I’d like to start by acknowledging the inspiration for this Blog is from a recent post by Couple Therapist Esther Perel, where she was able to capture and name so succinctly what lot of my clients are sharing in sessions with me.
What’s the last thing you stroke at night before you fall asleep? What’s the first thing you touch in the morning when you wake up?
For lot of people, it is their phone. Are you finding yourself holding that phone while there is a person next to you lying in bed with whom you used to talk, cuddle, enjoy quiet time, or make love before falling asleep? Perhaps you’re using social media to escape the terror of our current moment, or you find yourselfconsuming more and more news about Covid-19, protests, and the economy, only to wake up tired, overwhelmed, and unable to talk to your partner about anything else. In a moment of mass virtual connection with the outside world, at the end of day, our internal lives feel a bit lonely. Ironic, isn’t it?
Over the last decade, we’ve experienced a new type of loneliness—the loss of connection, trust, and capital while we are next to the person with whom we’re not supposed to be lonely. Leading family therapist Pauline Boss used a term Ambiguous Loss to describe what we feel when a loved one is physically present, but in all other ways absent from the relationship.
- Have you experienced your partner half listening, you are talking to them but they are elsewhere.
- How about that lag on the phone while you are talking to a family member or friend whom you suspect is multitasking or checking their social media?
- Do you have a friend to whom you consistently reach out only to hear back a few days later with a feigned wish to catch up, but never a commitment?
All of these situations leave us hungry for connection, because one way to maintain our sanity during these challenging times is to stay connected with each other. How? You ask. Answer is simple, through our voices and faces. After all, that is the primary mode of human communication.
What a year 2020 is turning out to be for lot of us. First there was draught in parts of Australia, then came the fires along the east coast which left thousands of businesses and homes destroyed, lives lost as well as millions of animals perished and now the impact of COVID 19. I think it’s fair to say that we are all experiencing some degree of trauma, which means lot of people are yet to mourn the mountain of losses we’ve experienced this year, we’re left with unresolved grief. And we expect our relationships to hold the weight of that grief. How many of us are feeling our partnerships collapse under that heaviness? At this point, it may seem easier to connect with our phones than with each other. But what’s to show for it—are we in an apex of loneliness?
When Feeling Alone in a Relationship Becomes the Norm
What is more difficult are the problems that have always been there, that have only gotten worse in the past few months. For those who had already been living on separate continents under the same roof, that separateness has only intensified while living on top of each other 24/7. Crisis exacerbates existing tensions—within our society, and within our partnerships. If we felt alone in a relationship before, this year has revealed new depths of that loneliness.
Reconnection Requires Going a Different Way
If you are a romantic like me, you are probably thinking “if they love me, they would….should….” but it doesn’t work like that. Or, love and connection should happen spontaneously with little to no effort if you love each other. Again, another myth.
The way to reconnection is taking a different path to the one you’ve always taken. My teachers/mentor John & Julie Gottman has spent close to 50yrs of their lives studying couples, and below are some tried and tested practices they’ve engaged with as well as additional suggestions from other relationship experts in helping couples to reconnect.
- Make an appointment around an activity and set a time limit: “Can we take a fifteen-minute walk tonight to talk about some things?”
- Changing the environment by taking a walk together, a bath, or having coffee together in the morning can help shake up the conversational rut.
- Preface the conversation by acknowledging that you know that it might not be pleasant and that you appreciate that they are willing to engage.
- Mention a productive conversation you had together recently.
- Keep it to one issue at a time.
- Try listening to them from a place of curiosity and inquisitiveness.
- If your partner indicates that they feel overwhelmed, or if they start to shut down, there is no need to answer, “but I didn’t do anything.”
- Just ask them: “tell me more”.
- Know that one of the most powerful ways for people not to feel deeply alone is for them to feel listened to.
- And listening doesn’t mean agreeing. Remind yourself and them of this.
- Likewise, acknowledging another person’s experience doesn’t invalidate your own.
- Don’t compete by upstaging their grievances with your own. Ask them to do the same for you.
- Remember that you’re not responsible for making their negative feelings go away in this situation.
- And they’re not responsible for making your negative feelings go away.
- Remind each other that you’re not going to solve all of your issues in one conversation, but every conversation is an important step.
- You can always ask your partner, “is there something I can do to make the conversation more productive?”
- If the conversations feel impossible, try writing to each other. It can make all the difference.
Lastly, remember the context we are all living in right now. These times require frequent check-ins with one another. Even the seemingly small act of being present while you check in on a loved one—really being there with them and listening to them—can open up new channels of connection.