Marriage is for Hopelessly Lonely People

Marriage and Loneliness

Photo Credit: Daquella Manera (Creative Commons)

Psychologists have a catalogue of disorders. It’s called the DSM, and it’s thicker than a Bible. But one dis-ease is not listed, and it’s the one that destroys marriages. It’s called loneliness. I want to tell you how it can corrupt a marriage, and why it may also be the answer to saving a marriage…


I want to tell you about a kid named Lonely. The kid is genderless and ageless and all-of-us.

He’s the little boy curled up in his dark bedroom, listening to the yelling in the kitchen below. She’s the little girl growing up in a house with vacant eyes and big-distracted people.

Lonely is the kid on the playground, staring at the impenetrable huddles of his peers.

Lonely is the boy waiting in the drizzle for the ride that isn’t coming.

Lonely is the girl whose boyfriend sees her body but not her heart.

Lonely is three touchdowns on Friday night and no one sober enough to share it with.

He’s the growing man in a freshman dorm, surrounded by noise and scared to death. She’s the first day of a new job and a bustling cafeteria but a table of one.

Lonely is the earnest effort to reveal your heart to your partner, and confusion on the face of the person you love.

As long as you are human and breathing, there is a little lonely kid with big eyes and a trembling heart somewhere inside of you.


Loneliness hurts. Like a badly sprained ankle. We may not be aware of it until we stand on it—until we try to live and love—and then the pain shoots through us.

A few torn ligaments in your ankle and there’s no way around it: you will need crutches. Our loneliness works the same way. But our loneliness-crutches aren’t made of wood. They’re made of popularity, sex, and achievement.

We think we can fill up the lonely places inside of us with a crowd. We seek popularity and numbers. We join the basketball team or the cheerleading squad. We act tough and attract a following. We collect a billion friends on Facebook. But we ultimately discover the lonely space is infinite, and no crowd is big enough to fill it.

We think we can erase the loneliness problem with sex. At the moment of orgasm, most people will describe a sense of oneness with their sexual partner, even if they don’t know their name. The distinction between self and other is erased and our loneliness is obliterated. For a moment. But by the time we wake up, our psychic walls have returned and we are lonely again. So, we become addicted to the sexual experience. We turn our partners into machines—dispensers of “oneness”—and when they fail to do so we go looking elsewhere.

We think we can conquer our loneliness with achievement. As lonely little boys and girls, we look around and the winners seem to be saturated with attention and adoration. So, we find something to conquer. We seek fame and wealth and accolades. Yet, when the admiration rolls in, the loneliness seems bigger than ever. We end up with big jobs and big houses and an even bigger hole gaping in our hearts.


We do our best to solve our loneliness problem, but our best efforts leave us even more alone than before. So, what do we do next?

We marry one person!

We concentrate our efforts. We expect one person to take away all of our loneliness. We try to be the cool kid in the marriage, or we expect our daily fix of sex, or we bring home the bacon or care for the home meticulously and think we have, finally, earned the companionship that will fix our loneliness.

But if the many can’t heal our loneliness, how can the one?

The answer?

They can’t.

Despite our best efforts, we will come to discover that, in this life, our loneliness can never be taken away completely. But the hopelessness of this possibility seems too much to endure, so instead we blame. We accuse our spouses of being defective. We get bitter and angry and resentful.

And in the process, we make our loneliness complete.


Marriage is not meant to be the place where our loneliness is taken away. It’s meant to be the place where we reveal our loneliness to another.

It’s not the place we eradicate our loneliness; it’s the place we make it available to someone else. Marriage is the place we feel a little less alone in the world because we discover we’re not the only one feeling alone in the crowd. In marriage, we don’t become free from loneliness, we become free for loneliness.

And the healing is in this: once you have made your loneliness available to your partner, you will no longer need to fix it. You will be able to touch it without fear and despair. You may feel hopeless to fix it, but filled with the hope that comes from being joined in it.

And this is love. Real love is not adolescent romance made eternal. Real love is two souls, lonely by nature and nurture, caring enough for themselves and each other to make their loneliness tangible to the other. No more crowds, no more sexual plunder, no more achievement. Just the courage of a naked vulnerability. The grace of two souls holding each other gently in their loneliness.

Isn’t the world desperate for this kind of light, this kind of communion?

Isn’t this the way we learn to minister to a world full of big eyes and trembling hearts?

May your marriage be a lonely one, may your companionship be complete in it, and may you bring that kind of radical love to a world that is hanging on to hope by the thinnest of threads.

Comments? Is this frustrating or freeing? Do you feel like it’s settling, or is it the solution to a lot of marital conflict and loneliness? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!

DEAR READER, If my marriage posts have resonated with you, I want to let you know I’m working on a new e-book, “The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down.” It will include an integration and expansion of several of the marital posts, as well as new content not available on the blog. You can find the cover art in the footer of the webpage. Also, the next Tuesday Tip will include some practical ideas for beginning to enter into our loneliness with our spouses. As always, I’m grateful for your readership. It’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly


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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Disclaimer: Kelly's writings represent a combination of his own personal opinions and his professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with him via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Kelly does not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accepts no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Catharine Phillips

    Lovely. Companionship in loneliness. This resonates with me. I am delighted you are writing The Marriage Manifesto. I look forward to reading it and hopefully using it to help further the conversation and strengthen marriages in my church community.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Thanks, Catharine!

  • jlanewell

    Let me start with, “Wow”. I grew up in a family that by most standards would be a very fortunate one. My parents will be married 55 years this December. I have one sister and two brothers. So there were always people around our house. We were a family that ate dinner every night together and went to church on Sunday’s. We were never rich but we always had enough to eat and we were always able to pay our bills. I learned at an early age about living on a budget. But even in that picture perfect family, I grew up lonely. I was a rules follower and I did not cause any trouble at all. I was the kid that kind of got lost in the chaos, invisible for most of my childhood. In a family of four kids, there were always more pressing issues than mine.

    I could relate to the loneliness you described. I would say that we could all fill in the blank how we dealt with it. I would say I spent my time trying to please my parents and trying to control any aspect of my life that I could. My older sister was the achievement child, my younger brother was a football star and although I played basketball in High School, I never did quite reach star status. So I learned how to put on a happy face and to be no trouble at all. I became invisible by denying my feelings and little by little I stuffed my real feelings deep down inside.

    I, like so many girls even today, bought into the idea of a prince charming and the fairy tale of happily ever after. Yes I did expect my marriage to be perfect. Yes I did expect my husband was going to be better than the other people in my life. He was going to love me enough to fix all the things that had been wrong in my life. Nothing tears apart a marriage faster than expectations and the resentment of unmet expectations. But the problem more than anything was my inability to open up and to share my loneliness and hurts. I had some pretty tall concrete walls around that part of my heart. Yet somehow I expected my husband to leap those walls and cure that loneliness. I was very certain that he was the one at fault for everything that went wrong in our marriage. I spent years telling him what he needed to do to fix our marriage. I blamed him for the problems in our marriage, and I spent many years wondering when he was going to get with the program so we would have that fairy tale life. “We get bitter and angry and resentful.” This sentence would sum up the beginning of my marriage.

    But all of that changed for me and for us the day the walls came down. I would say that maybe it was not my loneliness that I shared with my husband but my gut retching fear. We managed to reach out and be there for each other in our fear. He continued to open his heart to me in spite of years of my critical spirit tearing him apart. He loved me more. In that fear I let him into my loneliest moments in my life. I let him see the real me. Instead of greeting me with the same critical spirit I showed him, he helped me to see myself the way he sees me. I was someone worth loving, worth needing and mostly worth sharing his fears and concerns with. In that place we found hope to face the fear in front of us and the strength to get through it.

    Early in my marriage if I were to have read this article I would have been frustrated by it. It would be yet another way my husband was not meeting my needs. Now I find this freeing. There is something to be said to be in a relationship with someone who really knows you warts and all. I guess I think you will see this as frustrating or freeing depending where you are in your relationship with your spouse. I would challenge anyone who finds it frustrating to ask yourself whether you have truly let down that concrete wall and let your spouse into your loneliness or fear.
    This article gave me perspective. It was gave me the 6 ft high level view of the puzzle called my life. It has helped me to understand the why. It was like I have been looking at all the puzzle pieces and being too close to see the whole picture. This makes sense to me and I look forward to sharing this with my husband. I have to wonder if he too will have an ah-ha moment when I share this article with him.

    I am sure the journey of writing your book has been filled with twists and turns. I am happy for you. If it is anything like your blog, I am sure I will love it. I really enjoy the way you present the material, which enables me to think about things “outside of the box” and see them with fresh eyes. Thanks looking forward to Tuesday.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Jennifer, Your honesty (with both yourselves and others) is inspiring. Thank you for your comments here. I feel like they are a “real life” companion piece for the post!

  • Valerie

    Jennifer…I appreciate everything you said. I can relate. Doesn’t it seem silly/goofy now to try to 100% be the ‘good girl,’ when life is crazy, messy, gooey, etc? It’s like this ‘contest’ I bet my sister on when I was 14: try to eat a sloppy Joe without getting the outside of the bread stained. I was so proud of myself for doing such a ‘good job,’ and she was frustrated when it was really she who was living life well!

  • ORM

    I was a little confused by your post. I guess I was fortunate that I grew up in a family where my parents didn’t appear to be lonely. I had two brothers and sister and we did everything together and the love that my father showed my mother was wonderful that I was almost jealous. His affection was topped with the nickname Sapphire because he said she was a jewel. So i that’s what i thought marriage should be. I’ve been married for 16 years we have 2 children and I’ve been lonely to about 8 years. I have shared these feelings with my spouse. All I get is really I didn’t know. Really I’ve only been telling you for 8 years. You can’t work through something when only one person feels this way. His family life was the complete opposite. Single mom, two brothers different fathers. No real healthy relationship to mimic or relate to. So he is just winging it. Great provider we want for nothing, but even when he is here he’s not here.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for sharing this, and I’m sorry to hear about how difficult it has been to connect with your husband. It seems an on-going thread in comments across posts here at UnTangled is: what do I do if my partner doesn’t want to (or can’t) engage in the ways you describe? I think a post on that is long overdue, and I hope it will be helpful to you.

    • Kristy

      ORM, this is so where I am at at the moment. I fear retirement. Because when all we have is each other it could get very lonely. We have not done a very good job of building a life together. 2 separate lives running parallel. You can’t work through something when only one person feels this way.Exactly.

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  • Justin Thomas

    If you marry out of loneliness then you are a f-cking fool, which I assume 90% of people in our society are, as the whole idea of “marriage” has been co-opted by romantics and feminists.

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  • Joanna Landrum

    I disagree with marriage being the only place to solve our loneliness. Community in which we can be vulnerable is the place where we can also find another solution. I cannot fulfill my husband’s desires to be in the military community, and he cannot fulfill my desire to be in community of people whose goals are to help others (though he can join me in that community). We were designed to be in families, and not just the ones we were born or married into but also the ones who we can lay our souls bare with.

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  • Patty

    I like this. I like this because it said something to me in the middle. It said, “This is it! This is why you married the man you did, and also why you divorced him, and in addition why you want him back.” Thank you!

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  • Dr. Samantha Rodman

    great piece! someone on my facebook page ( linked to it in the comments of this thing i wrote: we should follow each other!

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