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…
A KID NAMED LONELY
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.
OUR LONELINESS CRUTCHES
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.
THE MARRIAGE CRUTCH
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?
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.
THE LONELINESS UN-SOLUTION
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.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.