This post was recently featured on a podcast episode of Optimal Living Daily.
Emotional Distance in Relationships: Can it be Helped?
Emotional distance in marriage (also called an emotionally disconnected marriage) is a painful dynamic. We often talk about emotionally unavailable men, but emotionally unavailable people can be of any gender.
Signs of emotional detachment can include a disinterest in offering emotional support or a lack of feeling of emotional intimacy with a partner.
An emotionally unavailable person may feel disconnected, and in response, may emotionally disconnect themselves.
They can isolate, go silent, or act disinterested, experiencing emotional detachment.
Therapists describe severe emotional distance as "emotional abuse," believing that in a healthy relationship you must be emotionally supportive to your spouse.
Partners feel a need for emotional closeness with the person with whom they fall in love.
Emotional detachment in marriage
Emotional neglect in childhood
When you feel lonely in a long-term relationship, it can sometimes tap into memories of being neglected in childhood or traumatic events. But it doesn’t need to be a red flag of mental health conditions or personality disorders.
When one partner is failing to notice the signs of emotional longing and desire to connect, it can cause a cascading impact of marital deterioration. The lonely partner becomes angry and withdraws.
As we will see with Paul, he was an emotionally unavailable partner who could be helped to reconnect once the couple's dynamic was strengthened.
In his case, this “emotionally unavailable man” was mimicking his parents.
Camilla and Paul
Camilla, Paul's partner, partially blames herself.
She saw as a relationship with an emotionally unavailable person as something she needed to adjust to and said in her individual session:
I'm too clingy
I should leave him alone more like he asks, but I just can't.
I am lonely.
And I can't stand feeling like we are two strangers living under the same roof.
In Paul's individual session:
I tell her: 'Just leave me alone, and I'll come to you when I'm ready.'
I can't stand it when she asks over and over, 'Do you love me?'
Before entering couples therapy, Paul never came to reassure Camilla of his love because he was never "ready" enough for that emotional response.
Camilla also never waited long enough for him to feel the urge to go to her.
Understanding emotionally distant spouses
The difference between Camilla and Paul go back much earlier than their marriage. Theirs are emotional "attachment style" differences.
Attachment styles are "baked in the cake" early in childhood. These differences impact how close is "too close" or how far is "too far" for each of them.
The real issue wasn’t that Camilla needed more active attention, and Paul needed more time alone. Instead, both partners needed more empathy and understanding of these needs.
Early Marriage History
When asked about their early marriage, I learned that Paul used to love how attentive Camilla was. He called it "pampering" when they were dating. "She used to wait on me and the sex was great!"
"He appreciated me back then..." Camilla added woefully. "He noticed what I did for him, and I could tell he liked it. Now he says: "Leave me alone!"
So What Happened?
Time. And living together after their marriage.
Camilla described Paul "pulling back" after they moved in. However, in reality, he was spending a lot less time alone than before.
Now that they lived together, Camilla directly witnessed the times Paul spent on his hobbies--alone.
And she took it personally.
It felt to her like he was emotionally neglecting his marriage and his wife.
Camilla knew Paul was a guy who often kept to himself, and knew about the many solitary hobbies he enjoyed. She didn't know that after they got married, he would still pursue them!
What Camilla once found so attractive about Paul, his quiet independence, she now saw as a threat to her feelings of security.
Paul no longer saw her attentiveness as a sign of love. He saw it as "invasive.” He felt her as "needy" and he resented the intrusion.
Paul was used to the bachelor lifestyle he had once enjoyed. Deep down, he wondered if he had made a mistake marrying anybody, but especially someone as needy as his wife.
A cycle of increasing emotional distance repeated over and over becoming a chronic area of conflict or what Sue Johnson calls a “demon dance.”
The more Camilla attempted to engage Paul, the more he "just needed to be by himself."
The more irritated and withdrawn Paul became, the more effort Camilla put into "doing the things he liked", cutting into his alone time.
Then she got upset that he wasn't responding.
Paul got more irritated and angrier, and more distant and withdrawn.
Camilla stopped trying to get his attention gently and began to complain and later to criticize.
In response, Paul withdrew.
The vicious cycle repeated.
By the time they came into their first session with me, they were spending very little time together and it was filled with a lot of tension and resentment.
The Only Two Problems in Marriage
In graduate school, I learned that there are only two problems in marriage: not getting what you want and getting what you want."
Paul chose Camilla because he wanted a companion, someone to "pull him out of his shell." He loved the fact that Camilla was outgoing and talkative and showered affection on him.
What Paul wanted in a mate was what he got; an emotionally engaged, somewhat anxious, and insecure spouse.
Camilla wanted a thoughtful man and not a flirt. Paul was mature and even shy. She knew that he meant it when he told her that he loved her.
Camilla got the mature, shy man who was earnest in his affections toward her and who needed time alone.
Like Paul, instead of appreciating that difference, she felt emotionally neglected.
Two Sides to Getting What You Want
Often the traits that draw you to your partner are the very same traits that upset you.
The "outgoing" spouse you appreciated now becomes the spouse that "never stops talking."
The "strong, silent type" becomes "taciturn and withdrawn."
What to do when dealing with emotional distance
My first job was to increase the fondness and admiration system and remind this couple why they decided to marry in the first place. Couples like Paul and Camilla, during the “Oral History Interview,” were helped to remember a time when they each got what they wanted from the relationship. After the thorough assessment of the couple's relationship, patterns became more evident, as did the treatment goals.
Changing the Demon Dance
Camilla told me:
"I knew he loved me, deep down, but why didn't he show it?"
"The concentrated couples therapy gave us the time and space to talk honestly to each other. I came to see that his need was 'alone time.' It wasn't him rejecting me.”
The more she could reassure herself that Paul needed time for himself--to refuel and not to "escape," the easier it was for Paul to move toward her. Camilla used this time to develop new interests to calm her anxiety and feel more productive.
Paul told me:
"I was feeling bad about needing to be by myself before I got here. While I was angry at being put upon by my wife, I also felt like there was something wrong with me for needing to be alone.
“If Camilla married a guy like me, why did she suddenly want to change me? I had no idea that my wife saw it as rejection. It wasn't anything personal to her. When I spend time alone every day doing the things I enjoy, I have more energy and desire to reconnect with her.
It was tough for Paul to say the words "I love you." These weren't words he'd often heard growing up. In his family, love was something you showed, not said.
He showed his love for his wife in many ways, but she had a hard time seeing his acts of service as love. She needed to hear him express it and devote special time and attention to her.
Paul also learned that he normalized emotional distance by watching his parents.
"They loved each other but were formal in the way they interacted, they lived in different worlds with different roles.”
Therapy Approach: Building the Fondness and Admiration System
Paul and Camilla had many strengths as a couple, their one vulnerability, their Fondness and Admiration system, was a cornerstone to strengthen.
The exercises we did to strengthen this cornerstone made a difference.
Paul began expressing emotions and asking for what he needed without ambivalence or blame. It was hard for him, initially, to vocalize his love for Camilla, but when he regularly did, the impact on Camilla was dramatic.
She began to feel more secure and loved. This made it easier for her to encourage him to take time alone when he needed it.
Instead of a "vicious circle," this couple learned to engage in a "virtuous circle" of love and affection.
It was a successful couples therapy retreat.