01/13/2014 04:13 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2014

5 Tips for Improving a Lonely Marriage

Although it seems counterintuitive, many people are both married and lonely. Indeed, loneliness is determined by the subjective quality of your relationships not their objective quantity, or by whether you happen to be living with a spouse.

Lonely marriages develop slowly; the disconnection increases incrementally over years. You no longer talk about mutual interests, world events, or your goals and dreams. Instead your conversations become purely transactional; "We're out of milk," "The car is making a weird noise," or "I left the cable bill on the kitchen table". You settle into routines that foster emotional distance such as one person watching TV while the other is on the computer or phone, or going to bed and waking up at very different hours.

There is no real affection, no real intimacy, and it feels as if there is no longer any love between you either. But you stay in the marriage nonetheless, ironically, because you might fear that leaving will mean being lonely forever. Yet, staying in a disconnected marriage is far more likely to doom you to chronic loneliness -- unless you can do something about it.

Most people do not conceive of loneliness as a condition that requires urgent intervention but it does. In addition to the mental anguish loneliness creates, it also has devastating effects on one's mental and physical health. Loneliness depresses immune system functioning, it increases inflammatory responses that put you at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, you are also at greater risk for depression and Alzheimer's disease and it can even take years off your life expectancy according to the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review.

Lonely marriages are hard to change because over time, loneliness leads to your 'relationship muscles' atrophying (since you are no longer using them in meaningful ways). To improve the quality of your relationship, you therefore have to strengthen these 'muscles'. Doing so will require practice and patience but it will make a significant difference in the quality of your marital bond and it can deepen your connections with other significant people in your life as well.

1. Take the initiative. If you're lonely, chances are your partner is lonely as well. But they too are probably trapped in a cycle of emotional disconnection, and they too probably feel helpless about how to break it. Try to initiate conversations that are not about transactional details. Ask them for their views about something they care about and make sure to demonstrate you're listening by trying to see things from their perspective and 'get' what fascinates them about it.

2. Don't expect your partner to reciprocate right away. Habits are hard to change and disconnection takes time to repair. But know that by continuing to make gestures of good-will, you will eventually invite one in return. Make sure to reinforce such gestures from your spouse when they make them.

3. Remind yourself and your spouse of shared experiences. Watch your wedding video or your children's wedding video. Look over old family and vacation pictures, or go over old correspondences. Doing such things will remind you both of happier times when you were more connected.

4. Suggest simple and innocent activities that require little effort (as they will elicit fewer objections) such as a walk around the block or in the park, cooking a meal together, having a video call with old friends, your kids or grandchildren, or writing a letter together to a family member.

5. Take the time to consider your partner's perspective. The longer you're married the more you will tend to assume you know what the other person is thinking and the more likely you are to be wrong. To understand your spouse's perspective, take a few minutes to imagine their world and their point of view. Gaining a greater understanding of your partner's thoughts and feelings will allow you to express more sympathy and understanding toward them which in turn, will begin to restore your mutual bond.

Taking these steps can feel emotionally risky because loneliness is an emotional wound that runs deep and impacts us profoundly. Taking an emotional 'leap of faith' and being brave is necessary to overcome it. But given how much emotional pain lonely people feel every day and the relief you will feel once you heal, it is a risk worth taking.