Building bridges in intimate lonelinessWritten by Tom Peters
What's inside this article
Recently I came across a treasure in the Walmart entertainment aisle. Tucked into a massive bin was an album filled with potent love songs (at least they were potent to me). One brief transaction later, my love connection feelings were elevated, and I was singing:
“So, you think you’re lonely
Well my friend, I’m lonely too
I want to get back to my city by the bay
Oh, oh, oh . . .”
Maybe it’s the harmony – or maybe all the associations I have to the long-haired, love-soaked times of my adolescent years – that makes me fond of this song. It certainly is carried by my imagination, though, for I live a very long way from any bay.
“It’s sad, oh, there’s been mornings out on the road without you
Without your charms
Ooh, my, my, my, my, my”1
Being out on the road as a musician may not be an experience for many of us, but loneliness has likely hounded us all. We carry around a heart that is aching to be known, felt in a way that warms us from the distances we feel in our relationships. It’s a longing for that deep inner touch.
And the closer we are in the relationship, the deeper the pangs of loneliness can be.
Loneliness has an object – we are lonely for someone. It’s not in the vacuum of relationship that loneliness is activated; it is in the presence of love that is unfelt, apart. Separated by distance, perhaps, as the song suggests, but I believe there are many paths that lead to lonely hearts and many ways that hearts fail to touch each other. Perhaps the biggest loneliness of all is when our heart is disconnected in our family or our marriage.
Like the way a heart feels in conflict. Or in a place of communication stalemate.
When our words fall to the ground instead of entering the heart of our spouse, there is a sadness that comes. A sadness that is more difficult to accept, since the heart is fashioned to be known. Being away as a road musician would be easier to understand than feeling distance when you are in the same room or the same bed. There is a betrayal our heart feels in that kind of loneliness. It’s like it just doesn’t belong there; it’s a misplaced experience within what is designed to be a unified bond.
We need a way back to the heart of the other.
Navigating intimate loneliness
Loneliness, like water on uneven ground, finds pockets in which to settle within our vast inner landscape. It can flow into our memories of closer times and bring the sting of what is missing in a repeating fashion. Loneliness visits us in the heart tugs of a movie. Loneliness comes calling in a waking spell during the night. The puddles can be difficult to dodge. Without some intention, loneliness will keep appearing within our path.
Understanding intimate loneliness
Within any relationship lies a course of obstacles. Obstacles arise from differing personalities that, at times, fail to see, agree and care for the other: tentative responding in uncertainty, careful responding in wounding, defensive responding in warfare. All of them put our hearts behind an invisible line of protection. Our heart is doing what it should under a real or perceived threat – it makes boundaries. It defends. It creates walls of safety. Walls that keep harm away and allow us to survive, heal and thrive behind it.
Our adversary stands ready to shred us, willing to use the ones closest to us for his bidding. Listen to the exhortation from Peter: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking for someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:8-9a).
While at our best, our heart is protecting us from hurt and its tragic effects. While at our worst, our heart perceives an attack when the kindness of life feels like danger. All the while, retreat from a stance of protection is only possible when the heart is convinced of safety. And while it waits, wonders, putting out feelers to check, loneliness is our companion.
Loneliness lasts until the safety of empathy comes.
The term “waiting well” describes the stance that feels lonely. Waiting for connection to return. Waiting for openness to shine in and out of our heart. Waiting for safety to return so we can be a clearer expression of who God made us to be. Waiting for an expression that is secure, hopeful and free of burdens. As we couch behind our protection, we can wait well by taking responsibility for our own heart as opposed to focusing on the unsafe person on the other side. When we own our experience, we are working in our wheelhouse, with our own inner life, where we have real access and power.
Managing intimate loneliness
Riding out the storm of loneliness, like the challenge of a road musician, is an act of faith. Faith in what is not present in our experience. Faith in what intimacy and love could be and has been. Keeping our emotional life tuned to the direction of love when loneliness has set in takes an intentional effort.
The writer of Corinthians exclaims, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8a). Love is the place to find hope and maintain our reasonable expectation that the pursuit is worthwhile.
Secondly, I don’t know of a more potent management tool for love than that of spiritual vibrancy. The deep experience of God’s love resources the heart to keep it out of sinkholes of loneliness. The trustworthy nature of God bridges the ravines where hard-to-hold emotions flow. “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). Our seeking will pierce the spiritual fog that settles into the lonely roads in the journey.
Perhaps the avenue that can be most easily overlooked is our care of the physical self. As a third aspect of staying in a lonely place well, it is a stance of caring, nurturing and cherishing our bodies. We have been given bodies bearing God’s image and we are carriers of his Spirit that is alive in us. It is a nurture that flows from the inside out. Wait well as you care for your body to honour God our maker. The stewarding of your physical self under the gaze of God is a gift you are giving to him.
A final aspect of managing our intimate loneliness is the intentional use of our minds. Paul challenges Timothy with the following perspective: “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). A balanced mind is in touch with the options, perspectives and nuances involved in matters of loneliness.
Owning intimate loneliness
Loneliness is not simply about the other person in your marriage. Loneliness tells a story of your own heart, even when the drama is being chosen by your mate. Rather than taking the powerless position of “only the victim,” loneliness can become a study of what is happening in the vast regions of your own heart.
Take a curious stance, one that is willing to pass on simply reacting and looks deeper into the feelings being stirred up within. Feelings like abandonment, betrayal and powerless. Hopes such as care, passion and intimacy. Or longings for trust, support and hope.
These feelings reside within you, moment by moment, and send you signals of what you treasure and value. These feelings are in the present, and within your reach to identify, examine and hear from. Memories are in the past, dreams are in the future, but these feelings are in the now. This is where you have real power. Power to own what your feelings mean to you. Power to let these feelings matter. Power to take responsibility for your own feelings.
Communicating intimate loneliness
Speaking up for your loneliness is a discerning and vulnerable step to take. It takes discernment to avoid blame in expressing our feelings. If there is responsibility on your spouse to own their part in a distress, they need to be the one to pick it up. The discerning spouse communicates in ways that can be received by the other.
An effective communication approach is speaking from one’s own experiential truth. “I feel” is an experiential truth. It focuses on what is currently true within you and it has the best chance of that feeling being affected in the interaction. “When this happens, I feel . . . ” “I feel . . . when you do this.” The strategy is simple, as simple as driving in one’s own lane on a highway. The art of staying in your own lane is the challenge. Deep feelings have ways of blinding us to our own communication.
What kind of companion has loneliness been for you? Feeling victimized in your disconnection? Bridge-building with feelings of loneliness creates a walkway through the feelings that flow and leads you forward. Give the intentional response an opportunity to help you in the journey.
If you would like to speak to someone about the loneliness you’re feeling in marriage, we encourage you to call our care and counselling team at 1.800.661.9800. Contact us Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. to set up a free one-time phone consultation with one of our in-house counsellors. You can also receive prayer and resource recommendations for your journey.
Another option for you and your spouse is our Hope Restored marriage counselling retreats. Over the course of several days, you and your spouse are guided by trained marriage therapists through a biblically based program designed for couples in crisis. Learn more by visiting HopeRestoredCanada.ca or call 1.833.999.HOPE (4673).
Tom Peters has been nurturing his passion for helping others over a 35-year journey. Tom earned his MA in Counselling Psychology and in addition to developing a private practice, Tom is a practicing counselling supervisor and a member of the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario. He is currently one of Focus on the Family Canada’s Hope Restored marriage therapists. Tom and his wife recently celebrated 29 years of marriage. They are parents to two married daughters, one son, and recently became grandparents.
1 Steve Perry Steve and Neal Schon, Journey, “Lights,” Columbia Records, 1978.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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