Emotional distance in marriage, also called emotional neglect in marriage, is a painful dynamic. It’s a lack of emotional support or feeling emotional intimacy with their partner.
Others feel disconnected, and in response, they emotionally disconnect themselves and give their partner the silent treatment. It has been given the label “emotional anorexia” or “intimacy avoidance” because it’s as essential as food that someone refuses to eat.
Therapists describe severe emotional distance as a form of “emotional abuse,” believing that in a healthy relationship, it isn’t sufficient to effectively co-parent your children.
When you feel lonely in a long term relationship, it taps into feelings of childhood emotional neglect and a previous history of an abusive relationship between the spouse and their parent. But it’s not as simple as “finding the bad guy,” in this case, the one who has been emotionally neglectful in the marriage may be mimicking their parent, or responding to those earlier wounds.
Because often, when one partner is failing to notice the signs of emotional longing and desires to connect, say in date nights, they become angry and withdraw, and this begins a “demon dance” of a downward spiral. Feelings connected to this issue can feel like it started with your spouse, but it might instead be a sign of an overdrawn emotional bank account.
Camilla partially blames herself. The emotional distance in marriage was just too upsetting to her, she explains. “I’m too clingy,” she says, “I should leave him alone more…but I just can’t. I’m lonely. And I can’t stand feeling like we are two strangers living under the same roof.”
Her husband, Paul, agrees. “I tell her: ‘Just leave me alone, and I’ll come to you when I’m ready.’
“I can’t stand it when she asks over and over ‘Do you love me?’ I say: ‘We’re married aren’t we?'”
But he never comes to reassure Camilla of his love because he is never “ready,” enough. We will never know for sure just how long Paul would need before he would reach out. Camilla never waits long enough for him to feel the urge to go to her.
The difference between Camilla and Paul go back much earlier than their marriage. They are “attachment style” differences. Attachment styles are “baked in the cake” very early in childhood.
These differences impact how close is “too close” or how far is “too far,” for each of them. Both feel these differences acutely. Attachment Styles are also unlikely to change. Differences in Attachment Styles are what marital researcher John Gottman calls a “Perpetual Problem.”
But the good news is that the real issue isn’t that Camilla needs more active attention and Paul needs more time alone. In emotionally distant or emotionally neglectful marriages, both spouses have very little empathy for the other person’s needs. Or even an awareness that these needs aren’t based on the quality of their relationship.
When asked about their early marriage, we learn that Paul used to love how attentive Camilla was. He called it “pampering” when they were dating. “She used to wait on me, like asking me if I wanted anything to drink…and the sex was great back then!”
“He appreciated me back then…” Camilla added woefully. “He noticed what I did for him, and I could tell he liked it. Now he says: “Leave me alone, will ya?”
So What Happened?
And living together after their marriage.
Camilla noticed Paul “pulling back” after they moved in.
What she didn’t realize was that Paul was taking no more time for himself after the marriage, than he had while the couple was still dating.
In fact, he was actually spending a lot less time alone than before.
But now, because they were living together, Camilla directly witnessed the times Paul wanted to spend doing his “alone time” hobbies.
And she took it personally. It felt to her like he was emotionally neglecting his marriage and his wife.
Camilla knew Paul was a guy who often kept to himself. And knew about the many solitary hobbies he enjoyed. She just didn’t realize that after they got married, he would still want to do them. And she didn’t realize that his doing them meant he would be spending more time away from her to do them.
What Camilla once found so attractive about Paul, his quiet independence, she now saw as a threat to her feelings of security.
Paul no longer saw her attentiveness as a sign of love. He saw it as “invasive,” when instead, he needed time to do the things he enjoyed. In his mind, he felt Camilla was “needy.” Paul was used to the bachelor lifestyle, and deep down, he wondered if he had made a mistake in his decision to live with anybody.
Hence, a cycle of increasing emotional distance in marriage began, and repeated over and over, becoming emotional neglect in marriage.
For some couples, this characteristic suggests a neuro-diverse marriage in which the partners have profoundly different needs for intimacy.
The more Camilla attempted to engage Paul, during the moments when he “just needed to be by himself,” the less he seemed to appreciate her attention and “pampering.”
The more irritated and withdrawn Paul became, the more effort Camilla put into “doing the things he liked” to capture his attention.
Then she got upset that he wasn’t responding.
In response to her upset, Paul got more irritated and angry. And more distant and withdrawn. And the vicious cycle repeated.
After a while, Camilla stopped trying to get his attention, and began, instead, to complain and criticize him for being unresponsive to her. And for needing to spend so much time alone.
In response, Paul withdrew.
And they spent less and less time together.
And the time they did spend together was filled with a lot of tension and resentment.
…there are only two problems in marriage: Not getting what you want, and getting what you want…”
Paul chose Camilla because he wanted a companion, someone to “pull him out of his shell.” He loved the fact that Camilla was outgoing, talkative, and really loved to shower affection on him.
So what Paul wanted in a mate was precisely what he got. An emotionally engaged spouse.
Camilla wanted a thoughtful man, and not a flirt, like her first serious relationship. Someone mature, and even shy, because she would know that if he told he loved her, he truly did. She knew that Paul was shy, even withdrawn at times, and needed “alone time” from people, in order to refuel.
Just as she had hoped, Camilla got the mature, shy man, who was earnest in his affections toward her. And needed time alone. But instead of appreciating that difference, she described it as emotional neglect.
Couples are surprised to learn that there are only two problems in marriage.
And they are even more surprised to realize that just as every coin has two sides, so do the personality traits of every spouse.
Often the very qualities that draw you to your partner are the very same traits that now upset you.
The “outgoing” spouse you so appreciated, soon becomes the spouse that “never stops talking.”
The “strong, silent type,” becomes “taciturn and withdrawn.” A spouse that contributes to emotional neglect in marriage.
At first, Camilla “complained” about Paul’s lack of attention, but this eventually she was criticizing him. The more she criticized his distance and “coldness,” the more withdrawn Paul became. Both of them engaged in a “demon dance” that neither one of them enjoyed.
And the sex suffered as well.
The passionate sex they enjoyed at first began to lose some of its passion.
And then both.
Camilla was a “Partner Engager” and used sex to feel emotionally connected to her partner. During sex, she wanted to hear Paul tell her that he loved her. She didn’t want to feel an emotional distance in marriage and also feel this same emotional distance during sex. But she did.
Paul was a “Trancer” in sex. For him, sex was the opportunity to quietly connect with Camilla, and show his deepest feelings for her non-verbally. When she would talk to him, trying to get him to say the words that would reassure her, he would get distracted from his arousal. He couldn’t both focus on his sensate arousal and think up things he could say to please Camilla. Sex, instead of being a time to connect on a non-verbal level, began to feel like another demand. Eventually, he began to lose his arousal altogether.
If they could have had sex in silence, he could have become “swept away” by the sensations and warm feelings he had toward his wife. Instead, sex became another exchange where he felt “put upon.” And he grew more resentful.
Whenever they had sex in silence, though, as he preferred, Camilla felt “used.” In her mind, if he couldn’t express “how he really felt” in something as intimate as sex, there was something seriously wrong –with him, with her, or with the relationship. Maybe it meant that he didn’t really love her. So instead of relaxing into the quiet, noticing his tender touches, she got upset. She called these encounters “wham bam sex.” And she withdrew from them.
The next thing that happened is common in these types of marriages: when he’d lose his arousal, he began to lose his erections. Then, his anxiety about his ability to keep his erections grew. This intensified how often he would lose his erections. For Camilla, when he lost his erection, it was further “proof” to her that he didn’t really care for her or find her attractive.
As the tensions grew, he withdrew, and the sex dropped off.
The first step, according to Dr. K, is to increase the fondness and admiration both feel for each other. Couples like Paul and Camilla are helped to remember a time when they each got what they wanted from the relationship.
After a thorough assessment of the couple’s relationship, patterns become clearer, as do the goals for treatment.
As each partner began to recognize the “demon dance,” they began to change their tune.
It wasn’t easy.
Both of them had to make an effort, and it was difficult at first, not to take things personally.
“I knew he loved me, deep down, but why didn’t he show it?
Science-Based Couples Therapy gave us space, and the chance to really talk honestly to each other. I came to see that his need for ‘alone time’ was just that: A need to be by himself. It didn’t mean he didn’t want to be with me.
It wasn’t him rejecting me. I get that now, but it was too painful for me to get that on my own.”
The more she could reassure herself that Paul just needed time for himself–to refuel and not to “escape,” the easier it was for Paul to move toward her.
“I stopped feeling bad about needing to be by myself, which was part of what made me so angry. If Camilla married me this way, why did she suddenly want me to change? Once I got that Camilla really understood that my alone time wasn’t anything personal to her, she backed off. And when I was able to spend time, every day, on the things I just liked to do, I had more to give back to her.”
In this interaction, Camilla needed to be the “mover,” the initiator of change.
But Paul also had to initiate action, as well.
For example, it was tough for Paul to actually say the words, “I love you.” These weren’t words he’d often heard growing up. In his family, love was something you showed, not said. And he also learned to accept emotional distance in marriage as the norm by watching the way his own parents interacted.
They loved each other, but they, too, were very formal in the way they interacted,” he said.
The exercises we did during online couples therapy also strengthened their Fondness and Admiration system really made a difference.
Paul began to express himself and to ask for what he needed without ambivalence or blame.
While telling Camilla just how much she meant to him was hard for him initially, the impact on Camilla was dramatic.
She began to feel more secure and loved. This made it easier for her to encourage him to take time alone when he needed it.
Instead of a “vicious circle,” this couple learned to engage in a “virtuous circle” of love, intimacy, and affection.
And the sex also improved when they learned that their differences were really a difference in their sexual styles. Paul learned to be very verbally affectionate at the start of sex before he became highly aroused. Camilla came to accept that as he got more aroused sexually, he stopped talking and tuned-in to his sensations.
She learned to do more of that, herself. Their sex started out with verbally affectionate exchanges and ended up with both of them expressing their feelings physically, rather than using words.
As both got what they wanted, the tension decreased, and his erections returned. As did their mutual passion.
Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her online couples therapy and sex therapy practice for couples in Massachusetts, Florida, Arizona and California. She is a Gottman Certified Couples Therapist, has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and has been a AASECT board-certified sex therapist from 1982-2017. She continues to work as a sex therapist.
We schedule three double sessions with you in total. You complete an extensive online relationship questionnaire. In that final meeting, we spend almost two hours with you explaining, from a science perspective what's working in your relationship, what's not, and how to fix it.
It's all done online, either week-by-week or over a weekend.