The Eight Symbols of Isolation

Every day each partner in a marriage makes choices that result in oneness or in isolation.

by Dennis Rainey

The following story expresses how Barbara and I feel many days:

My husband works a night shift, while I work days. Thus our cars always pass going in opposite directions on a street just a few miles from our house. When we pass, we both yell, "I love you!" One day, after our rush-hour rendezvous, a man who had obviously witnessed this scene several times pulled up beside me at a stoplight. "Hey, lady," he said, "you two seem to like the looks of each other pretty well. Why don't you stop and introduce yourselves sometime?"

Loneliness. It's been around since the beginning of man and woman's creation. But it seems to be gaining momentum as we race into the next century on a sphere teeming with five billion plus inhabitants. A veteran member of the Billy Graham Crusade team told me recently that the number one need that Dr. Graham speaks on is loneliness.

The soul was not created to live in solo. We yearn for intimacy. And marriage is where most people hope they'll find it. The tragedy is that few couples achieve it. Some experience intimacy to a degree, but for many, marriage becomes what Woody Allen cynically described as "the death of hope."

Throughout our culture symbols of isolation can be found. Here are a few I've observed in different marriages over the years.

Symbol #1: "No trespassing"

Paul and Michelle's marriage has steadily grown during their 25 years together. They communicate well and have worked through several difficult problems. They are relaxed around one another and are considered by many to have a model marriage.

But over the years they have become alienated from one another because of an unsatisfying sex life. Too proud to seek counsel, they find they can't discuss the subject any more—the area is declared off limits—and "NO TRESPASSING" signs now replace welcome mats.

Symbol #2: A ticking clock

Near retirement, Ben and Mary have raised their family and now they are proud of their new grandchildren. Their marriage of 35 years has withstood time. But neither of them recognizes the silence that has crept into their relationship.

Their children know about it, though. Growing up, they felt the loneliness between their parents at points of unresolved conflict and misunderstanding. They saw Dad give his life to his job and Mom pour her life into the kids. And now, when they come to visit, it's evident there isn't much of a relationship left.

Instead, the silence in their home is broken only by the occasional squeak of a rocking chair and the tick, tick, tick of a clock.

Symbol #3: Crowded calendar

Steve and Angela are both aggressive professionals, actively involved in civic responsibilities and their church. But ever since they started their family, they've noticed a difference in their marriage.

Those walks and late-night talks that they used to enjoy have disappeared. They're too whipped—they now live for the weekends. Fatigue is taking its toll and has left little energy for romance.

With their children adding their own set of escalating "priorities," they feel even more pried apart by their driving life-styles. Their lives only touch at points—when their paths cross.

Symbol #4: Locked doors

Bill and Teresa have only been married for six months, but they have already hurt each other deeply. The dream and hope of intimacy is already fading in the darkness behind locked doors where they have withdrawn.

Bill was able to open up during their engagement, but now he finds it difficult to share his feelings. He feels trapped within the limitations of his personality. Teresa craves intimacy and desperately wants to be his partner in life. She can't get in and he won't come out.

Symbol #5: Excess baggage

Because both Bob and Jan came from broken homes, they were determined their marriage would be different. But although they have talked many times, neither has grasped the impact their parents' divorces had on them.

Without a good marriage model embedded in their minds, they make great progress in their marriage, but are unaware of how much excess baggage both really carry. Fear, anger, and a feeling of worthlessness all surface occasionally, but they are quickly stuffed into overloaded bags.

Symbol #6: The TV dinner Walter and Jeanne both work some distance from their suburban home, so when they arrive home they have fought rush-hour traffic after a long workday. Both become mesmerized by a steady diet of TV dinners or take-out food, eaten during the evening news and digested with the weekly sitcoms. Without realizing it they are beginning to shut one another out of their lives.

Their five-year marriage isn't in trouble, but later after they start having children she'll feel she's become a widow to a seasonal selection of football, baseball, and basketball, not to mention his hobbies of golf, fishing, and hunting. She's lonely. And he doesn't even know it.

Symbol #7: A divided highway

Sue and Tim are in their 18th year of marriage and it looks great to all on the outside. But they are going in different directions while attempting to raise their children.

One is too lenient—the other too strict. One is a perfectionist; the other is not. One tends to be critical, the other too patient.

Now that their kids are teenagers, intimacy is even more difficult to achieve. She is caught up in all the emotional struggles of their two emerging adults and he secretly resents how much their needs tug and pull at their marriage. There's a growing distance between them.

Symbol #8: Blueprints

When Robert and Sherry were engaged, they spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars preparing for their marriage ceremony. But neither spent much time preparing to make their marriage work.

Bliss turned to burden as they struggled through everything from how to handle finances to how to spend a Saturday afternoon. They had no idea when they married that crisis after crisis would come their way—a lost job, poor health, a financial setback, and the loss of their parents. Now they are both lonely, and although neither has told the other, secretly they wonder if their marriage is going to make it.

As it did for these married couples, isolation starts when husband and wife slowly drift apart in ways they don't even recognize at first. Signs of isolation include the following:

  • A feeling that your spouse isn't hearing you and doesn't want to understand.
  • An attitude of, "Who cares?" "Why try?" "Tomorrow we'll talk about it—let's just get some sleep."
  • A feeling of being unable to please or meet the expectations of your spouse.
  • A sense that he's detached from you.
  • A feeling that she's going her own way.
  • A refusal to cope with what's really wrong: "That's your problem, not mine."
  • A feeling that keeping the peace by avoiding the conflict is better than the pain of dealing with reality.

Every day each partner in a marriage makes choices that result in oneness or in isolation. Make the right choices and you will know love, warmth, acceptance and the freedom of true intimacy and genuine oneness as man and wife. Make the wrong choices and you will know the quiet desperation of living together but never really touching one another deeply.

Why not take an evening this week and look back over the eight "symbols of isolation" that I've outlined. Then together see if any describe your marriage. Interact over these questions:

  1. Where is isolation occurring in our relationship?
  2. What one step do we need to take to defeat isolation and ensure intimacy?

Adapted by permission from Staying Close, © 1989 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey, Thomas Nelson Publishers, all rights reserved.

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