I Moved To Japan With My Husband — And It Was The Loneliest I Ever Felt In My Marriage

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Man and woman sitting sad

Most people I've talked to about the movie Lost in Translation enjoyed it for its layered themes, the Japanese scenery, and the great acting. But, for me, the movie is an emotional experience, not only because it reminds me of my fondness for the culture I was immersed in during the three years I lived in Japan, but also because it mirrors the loneliness I felt in my marriage. 

In the romantic comedy-drama Lost in Translation, which premiered twenty years ago in September 2003, Bill Murray plays aging actor Bob Harris, who meets Scarlett Johansson's character Charlotte in a hotel in Tokyo.

Bob is there to film a whiskey commercial, while Charlotte is tagging along with her celebrity photographer husband John, played by Giovanni Ribisi. As they fight jet lag, Charlotte and Bob soon form a brief yet intense friendship, bonding over the loneliness in their marriages and their feelings of being stuck in their lives. 

My then-husband and I moved to Sasebo, Japan, a city much smaller than Tokyo, because of his military career. Nervous yet excited about living in a foreign country where I didn't speak the language, it didn't take long for me to embrace the unique lifestyle I was thrust into. 

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Parts of Lost in Translation make me reminisce about some of my favorite times in Japan, like exploring local attractions and events, singing karaoke with friends, and trying different restaurants — choosing food by pointing to photos on menus. There was always something to see, something to learn, something new to try.

The movie also reminds me of the times my husband and I traveled together.

Like Charlotte, we took the Shinkansen, or the bullet train, to Kyoto, and when we visited Tokyo, we walked across Shibuya Crossing, the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. During our time in Japan, our marriage was the happiest and the most solid when we traveled, when we escaped reality, leaving our home and the stresses of daily life behind.

But like Charlotte, despite being married, despite having a companion in life, I was lonely.

Feeling lonely in a marriage isn't uncommon. According to a 2018 national survey conducted by the AARP Foundation, 31 percent of married adults aged 45 years and older reported being lonely. The survey also found that, among adults in relationships, partner satisfaction is strongly linked with loneliness. Specifically, 48 percent of people who are very or somewhat unsatisfied with their partner reported being lonely, compared to 26 percent of adults who are very or somewhat satisfied.

Living on a U.S. military base, I spent more time with other American military spouses than I did with my husband, who was often traveling for work. But the problem wasn't his frequent absences. It was the fact that we were disconnected in our marriage, arguing, living side-by-side yet not on the same page. I was definitely in the category of adults unsatisfied with my partner.

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"I'm stuck," Charlotte says to Bob as they lie platonically in bed together. "Does it get easier?"

She meant life in general, as she confides in Bob that she's not sure what career she wants to pursue after recently graduating from college with a philosophy degree. I felt that same uncertainty while living in Japan, not using my hard-earned Master's degree, unsure what my career would look like after years of being a stay-at-home mother. But I knew my feelings of being stuck went beyond that.

"What about marriage?" Charlotte continues. "Does that get easier?"

"That's hard," Bob answers.

Despite being in vastly different stages in their lives, these unlikely friends both understand the same aloneness and stagnancy I too felt as I analyzed my marriage, compared it to my friends' marriages, and hoped we were just going through a phase, that we wouldn't remain stuck forever.

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Sometimes I blamed the loneliness on Japan. I was halfway across the world from my family and everything familiar to me, encountering culture shock and language barriers.

But after the initial adjustments, I loved Japan, thankful for the opportunity my husband's career created for me. Not only was I living in an amazing country, but my time there was also teaching me how to be more open to new experiences. No, I couldn't blame my loneliness on Japan. If anything, living there helped fill the void.

The void was in my marriage.

The same void we see every time John leaves Charlotte behind in their hotel room. The same void we see every time Bob talks to his wife on the phone and she doesn't really listen to what he has to say. The same void that kept me stuck. The same void I finally decided was never going to get easier.

Although we never find out if or how Charlotte and Bob resolve the struggles they each feel in their marriages, my own loneliness lingered and festered until, years after moving back to the United States, my marriage ended in divorce.

I learned that even though loneliness in a marriage may not be uncommon, I couldn't live the rest of my life like that, ultimately finding fulfillment in a new career and happiness after divorce in a new relationship. 

The movie Lost in Translation may bring me back to those feelings of emptiness and being stuck, but it also reminds me that it's possible to overcome those feelings, get unstuck, and move forward.

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Heather Sweeney writes personal essays and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, Insider, Healthline, AARP’s The Girlfriend, Your Teen, SheKnows, Five Minutes, and elsewhere.