Have you ever felt like your soul mate turned into your roommate?
You used to be able to tell your spouse everything. But 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. Your left feeling uncertain about how to connect with the person you once couldn’t stop thinking about.
Every couple develops some emotional distance the longer they are together. And conflict erupts over feeling like your partner is too close or not close enough. Then most people try to work on their spouse’s distancing behaviors instead of their own. The more you try to get your spouse to understand your point, the more you end up pushing them away. At this point, emotional distance in a marriage is co-created.
While you will never return to the butterflies and spark you had at the beginning of your relationship, you can develop a new 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 present and available emotionally.
Define Emotional Intimacy
First, let’s identify what you are striving to develop when you relate to your spouse. Dr. Dan Papero, family therapist and international speaker, said it best when he defined intimacy as:
“…the ability to have a relationship with another human being in which I can be myself. And you can listen without correcting me or backing away. You can stay connected to me, and I can do the same for you.” ~ Dr. Papero, Divorce Video
Openness isn’t just expressing every thought and emotion you feel, it’s getting calm enough to keep learning about each other. Often we listen to our assumptions, expectations, hurt feelings more than keeping open to learning about each other.
Next, identify what gets in the way of you being able to stay connected especially when you disagree. What thoughts or feelings contribute to you distancing when talking or relating to your spouse?
Understand Emotional Distance
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-crated in an attempt to avoid conflict or feelings of hurt and rejection.
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 misery, you can do something about your own distancing.
Address Your Own Emotional Distance
Recognize when you are distancing, whether it’s pulling away internally or behaviorally. Some examples of emotional distance are:
- Taking differences personally or feeling hurt easily
- Being critical of spouse
- Giving advice or telling your spouse what to do
- Trying to prove your point
- Agreeing to keep the peace even when you don’t
- Using work/hobbies/substances to avoid conflict with spouse
- Turning to kids more than spouse
- Pretending to agree and doing what you want behind spouse back
- Avoiding topics that upset your spouse
- Being present physically but tuning your spouse out
If you recognize 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.” (Video: Myths about Communication.)
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 available. You don’t have to distance too. So when your spouse is available, you will be too.
Challenge Your Own Negative Assumptions
So how do you get yourself calm enough to not shut down? Find a new way to think when you interact with your spouse that makes you or your happiness feel less threatened. Challenge your assumptions, because your spouse’s behavior and/or response does not define your happiness nor your value!
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 don’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.
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.
How do you define emotional intimacy?
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Photo Credit: “Come Together” by Hartwig HKD