People get into marriage for a lot of reasons. One main reason is companionship; to have someone with whom you feel connected, someone to share life's burdens, sorrows, and joys with. Or generally to lessen the lonesomeness that can come with being single.
But what if this place you turned to hoping for love and emotional support turns out to be nothing like what you hoped for? What if you end up feeling emotionally abandoned, with no intimacy, detached, and uncared for?
Feeling alone while sharing life with a partner may sound impossible to single people, but relationship experts say it's far too common. According to surveys, some 40 percent of people know the pain of being lonely in relationships because they've been there at some point. Almost a third, or 31 per cent, of married people 45 years old and older report being lonely, according to a 2018 US national survey of adults.
Psychologist Guy Winch writes in Psychology Today that while about 20 per cent of people suffer from chronic loneliness, a 2019 study showed that more than 62 percent of those lonely people are married, and living with their spouse. "This is a sobering statistic because however much people want to say that loneliness is natural and normal, it's also very, very bad for us. It has devastating effects on our mental and physical health," says Dr. Winch.
Catherine's lonely union
Catherine Kipchamba has experienced loneliness in marriage firsthand. She met her husband in Nairobi when she was still at the university through a mutual friend. The year was 2015. She was 23, and in her second year at the university. He was 33. "All I recall is that we locked eyes, on that first meeting and there was an instant magical connection between us."
They were in love and he was going to be her life's partner, or so she assumed.
One thing led to the other and he asked her to move in with him. Still, in university, she accepted. After all, he worked and had offered to pay her school fees. A year down the road, she discovered she was pregnant. She couldn't wait to break the news. But the reception she got was not what she'd expected.
"His response will never escape my memory. 'You're too young to have a baby' he'd said," she recollects. "He asked me to have an abortion. I thought it was a joke until he took me to the hospital."
On the day the pregnancy was terminated, Catherine recalls her partner asking her to join him and his friends for a drink. "I was in pain and bleeding but he made me sit with him until 2 am as he drank."
This should have been a tell-tale sign for Catherine, but she wished her doubts away.
Following the procedure, Catherine's partner moved out of the bedroom and would sleep in the sitting room. "The abortion left me with very deep scars emotionally. I would have nightmares. At this moment when I needed solace from him, he chose to emotionally disengage. Things seemed to have made a 360 turnabout. When I spoke to him he didn't want to talk. I began to feel unwanted and alone and there was this big hole of emptiness in my heart," discloses Catherine who says that even though they went on to tie the knot in 2018 and have two babies in the years that followed, things were still not well within the marriage.
According to her the second year of their union was the beginning of a two-year-long journey of anguish, sadness, and loneliness in the relationship.
Beyond the usual turbulence that is to be expected of any marital relationship, in addition to the occasional beating, the callousness, denying her finances to run the household, her husband who travelled regularly-sometimes for lengthy periods would come home and not even say hello to anybody. "He'd return after being away for weeks, go straight to the bedroom and lock himself in," Catherine says of her now estranged husband.
Reproductive and sexual health expert, Prof Joachim Osur, attributes most disharmony in marriages to the natural cycle of a marital relationship. He explains that every relationship has to go through a cycle in which in the first phase the lovebirds just want to be with each other.
"In this phase, everything is very much hormone-driven. People become irrational and they just want to be with each other, show love, and have sex," says Prof Osur.
"But then this phase wears off and the relationship reaches a crisis phase where the hormones have now settled and the individuals are back to their normal senses. They start noticing all the imperfections and weaknesses of the other person," he says. "They start to notice better people out there. This stage is the most difficult because communication becomes very difficult. Parties withdraw from the relationship, sometimes even sexually. It is also at this stage that you start thinking about infidelity, and suspecting each other's infidelity."
This might be not true in Catherine's case, who never experienced marital bliss from the get-go.
Catherine says it's the fourth year of marriage that broke her. This is when her partner asked her to move out of their matrimonial bed. "I moved into the kids' bedroom. He also stopped talking to her completely and would plan everything with the house help including shopping lists and meal plans. "I think this was the most hurtful thing that could happen to anyone. He wouldn't even eat food I'd cooked. It is as if he intended to disgrace me completely. At this point, there was no intimacy."
Catherine, a stay-at-home mum speaks of frustration with her husband's refusal to attend therapy or talk things over whenever she tried to have a conversation to resolve issues. "We tried therapy but most times he just wouldn't turn up for the sessions. So in the end it was only me going."
According to Relationship, Marriage and family therapist, Prof Catherine Gachutha, "Sometimes a spouse who finds themselves in a lonely or loveless relationship may not have a lot of bandwidth to deal with an issue, because the other person may be detached and is not invested in the process. So the lonely partner continues suffering in their loneliness and feeling overwhelmed and overburdened they are the only ones putting in all the work."
End of intimacy
It may be that lack of sex is a signal that all intimacy in a marriage is over, and that both would be happier in other situations, some experts say. "I know that this may not be a popular idea with the religious groups, but it may be a better solution to leave than staying in a marriage that is hurtful and unfulfilling," says Denise A. Donnelly, a University Professor, who has studied sexless marriage.
Over the years Catherine, who has since separated from her husband after she came back home one day to find the gateman with instructions not to let her into their Nyayo Estate residence says she has tried reaching out to friends and family for help to no avail.
Part of the problem, sociologists say, may be the high expectations people have of marriage and their spouses in general. "A partner is expected to be the best friend, excellent lover, close intimate, fun entertainer, stimulating intellectual and more -- but one relationship was never meant to provide such a diverse fulfillment of needs," says Pepper Schwartz a sociology professor. The relationship and human sexuality expert advises couples to avoid being "enmeshed," or treating marriage as their primary social relationship, and look for other social connections from friends, family and support groups.
In Juja, Teresia, 45, is living through a lonely and sexless union, and says, "As we speak I've moved out of our matrimonial bed and into our daughter's bedroom."
Having been married for 20 years and endured the usual ups and downs of any marriage, she is contemplating leaving the marriage after her husband shut her out in January, the month he discovered that she had contacted some two friends of the family in America to stop them from channeling financial aid they were giving the family. She says her husband has been wasting money through drunkenness and infidelity.
"We're living like two strangers in the house. He has stopped talking to me and has denied me sex since. He has been masturbating in my presence," says the mother of four.
Catherine's and Teresia's stories seem to have become commonplace in numerous unions--so much so that they recently elicited debate on popular society Facebook pages--Ndungú Nyoro and Buyer Beware - all eliciting millions of comments from fans who weighed in on the matter by writing in their own experiences of loneliness.
"You can have a body right next to you, but if you feel that your deepest fears, thoughts, and needs are unseen, unheard, or unwanted by your partner, you feel lonely." Schwartz, says.
The lonely man
Benjamin Musila (not real name) said contrary to popular belief that only women go through spells of feeling abandoned, he was a testament that it could happen to men too. "I was the one that was left alone. It is as if my wife had packed her bags and I'd been left in the relationship alone. My wife of six years had emotionally distanced herself for most of the last two years of our being together. She had refused to talk to me and by then the marriage was devoid of any care and tenderness. She had refused to be intimate with me and would cook food enough for her and the children."
Prof Osur says because the descent stage when individuals in a relationship tend to drift apart is a normal phase in any relationship, couples should anticipate it and prepare for it.
"When couples are intentional in managing this dreadful phase, they will be ready. If not handled it can lead to withdrawal and even infidelity," advises Prof Osur. "Most divorces happen in this phase which lasts between 10 to 14 years. Although in some difficult cases this can extend to even 20 years."
He says managed well, couples often emerge from this phase and into a better, more stable phase of acceptance and realisation that even the other people they thought were better also have their imperfections.
"It is in this phase that relationships tend to get settled. And most even get into what is normally called the second honeymoon where they just want to show love and help each other's life goals."
What to do
Prof Osur advises couples to seek professional help from marriage and sex therapists.
But Prof Gachutha says spouses mustn't persevere in prolonged situations that hurt them psychologically.
"Women especially, choose to stay in a loveless, lonely, and rejecting relationship because they are still checking out what else they can better, sometimes because the penalties for women who leave a marriage are huge. Most women ask themselves whether leaving the marriage will deny the children an opportunity to be with their father. Also, they may be challenged financially," she notes.
"Singlehood does not disturb men as much it disturbs women and drawing from tradition women were given derogatory names if they were not married or are divorced. These are the things that make women stay in lonely marriages," she adds.
Like Osur, she advises couples to seek professional help before and during their union.
Top causes of loneliness in marriage
Here are some things that can cause partners to feel distant from each other and therefore feel lonely:
There's a lack of connection. At a certain point, the couple stopped being in alignment with each other. Partners feeling that they are not having enough sex, poor communication or lack of it, and money issues strain a couple's connection.
There's a lack of effort or attentiveness in the relationship. When couples fall into the monotony of daily life without making intentional time to connect as a couple, the relationship can begin to feel stale and lack affection.
Parental responsibilities are getting in the way. Spending all your energy on caring for others and not receiving any dedicated affection yourself can feel isolating, not to mention draining.
Partners are overly dependent on each other for feeling fulfilled. When married couples become too "enmeshed," or treat their marriage as their primary social relationship, it brings in a lot of pressure. You can't look for another person, whether that is your spouse, to fulfill you 110 per cent. You have to be happy with yourself. You have to give your own self joy. You have to have your own career goals. You have to have your own passions.
You are mismatched. The truth is some people were never meant to be together, and after the honeymoon phase wears off, their differences and world views pull them apart.
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