, then makes breakfast and is at work by 8am. She comes home and goes to bed early. Her partner, on the other hand, is still watching Netflix at 1am and sleeps in until 8.30am because he works from home.

Having different time clocks is not uncommon; in fact many people reading this know the problem only too well — and also what it does to someone’s sex life when one person is up for it and the other is dashing out of or falling into bed.

But worse than the messing around of the sex clock is the loneliness that comes from the ships-passing-in-the-night syndrome.

In fact, loneliness in relationships is a common phenomenon for many reasons and having different time clocks is only one of them. Others include being preoccupied with kids; different interests; and not doing things together enough, or doing them together while one party looks or feels decidedly bored.

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Not communicating intimately is a big issue: one partner feeling they are dragging the other into trying to handle things as a couple. “I feel so alone in this” is a catchcry in soppy Hollywood love stories, but it sadly does hold weight.

Studies indicate that about 20 per cent of people suffer from chronic loneliness and in one recent study, quoted in Psychology Today, 62.5 per cent of those who reported being lonely were living with a partner.

It is a phenomenon poignantly sung about by Gotye in the hit Somebody That I Used to Know: “Told myself that you were right for me / But felt so lonely in your company”. He talks of being “addicted to a certain kind of sadness”.

I’ve been lonely in relationships and know what it means. I was once with someone who wasn’t good at communicating. That is a common one. You talk and talk and get stared at with vacant eyes. How do you feel about that? You ask, and get a one-word answer: “good” or “nice”.

I was recently reminded of this by a new friend who is with ­someone she first described as “grounded”. This changed to “un­emotional” later in the conversation. “I love food and travel, I wept at Michelangelo’s David, wept in front of van Gogh’s Starry Night, but he stands there with a frozen face.”

Loneliness can happen when someone is standing right beside you if they can’t go where you go. Her partner was clearly lonely, too. “He turns to me with excitement when his team kicks a goal and I just sit there. I don’t get it.”

The truth is marriage or partnership doesn’t insulate us from the sadness of loneliness; in fact, it can cause it.

Experts say it usually happens slowly as the disconnection we feel increases through the years.

Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid, writes in Psychology Today: “At some point, discussions about mutual interests, world events, and goals and dreams cease entirely and conversations become purely transactional — ‘We need milk’, ‘Your mother called’, or ‘Did you remember to pay the cable bill?’—or focused exclusively on parenting. We also fall into daily routines that foster emotional distance …

“In short, we lose the love and the affection but stay in the marriage; ironically, often out of a fear of being lonely, although by doing so, we potentially doom ourselves to the very loneliness we were trying to avoid.”

Often people have kids to mask the loneliness; they do fill one’s life, but the boredom and disconnect can return.

Some get pets. Some couples always go out with other couples to fill the void. Television and videos are great to mask isolation and separation from each other.

One of the main causes of loneliness is feeling you are not being heard or understood. When I was a sex and relationships writer I interviewed people about what was leading them to feel unhappy. The overall answer: lack of intimacy, or disconnection.

“I feel I’m the only one in the relationship trying. I make arrangements for us both to share, he shrugs or doesn’t come along. It’s an effort trying to get him to do what I like, but he doesn’t have other suggestions. Sometimes I can see he is resentful, he’s being forced to come along, but I think it would be a great opportunity for us to get closer if only he participated fully and didn’t just sit there looking bored.”

A male’s perspective: “Her girlfriends come over or join us all the time. A lot of what they say sounds like rubbish to me. It’s just so repetitive and they just go round and round tossing over the same problem, and don’t listen to my advice, so yes, I feel disconnected. I don’t particularly like their partners.”

I explain that it’s a female thing to indulge in what professor of linguistics Deborah Tannen calls “trouble talk”: unlike men, women like to not immediately solve problems but, rather, to build intimacy by thrashing out the issues with friends.

One woman on a narcissistic-partner chat site described the opposite with her husband. Rather than stonewall her and sit there being cold and shutting her out, he smothered her with attention, made her the apple of his eye and his absolute everything. “I feel suffocated sometimes, responsible for him … I can’t explain it … But he doesn’t like me having friends over or doing things without him and I feel isolated.”

Feeling left out around a divorced partner’s friends, kids and family is a big one — all of them discussing the time when Sam did this or Betty did that. It can be very confronting for partners and a great cause of loneliness and false smiles.

Changing over time is also a big factor in creating loneliness. When I had a spiritual epiphany and got into yoga, vegetarianism and mindfulness, my partner at the time supported me on the journey. He didn’t adopt my lifestyle but was interested and enthusiastic. Sadly, many of the stories I heard were of people married to those not happy when they evolved, such as partners who felt threatened when a mate got slim or was no longer co-dependent.

Someone “doing their own thing” often can cause issues on both sides.

Gut-wrenching loneliness can come when a partner stonewalls something important: “We’ll talk about it tomorrow — let’s just get some sleep!” Feeling unable to meet a partner’s expectations, or feeling unseen, rates highly.

The solution experts offer is to do things together, find common ground. Maybe do some people-watching — always funny, and you can’t be lonely when you are laughing at the same thing. If your partner has no sense of humour, then cry together, find a tragic movie.

But at the end of the day we have to accept that perhaps the problem isn’t being in a lonely relationship but being in a lonely ­society. Once, we lived in communities surrounded by others and never expected to be fulfilled by one partner. Men were hunting with the tribe, women raising kids together. So there may be no cure for some couples. Just Netflix: the lonely couples’ new best friend.




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Got news for you Ruth. It hasn’t changed. Men are earthlings, women are from Venus.

You missed the bit about reaching retirement. We do the heavy lifting and wear out quicker so we want to relax and unwind while they suddenly have a monster bucket list they have to get done before they wear out.



Yeah, never understood the couples thing. You choose your friends for a reason. Your partner may not like them (or their partners), so don’t throw everyone together like that. At least not very often…



Ruth, the problem is well explained the options to fix it are not!



@George Agreed – I guess the real answer is the lonely one moves on and not exactly the political correct thing to finish with?



@James Not easily no – perhaps that is another article… every couple would have a unique threshold as to when the upheaval of moving on outweighs the mental difficulties of staying put
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