“I have everything. So, why do I feel so bad?”
By Jeff Zimmerman, Ph.D. and Lauren Behrman, Ph.D.
Your children are healthy, your partner is kind, you have friends and basically there is enough money. You have it all, but yet feel empty, alone and not understood. You feel disconnected; especially from your spouse and wonder, “What am I doing here? Should I be married?” These are thoughts you keep to yourself. You dare not give them voice for fear of starting an emotional avalanche that threatens to overwhelm you and those you love. You walk around going through the day-to-day motions of life, participating but yet emotionally removed and distant, as the internal confusion grows to turmoil. “What’s wrong with me? Why am I so unhappy?” you ask.
You are not alone. Countless people ask these questions as they wonder, “What went wrong,” and “Why is the luster off of life?” They wonder if their feeling of being in love with their partner was simply an illusion or part of a honeymoon. They don’t understand the big picture and the common platitudes that say, “Be happy with what you’ve got,” and “Isn’t it good enough?” Their unhappiness continues.
Feeling good and whole in a relationship is not about “having it all” or it being “good enough”. It’s not even about simply loving your partner or being loved. It’s about the emotional connection between the two of you and how that connection is honored and cared for. Assuming that the emotional connection will grow by itself without specific attention to nurturing it, is equivalent to leaving a once healthy plant in your living room without ever stopping to add fertilizer or water.
In the hustle bustle of blending the demands of child-rearing with careers, running a household, countless logistics, home repairs and socializing, couples often have little quality time to themselves to pay attention to their own emotional connection. Some may say, “I love you” to each other, others may not even speak those words. The words may be said in a rote and perfunctory way, having little impact on nurturing the emotional connection between them. They’re “too busy” with life, recreation, movies and television to see the relationship wilting before their eyes. Perhaps it took so long to become aware of the slow death of the relationship because of their efficient day-to-day functioning and love for one another.
Perhaps you weren’t aware of the early warning signs in your relationship. Perhaps you were not in touch with your own soul and needs, as the soft voice within was drowned out by the hustle-bustle of the day and the rules that you learned in childhood telling you about doing the right thing, tolerating pain, etc.. The wilting or starving of the relationship can be exposed by the uneasiness you feel. It’s not that something is wrong with you. It’s that you may be becoming conscious of a deep inner need that has been neglected for far too long.
The important point however, is to take healthy and constructive action. The longer you wait, the more your emotional needs do not get addressed, the distance grows, resentment builds and the likelihood increases of an eventual terminal fracture in the relationship.
Psychotherapy can be an important step in the process. It’s not because you’re “crazy” – far to the contrary. Psychotherapy can provide a safe environment to truly get in touch with your emotional side (that “soft voice”) and needs that are often neglected or ignored. It can give you an opportunity (with an objective nurturing third party) to look at your feelings and your situation and weigh your options.
For example, you can explore your feelings about committing to rebuilding the relationship in a way that celebrates the love between you, while recognizing that neither of you totally fit each other’s idealized view of the perfect partner, Intensive marital therapy or couples workshops might be the course of action to try to shift the communication and interaction patterns , and develop skills and practices that will help build and sustain a more intimate and deeper renewal of your emotional connection.
On the other hand, quite sadly you might need to explore the possibility of ending the marriage while preserving a sense of family. You might struggle with the meaning of your vows against the feeling that marriage is becoming a “life sentence”. This is can be an intensely painful internal dialogue which might reverberate over and over as you keep it inside your own consciousness. Albert Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it.” Opening up this dialogue with the help of a skilled therapist to assist you in tolerating these difficult thoughts and feelings, without a bias towards a specific outcome, can free you to explore these feelings in a safe and contained way.
It is possible to maintain a deep sense of emotional connection in your primary relationships. There are skills and practices that can help assure this. Yet, they are not often discussed as our culture tends to think love will be enough (see our next article in this series). Building and restoring deep emotional connection is often the most essential ingredient to feeling alive, feeling equipped to cope with life’s challenges and losses, and experiencing a deeper sense of truly having the sustenance that nurtures your emotional needs.