5 Reasons Someone Close May Become Emotionally Distant

Giving each other more space might bring you closer together.

Posted May 03, 2016

Daxiao Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Daxiao Productions/Shutterstock

Do you feel emotionally disconnected from your spouse or partner? Are most of your conversations purely transactional—about the kids, your schedules, or the management of the home? Does your partner seem uninterested in spending quality time with you? Is he or she avoiding intimacy?

Emotional distance (or emotional drifting) is a common phenomenon in relationships. It typically develops slowly, making it easy to miss until the gulf becomes significant. There are numerous reasons emotional drifting occurs; some might have to do with your partner and some with you. Here are five common reasons your partner might be emotionally disengaged, and what you can do about them. (To be clear, there can be other causes of emotional distance, but these are the ones I find most common among the couples I treat.)

5 Causes of Emotional Distance in Couples

1. 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 discuss ways they can get it. It’s best to make the arrangement reciprocal and arrange to have time to yourself as well.

2. Your partner is stressed, distressed, or depressed. 

People often respond to high levels of stress and emotional distress by withdrawing. If there are obvious stressors in your partner’s professional and/or personal life, ask how they are feeling about them and discuss possible options to reduce or manage stress. If you think they might be depressed, gently suggest they consult a mental health professional. (See The Difference Between Sadness and Depression.)

3. Your partner is losing that loving feeling. 

Is your partner not investing time and effort in your marriage, 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? If so, set up a time to talk. Don't do it on the fly, so they can be mentally prepared to discuss the relationship. Ask them how they’re feeling about the relationship and whether there are things they would like to see change in order to feel more connected. Make sure you understand their perspective fully before responding. (This is difficult but important.) If they seem unable or unwilling to discuss ways to reengage, or to even have a conversation, you might want to suggest couples therapy.

Emotional distance can also be a symptom of a relational dynamic:

4. A cycle of pursuing and avoiding.

Your partner feels you’re too needy so they take an emotional step back, which makes you feel worried, rejected, or abandoned, and therefore needier, which makes them take another step back, and so the cycle continues. To assess if this kind of dynamic is the culprit in your relationship, take a (temporary) step back yourself and "need" your partner a bit less for a week. If your partner responds by warming up and becoming more engaged and available, then you now know how to break the cycle. 

5. A cycle of criticism and withdrawal.

Feeling emotional distance from your partner can really hurt. You might respond by becoming more critical or resentful than you realize, by consistently signaling to your partner, either verbally or non-verbally, that they’re failing or inadequate. Your partner then withdraws, as they fear any effort to interact or engage will open the door to you voicing more criticism or dissatisfaction. Their withdrawal makes you even more distressed, which makes you even more critical and dissatisfied—which makes them withdraw even further. To break this cycle, make sure your communication with your partner follows the 80-20 rule: At least 80 percent of your communications should be neutral or positive and only 20 percent negative or directional (e.g., “It's your turn to do the dishes”).

Copyright 2016 Guy Winch