We are born helpless. As soon as we are fully conscious we discover loneliness. We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves. — C.S. Lewis
Sometimes I’m startled by an aching sense of loneliness, and it happens to me at the oddest of times: when sitting with a group of beloved girlfriends, at the dinner table with my family, or even across from my husband on a date night.
No one would know it; I appear to be the quintessential extrovert putting myself out there with all the people doing all the things. I live life happily married, honored to mother two beautiful girls, surrounded by enriching friendships, and privileged to be part of a vibrant church community.
And yet, even surrounded by loved ones, I find myself occasionally lonely just the same.
I’ve come to call this phenomenon the “ebb” of relationship, where previously deep connection dwindles dangerously close to disappearance, and I’m left wandering in relational doldrums.
Most harrowing is when my husband and I slip out of our typical relational “flow” and into the daunting dry-spell of a relational “ebb.”
Have you been there, too? In this place where you share the same space with your spouse, but your hearts feel worlds apart?
I’ve come to expect this rhythm of relationship, and I’ve learned a little about how to reverse the relational retreat. Surprisingly, it involves inviting people into what Adam S. McHugh in his book The Listening Life calls a “profound act of hospitality.” It’s where we request the company of another person in order to hear all they have to say. An important aspect of this listening is that we provide a secure space for the other person to be heard.
When my friends drop in for a visit, I ask them in, make them some tea, and hope they’ll sit awhile. I want them to feel welcomed and comfortable, and I’m hopeful and expectant that authentic sharing will ensue. I’m deliberate about doing this with my daughters, too.
However, I’m ashamed to say that when my husband and I are disconnected, I’m not as quick to extend him this same hospitality. Why? The reasons vary: I’m too busy; he’s too busy; I’m annoyed; he’s annoyed. Honestly, if I’m not careful, I will sometimes go out of my way to offer just about everyone BUT my husband a congenial and secure space of hospitality.
Familiarity with one another in the marital covenant develops such a high level of comfort that we may slowly begin to forgo the pleasantries of hospitality toward one another, replacing them with second-rate bits and scraps of attention making it nearly impossible to share deep-seated intricacies of the heart.
Marriage, perhaps more than any other relationship, should be the place most sheltered and out of harm’s way where a person is welcomed into a hospitable, emotional oneness. It’s here where the private, gracious sorting out of heart issues should take place. Unfortunately, the opposite is often the case.
In his book Social, psychologist Matthew D. Lieberman explains that, “In Eastern cultures, it is generally accepted that only by being sensitive to what others are thinking and doing can we successfully harmonize with one another so that we can achieve more together than we can as individuals.” In fact, his examination of research in social neuroscience indicates that our need to connect with other people is more basic than our need for food or shelter.
It follows, then, that if we refuse to pursue and build emotional oneness with our spouse, we will seek emotional connectedness elsewhere.
After 25 years of marriage, I’ve come to understand that relational ebbing and flowing is a natural, normal rhythm between spouses. I need not be frightened when a relational distance occurs between us; instead, I need to intentionally pursue my husband, invite him into my space to sit awhile, and then listen — really listen — to what he has to say.
In short, I need to extend to my spouse the same profound act of hospitality that I’m so quick to offer everyone else.
Praying you, too, will extend profound acts of hospitality to your spouse.