Updated: Oct 20, 2021
“I never feel lonelier than when my husband and I spend time together.”
This is about the unbearable loneliness of trying to connect with your partner, and failing. Now there's hope here, but only if we face the truth.
We’re hearing a lot about this these days, what with Hagai Levi’s Scenes from a Marriage appearing on HBO, starring Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac. This is a remake of the legendary, earth-shaking original by Ingmar Bergman by the same title. And by earth shaking, I’m not kidding. After Bergman’s series aired on Swedish TV, divorce rates in Sweden spiked.
Because for the very first time in history—seriously!—a marriage was shown not in the hyperdrama of infidelity or the silliness of sit-comedy but in the not-thought-dramatizable drama of distance and disconnection. It’s like that part of Citizen Kane where we see Kane’s marriage to Emily dissolve into silence and loneliness over a series of scenes of them at breakfast.
Scenes from a Marriage turns this image into six hours of film.
Agnes Callard’s recent New Yorker article, “The Problem of Marital Loneliness,” implies that we, today, almost fifty years after the Bergman take on this, can’t bear the full reality of his vision of marital loneliness. She says,
Marriages are enclosed by an opaque shell; we don’t tend to talk, publicly, about how they reverberate with the buzz of disconnection. “Scenes from a Marriage” cracked open this shell, exposing—and here I borrow Bergman’s own phrasing—how the married couple responds to each “dimly sensed rift” with “makeshift solutions and well-meant platitudes.”
And Callard goes on to imply that Levi’s vision is watered down and sweetened up. I don’t know; I haven’t seen the Levi version yet. Maybe we can’t bear too much reality.
But I know this. When I called this piece on marital loneliness “Screams from a marriage,” I wasn’t exaggerating. Yes, there are the “we can’t talk to each other because we always end up in a fight” marriages. But far more common are scenes like this one from the first year of my marriage.
We’d gone to a party. Afterwards, on the way home, I wanted to talk about everything that had happened. Who said what to whom. What so and so said about such and such. How so and so looked. I was prepared for, eager for, a good ninety minutes of talk about that party. I asked my incredibly verbal, articulate, analytic husband what he thought about the party.
“It was nice.”
“Anything else?” I asked.
“No, that’s it,” he said, and started to change the subject.
I don’t know: he’s never slapped me or walked out on me, but I think this felt worse than those things would have. I felt desolated and abandoned. Plunged into a pit of loneliness from which I felt I might never get out. Makes you want to holler.
Now there are strategies for sort-of coping with the disconnect. I talk about what I want to talk about and you pretend to listen, while you talk about what you want to talk about and I pretend to listen. (This is actually what a lot of socializing consists of!) But in a marriage, too much of this, over too long a period, just heightens the sense of loneliness.
Another strategy is that we find the handful of topics we know we’re both interested in. This can be good if those are interesting topics! Tragically, though, they are all too often mundane topics like what we need to get next time we go shopping—interesting enough for the moment but of no real interest to anyone. Or else they’re riveting, but only because we so passionately disagree, like questions about how to bring up or kids or how much we need to put aside for retirement or how crazy your sister is.
Now for the ultimate hard truth. We might entertain the fairy tale that we’re both wildly interesting people but, curse it, our partners just aren’t interested in the wildly interesting things we have to say. Silly people, those partners!
But what if most of us just aren’t all that interesting?
I’ve spent decades overhearing conversations in restaurants, and I’ve never heard one—not one!—I thought was interesting!! They’re almost all just people telling each other what they did in far more detail than necessary (which we put up with so we can tell them what we did), or else offering glib, ill-founded opinions followed by no real discussion. How is that interesting?
So why don’t we face the hard truth. What we call loneliness is in huge measure the incredible difficulty we face coming up with having anything interesting to say to anyone we’re with year after year. There. I’ve said it.
But there is a solution to this terrible problem.
The heart of life, the throbbing heartbeat of life, is what we truly care about. To be an interesting person is to be someone who cares about something. To be a very interesting person is to be someone who cares about something very interesting.
And for you and me to not be lonely together we have to have things we care about besides each other. Let’s call them shared carings.
The more shared carings we have, the better. Want to be less lonely together? Lengthen your list of shared carings.
The deeper our shared carings go, the better. This last one is key. Let’s say that you and I “care about the environment.” It’s not going to take us far for me to say, “Hey, did you read about...?” and for you to say, “Yeah, isn’t that outrageous!” if we have nowhere to go after that. Loneliness ends when people find a way to go past “Ain’t it awful...”
And the deeper I can go into the things you care about, the better. How have my husband and I stayed together happily so long? A lot of it lies in this last point. We’ve somehow managed to dig deep and find a flexibility and openness to the things the other cares about. In the process, we’ve both grown a lot as people. But to do this, you have to be able to stop saying, “I’m not like that.” My husband discovered he was, for example, an art history person. Suddenly, a forty-year long shared caring.
So yes, marital loneliness is tragic and horrible, but it’s not a terminal disease. It’s something that, if you want to stop being all tragic about it and start being constructive about it, you can make your cherished relationship better than you ever thought possible.
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The cover image is from Edward Hopper's Room in New York, 1932