Charlotte Brontë once said, “The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.” And that is how we too often mis-label loneliness. Loneliness exists in our collective unconscious as this unquenchable fire that burns through our happiness and rages behind unassailable walls that surround our hearts. It evokes images of pitiful solitude in black and white, and most affects those whose days are spent alone.
But what I am seeing more and more in my practice, is a crippling loneliness that affects men and women within the bonds of marriage. An insidious loneliness that walks hand-in-hand with shame and holds you hostage – bound and gagged so that you cannot speak though you are surrounded by ears longing to hear. We have confused loneliness with being alone, and the two are not always connected. For many, it is less like Brontë imagined and more like Haruki Murakami quipped, “Sometimes I get real lonely sleeping with you.”
Last week, I received a letter from a lady who had met me at one of my seminars. The form she had filled out on my website dropped into my inbox innocuously enough. But as I opened the email, I was completely unprepared for the depth of her vulnerability. Without any background information or details, she said, “I’m so lonely for him that I can’t open up anymore. I bury a ton of pain and cannot share. Is there any hope?”
Her words moved me deeply, not only because she was in so much pain, but also because I have been seeing a growing trend of lonely people in my coaching. Obviously, people come chat with me when there is something they want to discuss about their sex lives. But more and more people are identifying the core reason for bad or non-existent sex as deep loneliness. They feel cut off from their spouses, and this isolation translates into distance in their sex lives.
When I asked one woman, whose husband frequently leaves town to hang out with his buddies, if she could ask him to stay at home more often, she burst into tears. “I am afraid. I think I want to be with him more than he wants to be with me. What if I tell him that I miss him, and he confirms my suspicions that he just doesn’t care?” A man who had come to me for sexual dysfunction looked at me at the end of one of our sessions and said, “How come I can tell you how I feel about my wife, but I can’t tell her?”
Too many people long to connect with their spouses, but cannot find the words to express this desire. Their loneliness runs so deep that it shuts their mouths and cripples their relationships. The fear of rejection they feel extinguishes any whisper of courage to speak up. To the world around them, they may look like perfect couples, but behind the scenes they are slowly dying inside.
In a recent post on Red Letter Christians, Micah Bales made a significant comment about loneliness, “In a society where so often we are judged by our résumés, productivity, and reputation, unconditional love is unspeakably precious.” There is no doubt that we live in a culture wherein success – even the illusion of success – is the ultimate goal. We fear that if people took a peak behind the masks we wear and saw the truth of who we are, (which is probably not as successful as what we portray on Facebook, around the office or when chatting with the moms at school pick-up) they would not want us anymore. If they saw who we really are, we would no longer be worthy of their time, attention, smiles and laughter.
But no matter what we project to the world around us, our homes should be the place where this precious unconditional love thrives. This is the place where we should truly be able to be ourselves…all of us. They should be the safe places to let our guard down, to take off our masks and just be real.
But this comes at a cost. This requires us to have the courage to speak with our whole hearts. We must be willing to let our partners hold our hearts and trust them to bear the weight. This is scary, particularly when they have not been gentle with our hearts in the past, or when we are afraid that the weight will be too heavy for them to bear.
The book of John assures us that “Perfect love casts out all fear.” But sometimes our deepest fear is that our love isn’t perfect. And when that fear takes root and we become afraid to speak about how intensely we love, want and need each other, what we are left with isn’t really love at all. It’s just a pale shadow of what could be.
Loneliness abates when it is met with connection and community. It eases when we hear, “You are not alone. I want you. I need you. I love you. We can walk this road together. We won’t always walk it perfectly – sometimes we will be stumbling more than walking – but I will be with you.”
So maybe, just maybe, choosing to admit that we’re lonely – taking that first trembling step of courage – is the best place to start.