Lonely Wives Club
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Lonely Wives Club

Are you coupled but feel more alone than together? Here's help for improving your outlook -- and your relationship.

Coupled Yet Alone

Whether your man is away on business, plays a lot of golf, or -- worse yet -- is just sitting there and not connecting with you, relationships can seem mighty lonely at times. Perhaps you feel like a placeholder in his life. The kids are taken care of, the house is clean, dates are made to see friends, but you don't feel he hears you when you talk, or empathizes with your problems, or supports you in your dreams and plans. Perhaps you don't do things together, or you always do what he wants to do, or you feel you've wasted hours in front of bad television.

One lonely Midwestern woman, a 45-year-old wife of three years, describes craving for the equal companionship of her first marriage. She and her first husband were not only business partners, but both enjoyed socializing after-hours. The seemingly perfect marriage ended suddenly when her husband left without any warning for another woman.

Her new husband, a soon-to-be naval officer, spent weeks away from her. He also turned out to be a loner, leaving her alone to create a social life. "Even when he's at home he's preoccupied. He's studying -- not interacting," she says. "Yeah, I feel lonely. I really support him, but this is not what I signed up for when I got married."

Another Minnesota wife, 45, and married to a job-hopping workaholic, finally settled in her favorite town. Meanwhile, her husband moved around the country to take other jobs for a year or two at a time, coming home to her and the kids on alternate weekends "Since he wasn't really in my life, even when he was present, it didn't make much difference where the kids and I lived," she said. "Even when he was with us, he worked on weekends, hogged the phone and fax machine, and only came out for dinner. Eventually, I was happier when he was gone."

Still another woman, 34, in Minnesota, describes how her husband refuses to participate in their marriage. Their 8 1/2 years together has left her suffering from low self-esteem, depression, and a near emotional breakdown, she says. "The evenings are the hardest. We rarely have family meals together. Once the children are in bed the house is quiet. He really isn't home very often, or he comes home after the children have gone to bed or right at bedtime. If he is home, he doesn't communicate much. We wind up in separate rooms. That's the hardest time of the day for me."

She recalls her loneliest moment: "Every few years my birthday falls on a softball night and my husband chooses to play softball instead of spending my birthday with me."

"One reason loneliness is so common," says Pepper Schwartz, PhD, author of five books on love and relationships, and professor of sociology at the University of Washington, "is that women are used to the level of communication you get from girlfriends." she says. "Girlfriends listen with interest and compassion. No matter how good a guy is, the comparison with female companionship is so pale that women feel alone. And we have such romantic expectations. We tried to find a soul mate, but we're often so far from that."

But there are solutions short of divorce. First, try to define why you feel lonely. Are you lonely because your guy isn't around? Or do you feel isolated even when he is? In either scenario, understanding the reasons for the loneliness is Step One.

Why You Feel Lonely

Dr. Schwartz says that some feelings of loneliness can be caused by the normal post-courtship phase. "During courtship, a man is very interested in a woman. He thinks of ways to woo her." This naturally goes away, she says, when the relationship enters what she calls the maintenance phase -- when the thrill of courtship and even early years of marriage gives way to the reality of everyday life together.

"We've only been married three years, but in that time we've had two kids," says Marina, 39, of Brooklyn, New York. "We're both so exhausted from working full-time and then coming home to have 'quality time' with the kids. Once they're entertained, fed, and put to bed, we both veg out in front of the TV, not saying a thing. My husband seems to have lost interest in having 'dates' with me. Since he and I really never socialize on our own anymore, I do feel a tinge of loneliness at times."

Maintenance need not mean marital misery. It's just a new phase in the relationship, Dr. Schwartz says, and it may be the longest-lasting phase of the relationship or partnership. It can be a time when each partner develops or nurtures other friendships or other activities, and the partners come together lovingly but with less feverish passion.

"It gets even more intimate," says Dr. Schwartz, "The layers of the onion are stripped -- you start telling each other the not-so-good stuff with the good stuff. And the original passion returns intermittently."

Once we get married, we expect that we're not going to be alone anymore. That's unrealistic, and those spaces in togetherness are good and healthy. They enrich the relationship," says Mary Ellen Copeland, author of The Loneliness Workbook (New Harbinger, 2000).

Some relationships, though, are riddled with troubles that make one spouse or the other feel lonely. Says Dr. Schwartz: "If a partner hasn't noticed that you're depressed or sick, that's a problem. If a partner notices and doesn't care, that's also a problem."

"Being under emotional attack," Schwartz adds, also can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, no matter how mild the attack may be. Emotional abuse is not all sticks and stones. If your partner has withdrawn emotional or financial support, or puts you down in public or in private, you would naturally feel lonely. But calling it mere loneliness, says Dr. Schwartz, "is often easier than taking a hard look at your marriage." Maybe you're not ready to do that yet.

No two relationships are alike, but discussing your marital issues with a friend "might give you the perspective that you're asking for too much. You might discover that if your husband takes you out every Saturday night, for example, you're actually doing pretty well," says Dr. Schwartz. You may find out that other wives give attention to get more attention. "On the other hand," she says, "if you're attentive and you're being treated like a piece of wood, that's a problem."

Other Loneliness

Many people -- married or single -- are alone without being lonely, while others are lonely without being alone. Which is it for you? Alone simply means there's no other human there right now, but it doesn't hurt. People who are alone often lead full social lives by staying connected with friends and relatives, as well as enjoying their time on their own. Lonely people, however, feel a sense of emptiness or rejection on a regular basis. Alone feels okay; lonely feels uncomfortable.

"Loneliness is a part of life," says Dr. Schwartz, "If people expect others to solve it for them, they'll be disappointed. Loneliness only becomes a problem when not enough is communicated in a relationship."

But how can you tell the difference between expecting too much, having a truly troubled relationship, or rooting out some other problem that's justly yours to solve, such as having unrealistic expectations of your partnership or being an isolated, lonely person generally? Copeland, who has done extensive studies in loneliness, says that "people who are lonely are often uncomfortable being with themselves. It's a sign of low self-esteem," she says. Symptoms may include desperately needing company at all times, feeling rejected when alone, and postponing decisions or entertainment until a companion shows up. If being alone itself makes you feel lonely, this could be the problem. And it often isn't solved by being with someone else. It also may not suggest that your partnership itself is in trouble. It may mean that you simply need to find ways to solve the sense of isolation you feel, partner or not.

Dr. Schwartz suggests speaking with a friend or a counselor to clarify whether or not you're suffering from other issues. "For example, it could feel like loneliness," she says, "but maybe you're depressed because the kids have left, or your job isn't what you thought."

Tips for Battling Loneliness

If loneliness is a problem, with a present partner or an absent one, here are some ideas you can try to enrich your life:

  1. Get a social life of your own. Men can't fill all a woman's social needs. Try women's groups, girlfriend time, and volunteer work to meet like-minded people. The New York City wife with the couch-spud hubby did this: "He doesn't care if I come or go at night, so I go to a book club, girlfriend dinners, and to see an elderly aunt." If you're a golf or work widow, "become the entertainment capital of your own world," says Dr. Schwartz. "Make plans in advance to ward off that 'Poor me' moment on Saturday night."
  2. Take off and see how it feels. If you're worried about the marriage, spend a weekend away, alone or with girlfriends, and see how you feel about your man. Dr. Schwartz suggests self-examination: "Do you miss him? Are you happier without him? Are you anxious to see him? Are you dreading the end of the trip? How does he react when you return? And how do you feel when you do?" This kind of experimentation can tell you a lot that you can't learn at home while silently steaming. The Connecticut ex-wife tried this, and discovered she felt more herself when away from home, and also that her husband punished her for her absence. "It became clear that I couldn't give him what he needed, and vice versa." Counseling ended in an agreeable divorce.
  3. Ask your partner for what you need. One e-mail per day from a traveling man or weekly bowling with an in-house partner? Be specific. Men can't guess. "You can't be mad at a man if you haven't told him what you want," says Dr. Schwartz. Agree on a reasonable communications or togetherness schedule.
  4. Plan togetherness. "What did you used to like to do together? Bring those things back into your life," says Copeland. Dr. Schwarz suggests inviting him out for an event you think is fun. If he refuses, ask him what he thinks would be fun, and try that. If you've "tried jazzing up your marriage on your terms, and then on his terms, and it still doesn't work," she says, suggest that you visit a therapist together. If he won't go, go alone." Therapy saved the marriage of the Minnesota woman with the workaholic husband.
  5. Make a deal. If you like to do different things, talk about it and agree that you'll play golf and tennis separately, but meet again later in the day. Or vacation separately, but with the understanding that you're doing it because of separate interests. If you don't talk about it, somebody may feel abandoned. "Deals are okay," says Dr. Schwartz, "as long as everybody understands and agrees. Both parties have to understand what they're getting out of the relationship."
  6. Get a private life of your own. Learn how to like being alone. It will build your self-esteem and strengthen your inner resources. This is especially important, says Copeland, "for women who might want to get out of a marriage but aren't ready, or are feeling lonely for any reason." Her suggestion: Make a list of things you would love to do alone, says Copeland, and also include things you can actually best do alone. Maybe you want to read more novels, ride a bicycle, get a dog, make jewelry, take a class. "Make a list, put it on the refrigerator, and start crossing things off." The more you learn to enjoy your alone time, the happier you will be in or out of a relationship.