Distancing in Relationships

For most people, being in a long-term relationship means stability, certainty, and comfort. We commonly assume that once married or in a long-term relationship, we won’t have to be alone or feel lonely again. We devote our time, energy, and feelings to our partners, expecting that they will, in turn, meet our needs for attachment, love, and safety.

Still, like many other people in long-lasting relationships, you may not be sure where your marriage stands. You might feel that your relationship has slipped from being lovers and soulmates to becoming more like roommates. Many people feel lonely in long-term relationships, lacking a foundation for connection beyond children and everyday routines and responsibilities.

Changes that contribute to distancing in relationships are frequently subtle. After years of a happy, passionate relationship, you may realize that something has shifted between you and your partner, causing you to feel distant and disconnected. Despite being married, both of you feel entirely alone, retreating into yourselves and avoiding sharing your thoughts, feelings, and passion. Diminished physical contact, demanding careers, parenting responsibilities, and a lack of shared activities further widen the gap between you. 

Ignoring these signs of distancing in relationships can result in a breakdown in communication, erosion of trust, and, ultimately, the failure of the relationship itself.

The Fundamentals of Happiness: What Contributes to Happy Partnerships?

An emotional connection is the foundation of a successful relationship. When a couple feels profoundly connected, they are more likely to be honest, trust one another, be vulnerable, openly express their emotional needs, and enjoy a passionate sexual life.

According to research, happiness in a relationship can be defined as meeting each other’s expectations. Sharing love and commitment, being good friends, and supporting one another contribute to relationship happiness. Research shows that closeness and intimacy are linked to marital satisfaction, but being married longer may not make a couple happier. Trust, effective communication, shared values, respect, patience, and forgiveness are crucial. Happy couples understand and empathize, especially in challenging circumstances.

What is Distancing in Relationships and Why It Happens

However, sometimes, we need space or different kinds of interaction in our relationships. And this need for personal space is natural and healthy. Just because your partner needs space doesn’t mean they don’t care. They might need to rediscover themselves or pursue some activities independently.

Distancing in relationships happens when one or both partners withdraw emotionally and/or physically from each other, creating a gap in their connection and intimacy.

Relationship stress

According to Dr. John Gottman, who has studied relationships for decades, the emotional connection partners share is the foundation for keeping love alive and transforming challenges into opportunities to improve their bond. Understanding and responding to each other’s needs for connection is crucial for the success of any relationship, a concept Dr. John Gottman summarizes with the idea of an “emotional bid.”

Bids for connection go beyond words, encompassing actions, and gestures that carry deeper meanings, like offering support or affection through seemingly simple acts. The way partners respond to these bids—by turning towards, away from, or against them—significantly influences the health and longevity of their relationship, with positive responses fostering closeness and negative ones potentially leading to its demise. Happy couples are distinguished by their frequent positive reactions to these bids, effectively depositing into their “Emotional Bank Account,” which symbolizes their ongoing commitment and love.

However, responding to your partner’s emotional cues can be difficult, and missing them is all too easy. This behavior, which Dr. Gottman defines as ignoring or diverting your partner’s attempts to connect, can strain the relationship. Ignoring or reacting negatively to these attempts at emotional connection weakens the bond and expands the emotional gap between partners, turning soulmates and lovers into strangers.

Relationship dynamics: the pursuer-distancer behavior

Dr. Gottman argues that a pursuer-distancer relationship dynamic, in which one partner pursues while the other withdraws in stressful situations, is a leading cause of divorce. According to researchers from the Gottman Institute, a partner with distancing behavior tends to seek physical and emotional distance from the other when faced with relationship stress. If there’s too much conflict, pressure, or criticism, the distancer can feel overwhelmed and withdraw from their partner. They may have difficulties being vulnerable and turning toward their spouse’s emotional bids.

Stresses outside the relationship

Continuous or extreme stress can influence all aspects of life, including relationships. Constant stress prevents your body and mind from recovering from the “fight or flight” reaction, causing an inability to relax, concentration issues, eating and sleeping disorders, mental health issues, and physical illnesses. However, it can also cause complications in relationships. Stress frequently diverts our attention and energy from the connection, making us emotionally unavailable. This might lead to communication breakdown, a lack of shared activities, and trust issues, weakening the foundation of closeness and intimacy.

Attachment styles

Avoidant Attachment Style

An avoidant attachment style can create a significant barrier to intimacy in relationships, leading to a pattern of distancing behaviors. People with this style crave independence and often view emotional closeness as a threat to their autonomy. This fear can manifest as emotional withdrawal, keeping them at arm’s length from their partner. They may become uncomfortable or anxious when a partner expresses strong emotions or desires a deeper connection.

Furthermore, vulnerability and sharing personal feelings can feel terrifying for someone with an avoidant attachment. They may downplay their own emotions, deflect attempts at deeper conversations, or even avoid spending extended periods of time with a partner to minimize the risk of emotional exposure.

This fear of intimacy can also lead to preemptive distancing. Anticipating potential rejection or a threat to their independence, individuals with this style may distance themselves before a partner has the chance to do so.

Disorganized Attachment Style (aka Fearful-Avoidant)

People with a disorganized attachment style experience a complex and often contradictory set of emotions when it comes to relationships, leading them to distance themselves in several ways. This style typically stems from childhood experiences with inconsistent or neglectful caregivers, creating a deep-seated fear of intimacy alongside a strong desire for closeness.

This fear of intimacy can manifest as withdrawal when a relationship starts to become emotionally intimate. Subconsciously, they may sabotage closeness to avoid the potential pain of rejection or being engulfed by a partner’s needs. This creates a confusing dynamic for the other person, who might be unsure about the disorganized partner’s true feelings.

Furthermore, individuals with a disorganized attachment style often exhibit unpredictable behavior. They may be very interested in a partner one moment and then become distant or even angry the next. This emotional volatility and inconsistency can be frightening and off-putting to partners, leading them to distance themselves to avoid getting hurt.

Anxious Attachment Style

While seemingly craving closeness, an anxious attachment style can ironically lead to distancing behaviors in relationships. This paradox stems from a deep-seated fear of abandonment and a constant need for reassurance. Individuals with this style often exhibit clingy behavior, smothering their partner with affection or demands for attention. This intensity can be overwhelming for a partner, creating a sense of suffocation and ultimately pushing them away to regain some space.

Furthermore, their heightened anxiety can lead them to misinterpret a partner’s actions or words. For example, a partner needing some time alone might be seen as a sign of withdrawal or waning affection, triggering further anxiety and clinginess. This misinterpretation creates a cycle of pushing and pulling that can damage the relationship.

The constant fear of abandonment also fuels a need for constant reassurance. They may constantly seek confirmation of love and commitment, which can feel draining and controlling to the other person. This can lead the partner to withdraw emotionally or even consider ending the relationship to escape the pressure.

Finally, the fear of rejection can lead them to avoid expressing their true feelings or needs. This can create a disconnect in the relationship, making it difficult for the partner to truly understand and connect with them. The constant push and pull dynamic created by these distancing behaviors can be very stressful for both partners. The anxious partner may feel increasingly insecure and rejected, while the other partner may feel overwhelmed and suffocated.

Anxiety, depression, and past trauma

Other personal factors such as anxiety and depression or past trauma can significantly impact the dynamics within a relationship, leading to emotional and physical distancing between partners.

Anxiety and depression instill feelings of worthlessness and isolation in the affected person, which may cause them to retreat and participate less in the relationship. They may struggle to articulate their emotions or find joy in shared experiences, which their spouse may interpret as a lack of interest or affection.

Past trauma adds another level of complexity to how people interact in relationships. People who have experienced trauma may struggle to trust others, making it difficult for them to open up or feel comfortable in intimate situations. This guardedness can lead to hyper-independence and inhibit deep emotional connections, resulting in a palpable gap between couples. Trauma can also cause heightened reactivity to conflict or perceived slights, which further strains the relationship.

The internal aspects significantly impact both the individual experiencing them and their spouse, eventually affecting the overall relationship. The partner who is not immediately affected may feel neglected, excluded, or helpless, contributing to emotional detachment and distance in a relationship.

Recognizing the Signs of Distancing in Relationships

Addressing these distance concerns is critical to keep your relationship healthy and happy. Couples counseling can provide a secure setting to identify and address distancing early on, delve into the underlying causes, navigate these problems, and build a stronger, more resilient relationship.

Common signs of emotional distancing in relationships

Taking the time to pinpoint the signs and underlying reasons for emotional distance in your relationship is an excellent first step toward building a healthier connection.

  • Difficulty expressing feelings: There is something stopping you from being honest about your feelings with each other.
  • Withholding affection: You feel more like roommates than lovers. One or both of you intentionally refrain from showing love or care through physical touch, words, or actions.
  • Intimacy issues: Emotional distance is typically associated with a lack of physical closeness and limited sexual interactions.
  • Lack of empathy: One or both of you cannot understand or share the other person’s feelings.
  • Lack of support: There is an absence of encouragement or help from one spouse to the other, which weakens your bond.
  • Communication breakdown: There is a loss of connection and understanding between you and your spouse, making addressing issues and having meaningful conversations challenging.
  • Different emotional needs: There is a mismatch between what each of you needs to be emotionally fulfilled, resulting in estrangement and detachment.
  • Preference for being alone: You avoid spending time with each other and instead spend time alone or with friends.
  • Apathy during arguments: One or both of you demonstrate a lack of interest or care in addressing disputes, showing disengagement from the relationship.
  • Unhappiness within the partnership: You experience a deep-seated dissatisfaction that stems from feeling misunderstood, unsupported, or disconnected from one’s partner.
  • Unresolved conflicts: There is an incapacity or unwillingness to engage profoundly and resolve concerns, which causes bitterness and isolation.
  • Feeling emotionally detached and lonely: There is a lack of closeness, support, and emotional satisfaction within your relationship.
  • Poor listening skills: You listen only to replay, which shows that one or both of you lack genuine interest or effort to understand the other person’s perspective and feelings.
  • Infidelity: One or both of you are engaged in an extramarital affair. Feelings of betrayal upon the revelation of an affair can lead to a sense of detachment because it undermines the relationship’s trust basis.

Your relationship therapist can help you acknowledge and accept responsibility for the parts both of you have played instead of attributing fault. With this approach, you can start on the path to recovery.

Emotional Distancing

Emotional and intimate disconnection in relationships is sometimes caused by misunderstandings and challenges that the couple was unaware of because they had not discussed their feelings and experiences. You and your spouse may struggle with communication challenges, have conflicting parenting styles that regularly result in arguments, or have different sexual needs and desires, all of which can create distance and weaken your relationship.

Many couples get trapped in destructive patterns, such as blame, contempt, or avoidance, that can erode trust and create emotional disconnection. This unhealthy relationship dynamic can leave you feeling alone and unhappy. Sharing laughter, dreams, and fears becomes rare, replaced by increasing silence and withdrawal. Conversations that once flowed smoothly may become difficult or shallow, leaving important issues unresolved and pushing you further apart.

Physical Distancing

Different individuals have distinct sex and intimacy needs, which is normal. However, failing to address your intimacy difficulties might result in different expectations, poor communication, disappointment, and emotional distancing.

The other way around, emotional detachment frequently sets the stage for physical distancing and diminishing intimacy. So, intimacy problems often indicate a deeper issue at the heart of the relationship. Problems with sexual desire and other sex-related issues are not unique to one partner but rather an interpersonal issue. To get to the bottom of why you and your partner are physically apart, you need to look at both the outside and inside factors that affect your mental and physical health and have a significant impact on your sexual behavior.

Many couples in sexless relationships dread discussing their intimacy concerns. But when we don’t know what our partner is thinking and feeling, we may jump to conclusions, make assumptions, or project our negative feelings or behaviors onto them. This only leads to a greater emotional and, consequently, physical disconnection.

So, having open conversations about sexual needs, desires, and concerns lays the groundwork for a healthy and satisfying sexual relationship. For example, it can be helpful to know how social norms, family values, and your own sexual experiences affect your sexual behavior. Sharing these thoughts with your partner can help them understand and support you more.

The Impact of Distancing in Relationships

The effects on emotional well-being

Emotional detachment in a relationship can profoundly affect partners’ emotional well-being, frequently resulting in a decline in individual mental health and self-esteem. When partners distance themselves, emotional detachment can cause feelings of isolation, resentment, frustration, anxiety, and depression.

Your partner’s gradual emotional withdrawal can cause you to struggle with insecurity, chronic doubt about your worthiness of love, and low self-esteem. You may question your value and struggle with feelings of loneliness and dissatisfaction in your relationship. This internal struggle not only hurts mental health but can also cause physical health problems. It is, therefore, essential to recognize emotional distancing signs and get help early on to avoid long-term damage to your emotional health.

The impact on a relationship

Emotional and physical distancing often acts as a catalyst for ongoing relationship problems, potentially leading to separation or divorce. The steady erosion of closeness and intimacy destroys the foundation of trust and mutual respect, essential components of a healthy partnership. A lack of emotional connection and understanding can make even minor problems impossible, leading to a cycle of hatred and negativity. 

Relationship experts stress the importance of dealing with emotional distance early on. As mentioned, Dr. John Gottman’s research shows that couples who don’t address their distancing behaviors are much more likely to see their relationships deteriorate over time.

Can Distancing in a Relationship Be a Good Thing?

Taking some distance in a relationship can be beneficial. Taking time and space to themselves allows partners to protect their independence and cultivate personal growth and self-awareness. Healthy relationships require boundaries. Setting boundaries in your relationship is not a sign of selfishness but rather an essential component of your self-care and relationship well-being. Respecting each other’s alone time and maintaining different hobbies and friendships are necessary for a relationship to thrive. This time apart can actually strengthen your connection, allowing you to develop a deeper appreciation for one another and reconnect from a new perspective.

Navigating Through Distancing: Practical Tips from a Therapist

Overcoming distance in relationships is possible but requires both partners’ commitment and intentional effort. Here are some strategies that help bridge the gap and reconnect closeness and intimacy. 

Communication strategies

Improving communication is essential if you want to overcome distancing. Couples therapy can create a safe environment where you feel comfortable expressing your emotions without fear of being judged, blamed, or misunderstood. Your therapist will help you develop practical communication skills such as active listening or entirely focusing on what your partner is saying, absorbing their message, and responding carefully. Furthermore, scheduled check-ins with one another, in which you set aside time to share your daily experiences and feelings, can significantly improve connection. Also, you will practice using “l phrases” to communicate emotions in a non-confrontational manner, which can help encourage empathy and open and honest communication.

Rekindling intimacy

Bringing intimacy back requires rekindling both physical and emotional connection. Improving intimacy is not just about sex. Making changes to your relationship routine, such as scheduling regular date nights, organizing shared activities, or spending quality time together, can revive love and connection.

However, it is okay if you struggle to rekindle intimacy on your own because help is available. Couples therapy or retreats can help couples focus on each other away from daily distractions and build stronger emotional and physical bonds with the guidance of a skilled therapist.  

Learning each other's attachment style

Understanding attachment styles can helpful for managing distance in relationships. By identifying your own tendencies and those of your partner, you gain valuable self-awareness. Maybe you become anxious when your partner needs space, or perhaps they withdraw during conflict. This knowledge fosters empathy and prevents you from taking their actions personally. Additionally, you gain a common language to discuss distancing issues. You can talk about anxieties and fears in a constructive way, leading to better communication and problem-solving.

Learning about attachment styles empowers you to develop coping mechanisms and build a more secure bond. You can identify triggers that lead to distancing and develop strategies to manage them. For example, if you withdraw during conflict, you can practice expressing your needs calmly. This knowledge also allows you to work towards a secure attachment, which involves healthy communication, boundaries, and expressing appreciation. While attachment styles alone won’t solve distancing issues, they equip you with tools to navigate them effectively.

Learning each other's love language

Distancing relationships can occur when couples express and receive love differently. While love is a universal language, each person prefers unique ways of expressing and receiving it. 

Learning each other’s love languages and understanding how to show your spouse how you feel, whether through words of affirmation, acts of service, gifts, quality time, or physical touch, can improve communication and increase your emotional connection. When you understand and respond to each other’s love language, you are more likely to feel emotionally validated, connected, and safe in a relationship. This deepens the connection and builds trust.

Maybe It’s Time to Seek Couples Therapy

When couples struggle to overcome distancing on their own, they may benefit from professional guidance. Couples therapy allows you to explore the origins of your distance with professional guidance. This expert support can provide new insights, allowing you to understand the root issues of your problems from a new perspective. Finally, therapy can offer effective communication strategies and conflict resolution strategies tailored to your unique situation. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Priscilla is a therapist, psychoanalyst, and the practice owner of Imagine Emotional Wellness, a culturally responsive online therapy practice in New York, New Jersey, and Washington DC. 

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