8 Things to Try When a Partner Becomes Distant

To get your partner to open up, you first have to find out what shut them down.

Posted May 29, 2019

Public Domain Pictures
Source: Public Domain Pictures

In a committed relationship, if you no longer feel your partner is tuned into you, or even interested in you, you’ll feel alone, abandoned, even rejected. It’s as though you no longer matter. And in feeling disregarded—or maybe discarded—you may also experience a woeful sense of emptiness and estrangement. No longer able to feel appreciated, respected, or cared about, any meaningful connection with your significant other will be gravely compromised.

This distressing experience can happen to either sex, but the literature on this subject (as well as my own therapy practice) suggests that, more frequently, it’s men who shut down relationally.

Notwithstanding gender, when you feel unsupported, disliked, devalued, or disapproved of, you’re forced to acknowledge that what was once pivotal in deciding to make your once-enamored “the one” is now in serious jeopardy. No longer do you feel loved by your partner, or even important to them. It’s as though you’re in an invisible divorce because, though your relationship doesn’t warrant being seen as a “breakup,” there’s a terrible “break” between you.

In addition, the situation may now feel too precarious—and you, too insecure and vulnerable—to share your hurt feelings directly. After all, what if he or she fails to respond positively (or at all) to your emotionally charged expressions of disappointment or dismay? That contingency would make you feel worse still—in a word, hopeless. So to safeguard your fragile emotional state, you’d be more likely to accuse them of being inconsiderate, dishonest, or selfish—an approach almost guaranteed to fail at bridging the rueful gap that’s opened between you.

How You Might Bear Partial Responsibility

This is hardly anything you’d be eager to explore: Why would you add guilt to all the other uncomfortable emotions you’re struggling with? For one thing, it’s a lot easier to make changes within yourself than to get someone else to. For another, changes in your own attitude and actions are more likely to prompt changes in your partner than anything else.

Please don’t get me wrong: You may, in fact, have done very little to deserve your partner’s turning their back on you. But the considerations below are still important to rule out because it’s definitely possible that you have some responsibility for the non-responsiveness, particularly if that coldheartedness doesn’t describe your partner's behavior toward others.

So ponder the following:

  • You’ve continued to bring up subjects your partner has already declared no interest in. If what you want to share simply doesn’t command their attention and you've been told this many times, you can’t exactly blame your partner for tuning you out if you regularly return to them. You might contend that if they truly loved you, they'd be willing to engage with you on anything that interested you—or at least demonstrate some curiosity about it. But such an expectation, or hope, may simply not be realistic. 
  • You can’t resist going back to matters that have already been discussed and, for your partner, settled, or discussed to the point that his or her patience with hearing any more about them is exhausted. Moreover, if you constantly repeat yourself, whether through twice-told anecdotes or re-expounding strongly held viewpoints, your partner may have become irked with you—if not downright bored—so that they can’t help but retreat into their shell. Ask yourself: Is their “absence” from you possibly related to a fear that once again you’ll broach a subject that they absolutely don't want to feel forced to attend to again?
  • Your efforts to change your partner's contrary viewpoints (financial, political, religious, or otherwise) have begun to feel demeaning or disrespectful to them, as betraying not only your acceptance of them as conditional but also your unwillingness to accommodate their differing values or mindset. No one likes to feel negatively judged or criticized, so it’s possible your pronounced efforts to influence their perspective have themselves served to close them off from you.
  • If your non-responsive partner is a man, know that men typically are notorious in their endeavors to avoid conflict. So rather than engaging in an argument he cannot imagine will be productive, your partner may do every evasive thing he can to keep the peace. If he’s already informed you that he dislikes talking about things which in the past have only led the two of you to become more frustrated with each other, you need to ask yourself why you keep bringing them up, especially if you haven’t yet figured out a different way to approach them.
  • Might you have a habit of interrupting, or speaking over, your partner because you fear your viewpoint might not be heard if you didn’t? Or might you cut him or her off because you really don’t want to hear what he or she has to say? Remember that most of us strongly dislike having another hinder our expression. If your partner has become increasingly silent when you’re addressing them, consider whether they've come to experience you as intrusive, as interjecting yourself into whatever they're trying to get across. And rather than get angry with you, they've decided it’s just safer to stop communicating.
  • You go around in circles (or beat around the bush) before you ever get to the point. Regrettably, there are many people—and of both sexes—who simply don’t seem to possess the ability to cut to the verbal chase when they express themselves. And this habit can easily wear out the other’s patience. So be careful to think beforehand of exactly what it is you most wish to communicate, so you’re not bringing in all sorts of peripheral or extraneous details that could over-extend your partner’s tolerance.

How to Bridge the Gulf

The first step in facilitating your partner’s willingness to return emotionally to the relationship is identifying the main cause(s) for his or her having distanced themselves in the first place. Assuming that your partner hasn't irretrievably moved on (e.g., through an affair you’re not yet privy to), it would be wise to tentatively draw up a list of the possibilities that might best account for the withdrawal—possibly using one or more of the explanations enumerated above. It would also be prudent to arrange your items in terms of how difficult each one might be to address. Obviously, the more inflammatory issues ought to come last. For you want to start the corrective process cautiously, beginning with the areas least likely to arouse defenses.

Here are some tips to maximize the possibility that once your partner consents to earnestly discuss the deteriorated state of your relationship with you, your talk—or much more likely, talks—will begin to close the gap between you.

1. The request: Ask your partner to join you in cooperatively exploring what in your relationship may have gone south. Explain that you really miss the connection the two of you used to have. Be sure to share your disappointment or sadness in a way that steers clear of guilting or blaming them. This is hardly a time to get self-righteously angry or moralistic about your position. The message you want to convey is that you’re hoping to better understand the deeper causes for your relational downturn, as well as to join forces in countering this regrettable divide.

2. Take responsibility for your part (whether big or small) in your partner’s distancing from you. So, for instance, might you routinely have posed a viewpoint contrary to theirs, with your intent being to open up what you believed would be a compelling point-counterpoint discussion? But nonetheless your partner may have experienced you as argumentative, contentious, or perversely taking every opportunity to challenge or invalidate their thoughts and feelings.

3. Be modest about your expectations. If you approach your partner at a time when he or she is having great difficulty trusting you or relating sympathetically to your concerns—and perhaps, too, allowing themselves to be as vulnerable with you as they had previously—don’t expect to see a sudden reversal in attitude. The changes you’re hoping for rarely happen overnight. Your partner will need to reassess the distancing maneuvers designed (unconsciously?) to help them feel safer in the relationship. And that can take time. Putting pressure on your partner to change could make them dig in their resistant heels all the more.

4. Don’t let things get out of control. If your dialogue starts moving in the wrong direction, if it’s getting too heated, oppositional, or cantankerous, it may be that the topic being discussed isn’t yet ready to be talked about. In such an instance, pull the conversation back to something that’s less provocative. 

Also, consider calling a couple’s “time out” (see N. Cobb, “Defuse Couple Conflict with an Effective Time-Out”) when one or both of you are getting too hot under the collar and need time to cool off. When tempers flare, allowing such disputatiousness to proceed will only further endanger your relationship.

5. In seeking to emotionally align yourself with your partner’s experience, put forth your best effort to empathically identify with it. And whatever justifications your partner may offer for the distancing, take care not to criticize or question their (subjective) legitimacy. Unless it’s blatant they're not being honest with you, accept their characterizations of their experience as what’s truthful for them.

If your partner feels that you’re compassionately understanding their reasons for shutting down, it’s quite possible they'll be prompted to return the favor. And your both feeling more supported—more “known”—by the other, can make a major difference in restoring the lost intimacy between you.

6. Focus on the unmet needs that may have induced your partner to pull back from you. Had your partner wanted a more passionate, no-holds-barred sexual relationship than you were comfortable with? Maybe more attention? Acknowledgment? Respect? Or might he or she have desired much less of what they felt they were getting from you? Look for ways of meeting in the middle that would help resolve (or at least ameliorate) both your frustrations. Finding mutually acceptable compromises and accommodations is key to any relationship—and it may be especially true of yours.

7. Gently persuade your partner to reestablish your relationship to its former priority—maybe before you had kids, or you started targeting one another’s (supposed) failings, aggressively trying to change them. If the two of you no longer share “quality time,” recall the common interests you’ve stopped pursuing together and take steps to reintroduce them. Consider, too, how you can make your love and sex life more exciting (if, indeed, it still exists). And agree that whatever your partner—and possibly you yourself—have done to keep the peace has actually hampered your connection. Partner intimacy exists on three levels: physical, mental, and emotional.

8. Identify and resolve the source(s) of your anger and resentment—and, as in your courtship, come from love. The interpersonally destructive tit-for-tat cycle perhaps now characterizing your relationship must stop. If you’re to give your relationship a fresh start, your negatively biased attitude toward one another has to be transformed. And although neither of you is likely to change right away, if you’ve personally decided to do whatever you can to bring things back to where they were earlier, you’ll increase the odds that your now alienated partner will begin to see you, and their relationship with you, in a much more favorable light.

Moreover, it’s critical that you not devote only as much time and effort to improving the relationship as your partner is willing to. Independent of how much they may now be prepared to change, treat them with as much love and caring as you want them to treat you. As long as your partner remains invested in the relationship, sooner or later they'll be disposed to reciprocate the positive attention that you yourself are ready to offer them.

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    © 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.

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