When “1” isn’t the loneliest number

From fairytales to our nagging aunt, we are consistently told that we need to find our soulmate, get married and settle in for the rest of our life in order to find true bliss. So engrained is this idea of marital heaven that even long-time non-married couples face incessant pressure to bite the bullet, hand over copious amounts of money for a “who did it better” wedding extravaganza and say “I do”.

Those of us who are married, or who have been married, can probably all attest to the fact that there’s a pretty good reason why most romantic movies roll the credits once the happy couple falls in love and decide to get hitched. It’s because what comes after “I do” is usually “What did I do?” – at least at some point.

Married life is not usually the stuff of blockbusters for good reason. It’s hard, it can get monotonous and the most depressing part is that many of us find ourselves in this weird world of a) competing for who has it the worst with our annoying/lazy/inconsiderate/fill-in- your-own- negative partner and b) feeling like everyone else is doing it right (ps. thanks Facebook for popularizing those “5 years ago I married my best friend” posts).

We’re also fed false hope that once we get married and have little kiddies we won’t feel lonely anymore, something that many of us struggle with in adult life. Well, I’m here to suggest the opposite: most married people feel lonely (and often) we’re just not encouraged to say it.

A culture of overachievers and social media stars has led us to feel like we always have to shine our brightest. Yes, we’ve made progress on breaking down stereotypes around mental health and couples therapy is not the taboo it once was but there’s still a lot of work to do around the false ideal of marriage and becoming parents.

We shame ourselves and each other for many things that are just normal parts of being human, such as not having never-ending patience for our kids or wondering if we really did make the right choice to walk down the aisle instead of running full speed out the church door a-là Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride. We stress ourselves out with our attempts at being the best employee, the most involved parent, the domestic queen and quite frankly it’s making us go just a little bit mad. Instead of putting our efforts into fostering the relationships we already have, we feel the constant need to go further, be better and show off more. The consequence of this that the family unit we have created may suffer. Even when we know its wrong, our public persona doesn’t let us admit that we just can’t do it all while being actually happy.

Loneliness affects a large portion of the population with the percentage of people affected by it increasing every year. Many studies point to causes such as social media and an increased use of technology that replaces our social interactions. This makes sense, as loneliness is not solely the result of a lack of social interaction or friends, but rather due the quality of the relationships. This could explain why people within unhappy marriages or social unions feel lonely in a very significant way. For anyone who has ever gone through a rough patch with a partner, it is easy to start to feel like you’re the only one who isn’t doing it right – for every smiling picture of a family you see on Instagram, you start to feel like yours is the only marriage that just can’t keep it together.

And from there the vicious cycle can start: you have a few fights with your spouse, you start to feel like maybe you’re alone in this, you look around everywhere and find only reinforcement that yes, you are the only one fighting. No one talks about the troubles their having with their partner at coffee dates or girls’ nights out and you feel like you can’t bring it up either. You lie in bed at night; eyes wide open as you stare at the ceiling wondering how you’ve grown so far apart from the person next to you that you once loved so much. Unable to be truthful about it, you push the problems down further until the gap is just too wide to recover from.

It’s a rough feeling but it’s not necessarily a permanent one. It could be the start of a much-needed divorce but it could just be the same rough patch that EVERY SINGLE COUPLE GOES THROUGH. And if you’re sitting smugly at your computer while reading this, thinking “You shouldn’t lump us all in the same boat. I’ve certainly never felt this way”, I hate to tell you that your spouse might not be thinking the same thing. Not to sound disrespectful but in the quest for honesty, I don’t want to hold back.

I’m not calling for an all-out, “let’s air all our dirty laundry in public” field day. What I am saying is that it’s time we take a step back and look to ourselves for our own satisfaction. It’s in loving ourselves and those closest to us that we can begin to feel less lonely. It is this very reason why we have to stop looking to marriage and children as a quick save to loneliness and feelings of sadness- single people with strong friendships can often feel less lonely that married couples with multiple children.

Professional Counsellor Karen Rigatti advises couples, especially inter-cultural couples on issues exactly like this one. She offers the following advice for couples and parents facing loneliness issues:

“It can be helpful to remember that the years of raising small children (0-5) are often some of the most trying and, in some ways, unhappiest for couples.  This might seem counterintuitive, since many of us grew up thinking that finding a partner and entering parenthood would not only equal personal success, but would also somehow erase any sense of being alone.  However, it is precisely during this time when two parents can often feel both lonely and totally overwhelmed.  And since you didn’t see it coming (and since there is still far too little open dialogue on just how hard and lonely the early years of parenting are), it can be easy to feel ashamed, disillusioned and completely let down.  This is when it’s important to lower the bar.  It’s ok to feel lonely and it’s ok to feel disappointed.  And it’s so important to remember that it’s hard and lonely at times for everyone.

Instead of thinking it should be easier and you shouldn’t feel this way, by giving yourself permission to feel exactly as you do, and by readjusting your expectations (little by little), you can begin to change both your perspective and your experience, as a partner, as a mom and as a person.  Loneliness is a part of life, whether you have a house full of people or not.  The expectation that it goes away just because we grow up, get married and have children, is what gets us into trouble.”

If you’re feeling like you’ve found yourself in a situation in which you feel lonely but unable to reach out for help, take a deep breath and remind yourself of the most important message: you are certainly not alone! Contacting a friend or family member about how you’re feeling will likely open your eyes to the fact that so many of us feel the same. If you really do feel unable to talk to someone close by, check out online services. Many life coaches and counsellors even offer distance sessions via Skype or Facetime so that you can even connect with someone who may not be part of your immediate community. This can alleviate a lot of worries about ending up in the supermarket aisle next to the person you’ve opened up to!

Check back with us for Part 2 of this series regarding Social Media pressure and the damages of oversharing online.

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Karen Rigatti is an American, living in Milan, Italy since 2008. She is a Certified Professional Counselor, working with ex-pats (individuals and couples), helping them develop more effective communication and coping strategies, to better manage interpersonal challenges and embrace the changes in their lives. She is a member of the American Counseling Association and AssoCounseling, in Italy

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