Every couple sometimes experiences a disconnection, but what if your partner’s nature or a phase in his/her life makes it difficult for you to connect? Can you get close to an emotionally distant partner?

“Sometimes, even though he is sitting right next to me, it feels like there is an ocean between me and my partner,” a friend said recently. You can hear the longing in the way she says it and I realised that this could be a make or break situation in their marriage. She is an outgoing chatterbox who wears her heart on her sleeve. He is a shy engineer who only speaks when really necessary. Words are not essential for emotional intimacy, but it is his body language, his defensiveness that could sometimes be a challenge.

“He is a closed book,” she says. “It feels as if I am running into a wall time and again, and it just doesn’t want to give.” Yes, they went out long before they got married seven months ago. She knew very well who he was but held on to the moments when his humanity emerged. She believed that once they were married, things would change and he would know that he can trust her with his deepest thoughts…

Why is my partner emotionally distant?

Emotional distance is a common problem in relationships. There are cases like this where one of the partners are emotionally indifferent due to emotional wounds from their childhood, getting hurt in the past, exposure to criticism or simply because it is their nature. Emotional indifference usually arises out of fear – fear of mockery, shame or weakness. To be emotionally open means that you make yourself vulnerable to judgment. Yes, everyone has their own personality, but sometimes an emotionally indifferent person has to be challenged to lower his or her defences, as such a person can become very comfortable with a guarded heart.

There are many reasons why a couple who were once emotionally intimate can drift apart: One partner may be craving alone time, is stressed or depressed or has started losing interest in the marriage. Sometimes there is an unhealthy dynamic in the relationship that supports a continuous cycle of avoidance. Your partner may feel that you are too needy and therefore step back. You get worried, but the closer you try to get, the more your partner steps back.

Criticism and withdrawal are other forms of unhealthy dynamics: Because your partner is emotionally indifferent, you feel hurt and respond by acting more critical and angrier than you realise. Your partner reads into this that you feel he/she is a failure or not good enough. Then he/she withdraws out of fear that interaction will make you even more critical or dissatisfied. However, this withdrawal just stresses you out more and the vicious circle continuous.

Is your partner emotionally unavailable?

You may be married to an emotionally distant partner if the following sounds familiar:

* He/she makes plans without including you. You only hear on Thursday afternoon that he is planning to play golf with his friends on Saturday and that, a year ago already, he has committed to a hunting weekend, which is happening next month. You are blissfully unaware that she had planned on spending her Sunday at the mall and meet up with her friend for lunch while she’s at it…

* Emotions are invisible. This doesn’t mean that your partner is supposed to cry a river! But if your partner never shows any warmth or emotion towards you, he/she is emotionally unavailable.

* It feels like you are the only one in the relationship. It may seem like your partner isn’t committed to your marriage at all. He/she does nothing to maintain it, never initiates conversation and shows no interest in your life.

* He/she is always behind a wall that you can’t seem to break down. In fact, there are people who are scared to show their true colours. Your partner might be an extrovert who are quick with the jokes, but it might simply be a mask behind which he/she hides.

* It feels like a one-way street. You give love and dedication, make sacrifices and express your appreciation… but you get nothing in return. It feels as if you are giving everything, but not receiving anything back.

What to do with an emotionally distant partner?

Experts believe it is possible to make a marriage work with an emotionally distant partner, provided that you have realistic expectations. It is difficult! Especially when you are at opposite poles. First, recognise and accept your differences. The fact that you were created uniquely, doesn’t mean that one person is perfect and the other is not. It does, however, mean that you will have to meet each other somewhere in the middle.

Do not entertain the problem, but rather address it as soon as it creates tension in your marriage. Find out the reason for his/her actions and if you can’t figure it out yourself, ask him/her point blank. Also, be cognisant of the effect of your actions on your partner’s behaviour. The more you “demand” of your partner to be more open, the more he/she might subconsciously rebel against it.

Give your spouse the space he/she needs – it might just have the effect you want. Marriage expert, Harriet Lerner, says that it is important to strike a balance between togetherness and being apart, which will work for both you and your partner. Even though the roles of the “approacher” and the “withdrawer” are not necessarily linked to gender, it is often the woman who wants the closeness and the man who craves some space. Experts believe that this dynamic can reach a point where it can place a marriage in a dangerous situation.

What needs to happen is repair work, with both parties acknowledging their role in the problem and working on a solution. Express your feelings as clearly as possible, for example by saying: “When you don’t talk to me about what is going on in your head, I feel left out – as if you don’t trust me with your thoughts.” Or: “It hurts me when you spend hours on Facebook instead of talking to me about your day.”

Your first reaction (out of fear or nervousness) is to attack your partner about his/her distant behaviour (because you think it is about you), but then you just come across as hostile. Your angry words or attack are likely to make him/her withdraw even more. Your spouse’s distant behaviour probably has to do with a deep fear or uncertainty, and isn’t about you. Resist the impulse to act in anger and communicate your unhappiness in a loving way.

Whatever you do, do not wine or argue. And don’t try to change your partner. Express your unhappiness and see what you can change yourself to make it work, but don’t expect to change an emotionally unavailable partner (except if the behaviour is not part of who he/she really is).

Admit your role in the unhealthy dynamics in you find yourself. Recognise the pattern you have fallen into and work to change the habit. Chat about this when you are both rested and able to calmly and rationally approach the matter.

Do what you can to make yourself a safe haven. Who are you in your partner’s eyes? The person who will abuse his/her weaknesses or use them as weapons? Someone who is so impossibly “perfect” that no one can ever be match up? Hereby we are not at all implying that who you are, should carry the blame for your partner’s distance, but only that you need to make sure that your partner feels safe enough to let down his/her guard and show you his/her vulnerable side.

When your partner shares something with you, show him/her that you value and respect it. Dig deeper and find out how your partner feels about his/her emotional indifference. Is it something that he/she is struggling with, or is it a deliberate choice?

Whatever you do, make sure you don’t put too much pressure on your partner. Yes, you want your spouse to open up, but pressure from your side can have the opposite effect. Try to focus on your own life, and to develop yourself, and take the focus off your partner.

Get to know your partner’s love language and “read” him/her right. Remember that not everyone shows love in the same way. Your spouse probably has a unique way of expressing his/her feelings. It can be a subtle touch or a rare smile. Appreciate it and the bigger gestures will follow.

When a couple finds themselves in a situation like this, it can be difficult to pick up the threads and find a connection. However, it is possible – with patience, time and gentleness.

Additional sources: www.psychologytoday.com; www.beliefnet.com; www.momjunction.com