Consider This is a column focused on how important elements of a woman's life look in single life and in marriage. This week, we're considering what it's like to experience loneliness as single and married women. One single woman and one married woman have written essays, to be published on different days. On a third day, they respond to each other's experience. The single woman's essay is here. Read their responses here.
I’m really good at scanning a restaurant menu and quickly finding the best thing on it. It took a couple years for my husband to defer to my expertise in this area after realizing he was jealous of my meals 90 percent of the time we ate out. (Only at delis do we respectfully disagree; he goes for the BLT, and I’m a Reuben gal.)
But in other areas of life, I’m not so good at knowing myself. I’m the middle child in a large, assertive family. Growing up my opinions were rarely heard and merely added to the noise (and there was a lot of noise). A lifetime of suppressing my preferences to keep the peace had at least one implication for my own marriage. I was accustomed to making decisions based on the good of the herd and was terrible at identifying my own desires—which led to my first experience of loneliness in marriage.
We dated long distance for about a year before the wedding. This put us in the habit of dropping everything for jam-packed visits filled with day trips and spending every waking minute together. So when we finally got to live together, I had no way of relating to my husband that involved our individual interests. I generally ignored the quiet voice suggesting that I read a new book, begin a painting, or go to a history museum. All of our time had to be time together. And although I began to feel the effects of that, I didn’t properly diagnose the cause.
A couple months into our marriage, we woke up one Saturday, and my husband wanted to work on an old coding project he’d paused for a long time (he’s a computer geek, in the best way). He said as much, I assented, and then he just pulled out his computer and started working. I moseyed around and tidied up our home, which didn’t take long since it was a studio. He kept coding. I organized my inbox, scrolled my phone for a bit, and pulled up an article from The Atlantic. Still coding. I gathered snacks and water for a later adventure, assuming he would do his thing for no more than a hour, and then we could go explore together. But he continued coding.
So my internal torrent of accusations against him began: “How selfish. Doesn’t he realize his bachelor days are over, and he can’t just do whatever he wants whenever he wants? Time to buck up and sacrifice a little, buster!” (Never mind that he’d barely touched a computer in months and hadn’t left my side.)
“Why does he want to do something without me? I haven’t tried to do anything without him! Since this coding thing can’t be a shared experience, it should barely have a place in our marriage.” (It had taken up roughly two hours out of thousands thus far.)
“Is anything tech-related even a worthwhile endeavor? Computers are for practical use, not leisure. Really, he could have any hobby but this . . .”
Finally, I had a minor eruption. “What’s your plan for today? When do you expect to be done?” He looked up, obviously bewildered at my frustration. He shut the computer and said he’d pick it up another time, and what did I want to do? We didn’t talk too much about it and headed out to adventure together.
Maintaining closeness amid differences
Without consciously realizing it, I had been operating under a framework in which all the passions we brought into the relationship were subsumed into the marriage. Marriage meant I had found my person, who wanted all the same things I wanted so every experience could be a shared experience. I naively attributed all marital strife to a lack of understanding on this point.
But this extreme vision of our joint life was being challenged by the simple fact that my husband wanted to spend a couple hours doing something without me. I felt low-level panic and betrayal when I thought about how he a) wanted to do something solo and b) that something was related to computers, which were a necessary evil in my world. I was alone in my enlightened (read: stifling) viewpoint.
It took months and so many teary conversations for my husband to help me make all these thoughts explicit and then scrutinize them with a critical lens. Only after that could I articulate a more realistic vision of marriage.
First I needed to acknowledge that there were still two distinct people that made up “us.”
We both needed space to incorporate personal development back into life. In those first married months, I didn’t have the same healthy instinct he did to simply ask for “me time.”
My husband helped me see then that my hobbies, skills, and ideas were worth nurturing, that I was worth nurturing. And that did not come at the expense of our common good, but in fact made us both richer. He still reminds me that whenever time allows, I should feel free to pursue my interests.
This was the first of many times we’ve had to work through differences, large and small. Sometimes it’s easy for me to shrug and accept his preference. (BLTs aren’t so bad.) But other times his opinions catch me off guard and the Irreconcilable Difference Alert blares through my brain. But for me, communication is the difference between loneliness and understanding. If I get all my feelings out onto the table, we can sort them and make progress. If I withdraw, I only prolong the isolation.
Navigating loneliness in intimacy
Let me move on to a different experience of loneliness in marriage, a more intimate one.
We were both virgins when we got married, and I knew vaguely there might be a learning curve for sex. A few friends gave me advice leading up to the wedding, but I didn’t take it too seriously because, how hard could this natural thing be?
To be clear, we got the mechanics down quickly enough in the first few weeks. There was never any pain, and my husband tried to be a generous lover. The problem was mainly on my end; I had trouble receiving pleasure and couldn’t even come close to orgasm. And the longer this went on, the more frustrated I became. It was hard to identify what I liked, and I wondered if something was wrong with me. My husband made sure I felt loved, and he tried everything I asked for (and then some). But our experience of pleasure wasn’t mutual, which often left me feeling alone during and after sex, and we both hated that.
Lest you be inclined to still blame my husband, I’ll mention that it wasn’t uncommon for him to halt the production when he was getting very close to climax because he’d realize there were tears in my eyes. We’d debrief on how I was feeling, and then he’d let me decide if I wanted to continue. Honestly, he was a trooper.
We’d been married over a year. I read some things and learned that the orgasm gap still exists even in loving, committed relationships. I identified mental blocks that needed work from me: emotionally connecting with him before we started, not worrying about how I looked during sex, focusing on physical sensations with as much mindfulness as I could muster, ignoring invasive thoughts about my to-do lists. My husband and I tried to put things I was learning into practice.
We had a baby. Then our second anniversary came and went—still no success. I remember a particular week around that time when the situation appeared rather bleak. As I sobbed, my husband asked if any of my female friends could offer support. But I had already tried to discuss it with three close friends, and none had experienced my same inhibitions. I was embarrassed to bring it up with anyone else because it seemed like I was the only one.
Somehow I stumbled upon a podcast in which four middle-aged women discuss their experience of love, marriage, and sex. I’d take long walks in the evening and listen to these hyper-personal conversations. Whenever I passed a jogger or someone walking their dog, I’d frantically check to make sure it was playing through my earbuds and not the speaker. Two of the hosts had really struggled with pleasure and orgasm in their younger years. Listening to these women two or three decades older than myself chat every week was exactly what I needed.
Statistically, I knew I wasn’t alone. But with Hollywood images of women overcome with sexual desire for their love interests combined with the three friends who hadn’t struggled in this department, I felt alone. Yet hearing the real voices and experiences of women like me gave me hope.
If I were only talking about loneliness, the story would probably end here. But in case you’re wondering, it was during that third year of marriage that we had a breakthrough. And since then, mutual satisfaction is a regular part of our sex life.
This second kind of loneliness couldn’t be solved by communication with my husband. Processing all of it together did bring us closer, and his full cooperation was crucial for us to get where we are today. But it was the common experience of other women who knew this disappointment and frustration firsthand that encouraged me to keep trying. If I had learned to enjoy sex but had never found these women, I’m convinced that part of me would still feel alone.
Overall, marriage has removed much of the loneliness in my life. Having my person has meant most things become a shared experience, though we now devote healthy amounts of time to personal hobbies. And when we don’t see eye-to-eye, I’m getting better at trusting that we’ll find a solution even when I’m tempted to withdraw. And as for experiences that are singular to me and that my husband can’t fix by himself, I have precedent for outsourcing my heartache to friends or even strangers until I find someone that can show me I’m not the only one.
Do you have an experience of loneliness that you'd like to share? Tell us here and your response may be published by Verily at a later date.