More married couples are lonely than ever before.
And many couples feel hopeless on how to better connect with their spouse after many years of distance growing between them. While you used to be able to tell your spouse anything. Over time, you learned what upsets your partner and you started avoiding those topics. Now you aren’t as open as when you first started dating. And some of you are shutting down positive feelings that used to come naturally.
Many of you are even wondering if having an affair or divorce is the answer to deal with your loneliness and intimacy problems in the marriage. But before you throw in the towel, let’s explore what contributes to this distance and how to address it.
While you may not return to the spark you had at the beginning of your relationship, you can develop a new, deeper level of emotional intimacy with your spouse. You do this by working on your own reactions and behaviors that are distancing, so you are more emotionally present, open, and playful with your spouse.
Understand Emotional Distance
Before we address emotional distance, we must first understand it. Many couples get emotional distance confused with marriage differences. Having a different goal or interest than your spouse doesn’t mean you have emotional distance. People can have different interests and ideas, yet still have a great connection and intimacy.
Emotional distance is a pattern of interactions. It is an emotional response to a perceived emotional threat and doesn’t occur without conflict either internally or externally. In other words, emotional distance is co-created in an attempt to avoid conflict or feelings of hurt and rejection.
Every couple develops some emotional distance the longer they are together. Most people try to work on their spouse’s distancing behaviors instead of their own. Typically, the more you try to get your spouse to understand your point, the more you end up pushing them away.
Almost everyone enjoys a little distance from time to time. It only becomes a problem when it erodes the marriage friendship between a couple. To this extreme, you may feel little or no positive feelings for your partner. But once you realize you play a part in creating your own loneliness, you can begin doing something about your own distancing.
Address Your Own Emotional Distance
Next, think about what thoughts or feelings contribute to you distancing when talking, interacting, or disagreeing with your spouse. It’s so much easier to observe what your spouse does or doesn’t do that triggers you to pull away, and it’s much harder to observe our own distance. But becoming a good observer of ourselves is the key to addressing our own distancing tendencies and finding new choices.
Grab something to write with and record which of the following ways you distance, whether it’s pulling away internally or behaviorally. Some examples of emotional distance are:
- Accommodating your spouse to keep the peace
- Using work, hobbies, substances, or an affair to avoid conflict with your spouse
- Turning to your kids for emotional or social needs more than your spouse
- Pretending to agree but doing what you want behind your spouse’s back
- Avoiding topics that upset your spouse
- Being present physically but tuning your spouse out
Also, record the reactions and behaviors you have that trigger emotional distance between you and/or your spouse. Here are some ideas to stir your reflections:
- Taking differences and others’ moods personally
- Being critical or thinking you’re the better spouse
- Giving advice or diagnosing your spouse
- Trying to prove your point and be heard
- Complaining in an attempt to get your spouse closer to you
- Being urgent and pressuring the other to talk
- Being self-critical and think no one wants to be with you
If you record any of these ways of distancing, then you are probably having a hard time staying calm in your spouse’s presence. Kathleen Cauley, licensed marriage and family therapist, emphasizes that communication is less about getting your point heard, and more about calming down to hear. In this way, openness is “staying interested in your spouse without assuming: 1) it has something to do with you, 2) it hurts your feelings, or 3) it will get in your way.” ( from the video: Myths about Communication.)
Challenge Your Negative Assumptions
So how do you get yourself calm enough to not pull away physically or emotionally? Find a new way to think when you interact with your spouse that makes you feel less emotionally threatened. Challenge your assumptions about your spouse, because your spouse’s behavior and/or response does not have to define your value or importance!
For example, if your spouse is emotionally unavailable to you on occasion, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be happy without his/her response. Nor does it mean that your spouse doesn’t care about you or you aren’t important to him/her. But when you make these assumptions, you probably start pulling away to protect yourself.
Our assumptions fuel our distance, and emotional separateness creates intimacy and openness. Meaning his emotions are separate from how he feels about you. If you don’t take your spouse’s busyness, tension, or unavailability as a threat to your own emotional well being, then you are free to be emotionally available and upbeat. You don’t have to distance too. So when your spouse is available, you will be too.
Developing a new level of emotional intimacy is developing a new way of thinking, so you can create a new way of being with your spouse. Stay tuned for Part 2 of the “Married and Lonely Series” where I explore steps to “Being Emotionally Intimate.”
What are you doing or thinking that contributes to your distancing with your spouse?
Marci Payne is a licensed counselor in Independence MO who works with disconnected couples who want to stop feeling like roommates. To dig deeper into what is contributing to your emotional distance, Subscribe to Liberating Choices and receive the “Journal for Self-Reflection: 15 Questions to Increase Emotional Intimacy” FREE.
Photo Credit: “Come Together” by Hartwig HKD