The Causes of Emotional Distance in Couples

Is your partner not investing time and effort in the relationship, home, or family the way they used to? Have they been avoiding intimacy? Have they been non-communicative and emotionally disengaged for a significant period of time?

We all need love and affection and so it’s difficult when we feel emotionally disconnected from our romantic partner and most of our conversations have become transactional.

Emotional distance is a common phenomenon in relationships. Maybe this emotionally unavailable behaviour is the norm for your partner or has grown over the time that you’ve been together.

Whether your partner’s tendency to check out has always been part of the relationship or is a more recent development, there are many reasons why they may not be fully present. In this month’s post, I explore the reasons why emotional drifting occurs, some of which have to do with your partner and some to do with your relationship.

It may not actually be a problem

In her book, Marriage Rules, relationship guru Harriet Lerner points out there is no “correct” amount of closeness or distance that fits every couple, or even fits one couple for all the time. Distance doesn’t always mean that the relationship is on shaky ground.  Here are some explanations for your partner’s withdrawal that are not signs of impending disaster for the relationship.

Your partner craves alone time 

Many couples, especially those with young children, get little or no time to themselves. Some people try to get alone time by putting on headphones or tuning out by immersing themselves in television shows, the Internet, or their phones. If you suspect this is the case, ask your partner if they need alone time and then discuss how you can support each other to get some in your busy lives.

Don’t try to make a cat into a dog

Lerner also reminds us that we cannot create something in our partner that wasn’t there in the first place. You may have paired up with someone who is a private person who doesn’t want to debrief at the end of each day and have deep and ‘meaningfuls’ on a regular basis. A useful analogy is to think of some people as cats and others as dogs. Your partner may have a more like cat-like temperament, choosing to be with you one minute and then having a strong need to seek their own space the next.

Again, there is no problem if we don’t take our partner’s need for separateness personally but accept their moves away from us as part of their essential catness, that is, something about them and not about us.

Your partner is stressed or depressed

People often respond to high levels of stress and emotional distress by withdrawing. Your partner’s aloofness may simply be their way of trying to get through a difficult time as checking out temporarily is a common way for many people to cope with stress. If there are obvious stressors in your partner’s professional and/or personal life, ask them how they are feeling and discuss possible options to help them reduce or manage stress.

Depression is a more serious issue which is unlikely to resolve in the short term if left untreated. If you think your partner might be depressed, gently suggest they consult a GP or mental health professional without pressuring or nagging them.

Distance as a danger sign for a relationship

When does distance signal danger? Distance can be a red flag, signalling trouble for a relationship when a partner who was once emotionally engaged has now retreated from the relationship for a significant period of time. There are a couple of reasons why this may have occurred.

Emotional distance as a symptom of an unhealthy relational dynamic

Pursuing and distancing are normal and common ways for couples to relate to one another when they are under stress.  A problem occurs only when the pattern of pursuing and distancing gets entrenched and the pursuer and distancer become polarised in painful ways.

A cycle of pursuing and avoiding usually starts when one partner (the pursuer) becomes increasingly unhappy with their partner, feeling that their needs for intimacy aren’t being satisfied. Typically ongoing efforts to get their partner to open up or to bring him or her closer have failed. The pursuer might respond by becoming more critical or resentful therefore signalling to their partner, either verbally or non-verbally, that they’re inadequate. Their partner (now the distancer) then withdraws, fearing that any effort to interact or engage will open the door to more criticism or dissatisfaction. Their withdrawal makes the pursuer even more desperate, increasing their pursuit behaviours which makes the distancer withdraw even further.

Once this dysfunctional pattern has become established, it is extremely resistant to change.

Your partner is losing or has lost that loving feeling. 

A sign that your relationship is in serious trouble is when your partner’s distance has turned into stonewalling, meaning they have basically removed themselves from the relationship so you just can’t reach them. Your partner may be refusing to talk about an essential aspect of your life together and/or has just stopped investing time and effort into the relationship.

It is important to understand that your partner has erected this emotional wall for a reason or reasons. Events have occurred during the course of the relationship that has left your partner feeling emotionally unsafe with you.  As humans, when we feel emotionally threatened in a relationship, we will build relational walls that are expressed in body language, words and attitudes that help us feel safe. These walls protect us from the vulnerability of exposing our inner life to others. It stands to reason that if your partner has been hurt and disappointed, it’s easier to simply close up than to risk that kind of pain again.

If your relationship has reached this state, a lot of work is needed to resuscitate it. Couples counselling is usually needed to start the healing process which then paves the way for you and your partner to re-engage emotionally.

  • Lerner, H. Marriage Rules – A Manual For The Married And The Coupled Up. Gotham Books, 2012.

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