Even in the best relationship, you can sometimes feel alone. That sense of separateness is inescapable, but it doesn't have to be painful. In fact, it can be the place where strength begins.
A patient I'll call Kyra spent her therapy sessions talking about how disappointed she was with her husband. "Sometimes he feels so far away," she complained. The couple did not seem to have sexual problems, and the time she spent with him still made her happy; there was just not enough of it. Sitting in my office, Kyra was confused. Loneliness was not what she expected from her three-year-old marriage. "If this was a good relationship," she said, "I wouldn't feel this way." But it was hard for me to see how the marriage could be much better without completely changing the personalities of the hard-working husband and sensitive wife.

"I just don't want to feel second," Kyra insisted, as she told me how upset she got when her husband interrupted dinner to take a phone call from his cousin. It reminded her of how she used to feel when she was a child and her mother and sister would talk animatedly with each other. She would tug on her mother's sleeve but be ignored. She thought those feelings of being neglected were behind her—she had found the man she loved, and he was her friend as well as her lover. But now she was filled with doubt.

The dawning of loneliness is a very strange time in a relationship. It can be a sign that something is wrong—but this is not always the case. One of the age-old truths about love is that while it offers unparalleled opportunities for union and the lifting of ego boundaries, it also washes us up on the shores of the loved one's otherness. Sooner or later, love makes us feel inescapably separate.

While I was sympathetic to Kyra's needs for intimacy, I felt there was something potentially destructive in her longings for closeness. Like many people who appear to have it all, she was getting in the way of her own happiness.

Most of us are brought up to think the key to happiness lies outside ourselves. We look forward to falling in love, having a family, making a career, or building a dream house, and we expect that these levels of accomplishment will be enough. But often we find that when one level of need is satisfied, another takes its place.

We respond to those new needs in a variety of ways. The most common response, as Kyra discovered, is to try to squeeze more juice out of what we have. This is what Kyra seemed to be doing in wanting her husband to pay more attention to her. Another strategy is to try to override the feelings of loneliness by turning to food, drugs, alcohol, or extramarital affairs. This is the path of compulsion, and its casualties are legion. The third reaction is to turn against what we need. If Kyra was unable to get her husband to give her more attention, she might withdraw from or disparage him sexually, driving him further away. This could bring the marriage to a stalemate, increasing the chances of her seeking happiness through the attention of another man. But she would eventually face the same predicament in her next relationship.

"Love is the revelation of the other person's freedom"


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