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Ten Surprising Ways to Connect With a Distant Partner

Married to a distant partner? Try this.

Key points

  • Chasing someone who is distancing themselves will only make it worse. Distancers open up most when they are not being pursued.
  • When dealing with a distant partner, instead of talking about how communication is bad, it's best to try talking about something else first.
  • Focusing on oneself is the best antidote to getting overly focused on a distant partner.

Here are 10 surprising ways to connect with your distant partner.

Although men often manage emotional intensity by seeking distance, the distant partner in your relationship may be the woman. The same advice holds no matter who is the "distancer."

1. Respect Differences. One of my favorite cartoons shows a dog and a cat in bed together. The dog is looking morose, reading a book called Dogs Who Love Too Much. The cat is saying. “I’m not distancing! I’m a cat, damn it.” The cartoon reminds us that relationships require profound respect for differences. Differences don’t mean that one person is right and the other is wrong.

2. Don’t Take It Personally. You may be married to a private guy who doesn’t want to debrief after every dinner party or talk in detail about the symptoms of his stomach flu. If you can see your partner’s need for privacy and space less personally, you’ll be able to calmly invite more connection rather than anxiously or angrily demand it.

3. Call Off the Pursuit. When we’re upset by a partner’s unavailability we may automatically go into “pursuit mode,” which only makes the problem worse. If you chase a distancer, he will distance more. Consider it a law of physics.

4. Lower Your Intensity. Getting out of pursuit mode may mean ratcheting down your level of intensity, which includes loud, fast-paced speech, interrupting, talking too much and offering help, or giving advice that isn’t asked for. It’s not that anything is wrong with you or your personality. It’s simply that many distancers are viscerally allergic to intensity and become more distant with time. Sometimes the sheer number of sentences or edge in our voice is the culprit.

5. Give Him Space. If you’re in the habit of hovering or giving advice when he’s preparing dinner, folding laundry, or putting the kids to sleep, go to a different room where you can’t observe what he’s doing. Don’t text or call him unless you need to. Remember that distancers open up most freely when they aren’t being pursued or criticized by their partner. If you have constructive criticism, say it in one or two sentences (“I want you to say thank you when I make you dinner”) and leave it at that.

6. Make a Date, Not a Diagnosis. When you want more connection, suggest an activity (“I hear there’s a new Italian restaurant—do you want to check it out this week?”) Refrain from diagnosing your partner (“I feel like you’ve shut down”) or the marriage (“We don’t really communicate anymore”) Instead of communicating about communication—talking about how you don’t talk—just try talking.

7. Pursue Your Goals, Not Your Partner. What talents or hobbies might you want to develop? What are your work goals? What are your values about being a good sister, daughter, or aunt? Do you want to make new friends or spend more time with old ones? Are you exercising, eating well, and taking good care of yourself? What sort of home do you want to create? Are you being useful to others? Focusing on you is the best antidote to getting overly focused on a distant partner.

8. Try Out a New You! If you know you’re going to be pressing your partner for conversation if you stay home, go out with a friend. If you’re at the movies and you feel angry that he’s not taking your hand or acknowledging your presence, talk only about the film when you leave the theater, not about your hurt feelings.

9. Warm Your Partner's Heart. Calling off the pursuit doesn’t mean distancing yourself or going into a cold withdrawal. Do the special things that you know will make him feel valued and special. Praise the specifics (“You were so funny at the party last night”) and dial down the criticism.

10. Be the One to Change First. Even the best marriages will get stuck in too much distance or too much intensity. Rather than staying on automatic pilot (that is, doing what you do naturally) be the one to change first.

Marriage Rules will teach you more about connecting with a distant partner. It’s never too late to give even the most distant (or intense) relationship a fighting chance.

More from Harriet Lerner Ph.D.
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