Allow me to paint a scenario in your mind. Your partner seems withdrawn for some time, maybe a few days or even weeks. Nothing else is different. They don’t sulk, they aren’t moody and aren’t throwing tantrums. They just don’t have the same energy and they almost seem reluctant to engage in anything meaningful with you. You’re sure you haven’t done anything to warrant this behavior, yet it becomes the new normal. You’ve addressed it, talked about it at length, but they assure you they’re fine. After every conversation meant to find the source of their reservations, you’re still none the wiser to the cause.
What I’ve just described is an exhibition of emotional detachment. In the context of relationships, emotional detachment can be a temporary response to a stressful situation. Unless you’ve received counseling for detachment in the past, it can be tricky to address in a relationship.
What is emotional detachment?
Emotional detachment is a mental state in which someone is unable to fully engage with their feelings or the feelings of others. Emotional detachment is not a mental illness on its own, but rather a response to extremely stressful circumstances beyond one’s control for a period of time. It interferes with the physical, mental, and emotional growth of an intimate relationship.
- Difficulty maintaining relationships (friends, co-workers, etc.)
- Poor listening skills
- Difficulty opening up
- Poor self-esteem
- Substance abuse
- Lack of physical, verbal, or sexual contact
What can we do?
“To emotionally connect with others, we must be emotionally connected within ourselves.” Says Heidi Nguyen, licensed marriage & family therapist, and founder of UltimateLove: C&C. If someone suffers from an inability to emotionally attach or connect, they must first reconnect internally before they can hope to connect with others.
Easier said than done, from the outside perspective. After all, we can’t expect to be able to just make someone feel how we think they should feel. It takes patience, an intimate understanding of your partner, and a desire to improve on both ends. So, what can someone do when they still love their partner but are at their wit’s end trying to make it work?
1. Don’t take it personally
Often, couples may reach a point in their relationship where one seeks to grow closer while the other is content with the depth of their intimacy. This typically results in a polarization effect where the pursued seeks to move further away. This is a result from differences in the fundamental definition of an ideal relationship. Instead of realizing this as a difference of definitions, one partner recognizes it as an issue seeking to remove the distance. This fundamental difference is seen as a flaw in the partner who prefers to maintain their distance. The pursuing partner sees their partner as aloof, afraid of intimacy while the distancer sees their partner needy; too dependent.
Partners who prefer distancing may do so because they misunderstand desires of closeness as needs to control/smother. This may be a trait or comfort level developed from a problematic childhood rather than an attempt to avoid intimacy. Also, they may lack the skills or ability to articulate their emotions and thoughts to their partner. Often, children who grow out of rough childhoods fear losing their independence or autonomy. Don’t take that personally, that may have been the only way they learned to survive as a human being. Assessing these factors can help someone accept these differences in views as simply a neutral difference in styles.
2. Stop chasing
If you’ve been in constant emotional pursuit of your partner, but all it’s accomplished is push them away, stop. Relax, stop pursuing your spouse, do your best to get on with your own agenda. Your spouse no longer feels the need to distance and naturally settles into the space you’ve left for them.
If you decide to take this action, it works best when you say it plainly. “I’ve been sacrificing my time and energy chasing you and all it seems to do is push you away. I hope the space makes you more comfortable. I love you.” Having said it, you must now act on it. Don’t check up on them, don’t do things for them, allow them their independent freedom. If you normally eat at a certain time, but they’re not there and haven’t called; eat and enjoy yourself. Re-organize your life to focus on yourself rather than your distant spouse. This will take time and patience, but it may be exactly what’s needed for them to move into the emotional space you want them in.
“A couple’s therapist, or coach, can provide help in reconnecting with your partner before you reach the point of no return in emotional detachment.”Heidi Nguyen, M.A., LMFT
As I alluded to earlier, addressing detachment in a relationship can be tricky. There can be infinite reasoning why someone is emotionally detached like childhood experiences, medications, or trauma. In any case, these are complex issues to sort through just between a couple. Maybe one partner struggles to make it work while the other isn’t as interested in salvaging the relationship.
A licensed counselor who is trained in navigating emotions and experiences that are causing issues within a marriage/family is ideal. Counselors are neutral, outside perspectives who don’t take sides but instead will guide couples on how to find their ways back to each other’s intimate spaces. This will take an extraordinary amount of sharing of details from both sides extending as far back as childhood. That may not seem a pleasant activity for someone already emotionally detached, but it saves a ton of time and pain from the trial and error efforts that come with navigating these issues between the couple alone. Counselors will find the root cause of issues, help partners express them, and guide them on solutions specific to them.
It is possible to sort things out on your own but be aware that it will take longer and may not ultimately be successful. Seeking counseling with your partner significantly increases the likelihood that you will save your relationship.
Grossman, F. K., et al. (2017). Treating adult survivors of childhood emotional abuse and neglect: A new framework.
Attachment disorders. (2014).
Nelson, C. (2014). What are attachment disorders?
Weilenmann, S., et al. (2018). Emotion transfer, emotion regulation, and empathy-related processes in physician-patient interactions and their association with physician well-being: A theoretical model.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (n.d.).
Pearce, C. (2016). A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder. London, England: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
If you enjoyed learning about emotional detachment and how to curb it, you may also enjoy this article by Dr. Robert I. Sutton on the possible benefits from emotional detachment.