Nothing hurts more than wanting closeness from your partner when they can’t or won’t reciprocate. We’ve all been there. Relationships are like a dance where one person is moving closer while the other steps away. It’s an interesting dynamic. Perhaps you are the one who is feeling slightly smothered, and you need space. That’s almost as uncomfortable as being the seeker.
The need for more connection can happen for many reasons. Attachment styles (see my free ebook) come into play. If you had a caregiver that was inconsistent with providing safety, security, and soothing, you may get triggered quite easily when your partner withdraws. Pressing into them and asking for more only makes it worse. But saying nothing and just living with the pain doesn’t work either! It feels like a hopeless situation, but it’s not!
You may also be going through a situation where extra stress is being put on the relationship such as a career change, trouble with children, or a health issue. In this case, it’s vital to exercise grace. You are both under tremendous pressure and need to work together towards a solution as a team, not fight each other. This is when it would be particularly helpful to sit down and talk it out. There are rules for how to do this, also in my free ebook.
If your partner is struggling with opening up or being responsive to your emotions, then you may need help learning how to tolerate and understand feelings. There’s room to ask them questions that will help give you clarity on their hesitations and learn what affection means to them. Just remember to be gentle and patient, and try not to get all heated up. The pitfall in trying to draw your partner out often pushes them farther away, exactly the opposite of your goal.
With a concerted, mutual effort to progress, it’s possible to have a better future together. So when this dynamic is placing tension on your relationship what do you do? Try doing the following:
Know that emotions are about connection, not action
Many people who are feeling disconnected think that small actions will fill the void they’re feeling; ”If he would just take out the trash; if she would just put down her phone.” To connect with an emotionally unavailable partner, you’ll have to figure out what’s making you disconnect in the first place.
Check in about your partner’s stress
Stress can be another reason a partner becomes emotionally unavailable. Whether work is especially hectic or there are issues with their family, these stresses can take up a lot of mental space. It could also be that your partner is struggling with a mental health issue like depression that is causing them to pull away. Ideally, you and your partner should have an open dialogue about what’s going on. It’s important to be able to listen and support your partner if they’re experiencing stress in their lives.
Evaluate your approach to conflict
If you’re the pursuer in the relationship, it’s worth taking a look at how you approach conflict or feedback. Often, out of desperation, what happens is the pursuer just wants to talk about the issues between them, If that’s brought up harshly, in a way that is blaming and excusing, or if the timing isn’t right, that can drive the partner away. Bad timing might look like bringing up a hot topic issue when they’re up to their elbows in a project or the moment they walk in the door from work. It’s important not to think of your partner’s emotional unavailability as their problem. You must own your part, you have to work on yourself and understand why you react the way you do.
Look for the ‘Four Horsemen’ when you fight
There are four big predictors of divorce in a relationship according to one of the top relationship researchers, Dr. John Gottman: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. He’s dubbed these the Four Horsemen. Criticism is when you criticize or blame your partner; defensiveness is sticking up for yourself to the extent that you can’t see any of your partner’s viewpoint as valid; contempt is when you disparage your partner, roll your eyes, or mock them; and stonewalling is avoidance/refusing to engage. These are all behaviors that lead to more distancing and emotional unavailability.
Return to calm
If you find yourself feeling tense, stressed, anxious, desperate, angry, or any other strong emotion while trying to talk with your partner, it may be wise to take a time out. If we’re reacting to our emotionally unavailable partner when we’re worked up, we’re more likely to drive them away. It is far more advantageous to return to the conversation when you can create an environment where you can hear what your partner is experiencing; their distress, their anxiety, their anger, and being able to notice your response so you don’t retaliate.
Find a repair strategy
If you’ve brought up an issue and your partner has shut down, what can you do? Perhaps the fight is over but you’re both still feeling sensitive. What you’re looking for in these situations is what Gottman calls “repair.” Repair is being able to get things back on track when things start to escalate between partners. Maybe it’s a joke, physically touching your partner, or offering to play a game your partner enjoys to defuse the tension. These all help to communicate caring to your partner, even if you haven’t found a solution to the initial problem yet. It has to work for both of you. If you reach out to touch your partner but your partner doesn’t like being held when they’re upset, the situation gets escalated further.
Increase your positive interactions
Understanding the emotion underlying the disconnection is important. But you can still experience activities together that are connecting. Go on a date night or go for a hike; increase the number of positive interactions you have together. Don’t use these as spaces to bring up your problems. Find ways to spend time together that are fun that doesn’t necessarily address directly the relationship issue, but add to the emotional bank account in the relationship. Research shows that couples need five positive interactions for every negative interaction. This helps build up the general good feelings you have toward each other.
Take responsibility for your part in the cycle
None of us are perfect, and part of getting our emotionally unavailable partners to open up is showing them that we see our part in the relationship’s struggles. If you catch yourself criticizing, interrupting, or being unkind in any way to your partner, own it. Here’s what that might look like: “I’m sorry for the way I handled this conversation. I know when I get angry it makes you want to check out. I got angry because I miss you and I get scared.”
Be vulnerable and have patience
When you’re frustrated with a partner’s emotional unavailability, you might be tempted to tell them it’s their fault or that they’re hurting you. But you’ll likely get a better reaction if you instead focus on how you’re feeling. Learning how to express your fears and longings so that your partner feels open to you takes practice. It also takes time. Especially when one or both partners has been emotionally unavailable for a while, those walls won’t come down instantly. So persevere, and when you don’t get the response you’re hoping for, accept it and tell yourself to try again next time.
Get help sooner rather than later
A relationship is a two-person dynamic, and when one person is shut down, it’s hard to resurrect on your own. Don’t put off getting help! If a relationship has been dysfunctional for years, it’s much more difficult to repair the disconnects because patterns are entrenched and it becomes harder to change habitual behaviors. If you start to sense your spouse drifting, or you’re noticing your arguments aren’t getting resolved, try to get to a therapist, counselor or coach ASAP. It’s better to have a couple of sessions to check in with each other than to wait until real damage has been done.
Know When To Call It Quits
Sometimes one of you is willing to work on the relationship, but the other clearly is not. If you find that you are listening to podcasts, getting counseling for yourself, and reading every book you can get your hands on, but your partner is simply retreating to their corner uninterested in exploring the options-you may be with someone who doesn’t have a growth mindset. This is very difficult because you can’t change them, they have to want to change themselves. The only thing you can do is work on your issues separately from your partner and lead by example. At some point, you will either motivate them with the changes they see in you, or you will realize that you want, and deserve, more from a relationship than they are capable of giving.