Restaurants have always been a prime location for people watching. You can tell a whole lot about a couple’s relationship by watching them have dinner together. Does the couple make eye contact, or do they barely look at each other? Are they engaged in conversation or are they constantly checking their phones? Does their body language convey interest, or does it show disengagement? Perhaps the most interesting couples to watch are the ones who dine in silence. Their eyes dart seemingly everywhere, without ever really coming to rest on the person sitting directly across from them. They may make a comment here and there, perhaps asking each other to pass the salt, or to flag down the server, but never say more than a few sentences to each other. You can also usually surmise which of these couples is in the midst of a fleeting argument and which of these couples dine like this regularly. Despite the fact that they are dining together at one table, their loneliness is palpable.
Some relationships can be like that. Spouses are together, but their togetherness does not cause either of them happiness or fulfillment. Instead, they are together, perhaps merely physically or in relationship terms, but they are not truly together. They are however, lonely together.
Loneliness can significantly impact a relationship in addition to having an emotional impact on the partners comprising the relationship. Loneliness can happen gradually, as disconnection from the relationship can intensify and worsen over time. Spouses stop talking about topics that really matter, such as their individual or combined wishes, dreams, fears, hopes, and goals. Instead, mundane topics take their place and focus on the logistical day to day activities, such as parenting, paying bills, picking up the dry cleaning, or choosing what to have for dinner. This type of daily routine creates more and more distance in the relationship, as partners grow further and further apart, sometimes without even realizing it.
Most individuals tend to stay in unhappy relationships to avoid the loneliness that would likely result from the dissolution of the relationship, especially for those who have been together for quite some time. However, paradoxically, these individuals unknowingly end up being just as lonely, if not more so, from staying in the unhappy relationship.
Thankfully, partners can rectify the loneliness in their relationships if both parties are willing and invested to try. Individuals need to initiate a conversation about their feelings and about subjects that really matter. Partners should attempt to break old habits by changing them. Instead of watching television in opposite rooms, one partner should abandon their television in order to join their partner with theirs. Individuals need to work on re-establishing the connection in the relationship while being mindful of their partner’s feelings and perspectives. Partners need to be more aware and vigilant to each other’s needs, while being open to hearing and rectifying what may be lacking. Partners should attempt to add spontaneity and fun back into their relationships by thinking outside of the box and by doing something fun. Individuals need to improve communication by making eye contact and by truly hearing what their partner has to say.
Although it seems absurd, sitting next to your partner in a busy restaurant while having dinner can be one of the loneliest places to be. You may be around lots of people and sitting at a table with a person that you have known for decades, but still feel as if you are the only person in the room. Unfortunately, it might be easier for people watchers to identify the loneliness that is apparent in a relationship better than the couple themselves.
Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.