Emotional Detachment In Relationships Is More Common Than You Think, Say Therapists Who’ve Seen It All
Relationships can be complicated — on one hand, you want to let your guard down and fully trust your partner, because you know in order to be 100 percent committed, you need to be “all in.” Conversely, if you’ve ever had your heart broken or simply have been in a relationship that didn’t work out the way you hoped, you might subconsciously feel the need to err on the side of caution. This thought process, while totally understandable, can lead you to bring emotional detachment into your relationship — often, without even realizing it.
For example, do you find yourself (or your partner) avoiding tough conversations that require vulnerability and openness? Is he or she holding back from being completely invested the way you want them to be? Or maybe you’re the one who shuts down when you feel you’re getting too close for comfort? Whether it’s deliberate or unintentional, this type of avoidance could be a sign of emotional detachment — which may be negatively affecting your connection in more ways than either of you realize.
At its root, emotional detachment means someone is physically present in an interaction or relationship, but is not emotionally present or involved. “It's like going on a big scary roller coaster but not letting yourself feel, show, or express that feeling," says love coach Gemini Ferrie. "That means the person's mind is in control of the situation, but their emotions are not allowed to participate because they are being consciously or unconsciously hidden from the self and/or another person.”
Psychologist Dr. Perpetua Neo shares a similar thought-starting analogy: “When your partner is emotionally detached, it feels as though you are paddling alone in a boat that requires two people to work at it.” Not only does this sound both incredibly difficult and extremely frustrating, but it can also cause confusion — and even worse, resentment — to build over time.
In fact, your relationship might feel functional (e.g. you’re keeping up with appearances, spending time together, going through the motions as usual) but the consequences of being with an emotionally detached person are nearly impossible to ignore long-term.
This unhealthy behavior comes to a head when emotions begin to surface, and you or your partner may push them down in an effort to remain cool, calm, and composed. “He or she may believe having emotions is weak, or fear they’ll lose control of themselves if they let themselves feel," Ferrie explains. "They’ll be ‘in their head’ a lot, wondering, guessing, trying to figure themselves and you out, and weighing pros and cons.”
If reading this resonates with you, and you’re wondering if you or your partner are emotionally detached, change is possible. There are thoughtful decisions you can make, and three important proactive steps you can take to fix the problem, as outlined by Neo and Ferrie below.
Address The Cause
First and foremost, find out what’s causing you or your partner to be emotionally detached. Is it the aforementioned heartbreak, or was there another life trauma that could be the culprit?
Whatever the unique case may be, Dr. Neo advises couples to tackle it head on. “Figure out the root of the problem," she says. "Was it caused by a certain stressor that was the straw that broke the camel’s back?”
While this question can seem polarizing at first, doing the work to identify the roadblock is essential to resolving the issue. Oftentimes these conversations can be uncomfortable and require a level of vulnerability that you or your partner may not be used to, but they are undoubtedly necessary in order to break down the barrier that’s perpetuating emotional detachment.
By communicating without inhibition, and wholeheartedly supporting your partner (or vice-versa), you’ll move forward rather than remaining fixated on past events. Dr. Neo adds, “If it’s caused by a mental health struggle, encourage your partner to see someone who can help them solve (rather than manage) their emotional detachment — e.g. by giving them a list of support rather than forcing them to see someone you’ve picked out.”
Once you’ve identified the root of the problem, actively work on continuing to foster this newfound open line of communication. Dr. Neo suggests taking it a step further by setting ground rules as far as what is and isn’t acceptable in your relationship.
It doesn’t have to be overly complex, and you shouldn’t take the “0 to 100” approach in this case. Instead, aim to start with something simple and stick to it consistently. “It takes two to tango," says. Dr. Neo. "Resolve to speak to each other honestly and kindly, and commit to the time you’ve allocated for this."
While you’re navigating this new, emotionally invested territory with your partner, asking questions along the way is more important than ever. For instance, Dr. Neo attributes some emotionally detached relationships to resentment. If this is the case, a question to ask is: What do I do, or not do, that triggers the resentment? By sparking a more meaningful conversation with your partner and inviting them to express their true feelings in a safe space, you’ll learn how your actions affect their feelings. This type of authentic communication can take some patience and accountability in the short term, but the longterm benefits will connect you on a deeper level.
Connect With Yourself
If you or your partner are emotionally detached, it means you’re not only emotionally unavailable in your relationship, but you’re likely out of touch with yourself as well. This can unknowingly have implications that carry over into multiple aspects of your life — including family, friendships, and romantic relationships.
Ferrie explains that by cultivating a profound love and acceptance of yourself, you'll make love very familiar. “When love shows up in the form of a great guy, you will have already practiced with yourself, so you will know how to receive and appreciate that love from someone else," she says.
The truth is, your love relationships will only improve when your relationship with yourself improves — in this case, there is no easy way out. By becoming open, honest, and vulnerable with yourself and the parts you have been ignoring, you will see that these voids are just hurts yearning for your love and comfort.
Above all, how you talk to yourself, perceive yourself, treat yourself, and feel about yourself will all need to be upgraded to match the highest vision you have of yourself.
Ferrie concludes: “Instead of judging, criticizing, ignoring, and neglecting yourself and your needs, you must learn how to love, praise, acknowledge, encourage, honor, and respect yourself and your needs in order to finally shed emotional detachment.”