Marriage: Emotional Abandonment
When Your Spouse Shuts You Out
As a counselor, it’s a complaint I hear regularly from people desperately looking for help for their empty marriages. If any of these lines feel hauntingly like yours would be, be sure to keep reading. I have heard…
“I feel distant from her. It’s like there’s nothing between us and we have quit trying.”
“I try to get my husband to open up, but instead he shuts down and pulls away.”
“My wife doesn’t seem interested in me anymore. I feel like we’re a million miles apart.”
“I don’t know if I love him anymore.”
Ouch. What a hole in the heart if you want a great marriage. What we’re talking about here is emotional abandonment. Instead of physically leaving the relationship, your spouse simply checks out emotionally. They stop investing in the marriage, leaving you feeling disconnected and unwanted. You can sense the distance. To the outside world the situation can still look rosy at least for a while, but in reality the relationship has been dying a slow, quiet death for some time now.
How does a marriage reach this point? Sometimes it’s a slow slide into complacency, and other times the detachment is a little more sudden. Realize that if it’s a sudden abandonment, there likely is some precipitating event or incident between the two of you that needs to be resolved. On the other hand, if the deterioration has been more gradual, there are probably a lot of little things that have gone unresolved and are taking their toll on the relationship.
Here are some of the specific, primary causes of emotional distance between husband and wife:
Emotional abandonment is unforgiveness taken to its extreme conclusion. When we feel that our spouse has hurt us and we refuse to forgive them, we look for ways to protect ourselves from being hurt again in the future. Closing off our heart from the other person is an easy way to do this, but it has deadly consequences. Unforgiveness always leads to isolation. Overcoming unforgiveness requires a willingness to humble ourselves and seek forgiveness when we have hurt our spouse, and it also requires that we be willing to graciously extend forgiveness when our spouse has hurt us. This forgiveness step is based on a desire to re-unite, to re-engage and to fight for the marriage.
2. CALLOUS TREATMENT
When I am careless in how I treat my spouse, it gets old really quickly. Whether it’s discourteousness, unkindness, sarcasm or something worse, it creates an ongoing hurt that only starts out small. In time, it can grow into deep wounds as it festers driving a wedge between you. To avoid this, each partner needs to honestly look at their own attitudes and actions regularly and consider whether they are honoring their spouse or not. If in doubt and we rarely are, you can always ask you mate. Your spouse, above all others, needs to be treated with gentleness and respect. Sadly, its often others who get the most grace and patience from us. I believe, whether you might or not, that your spouse is not there by accident. They are God’s gift to you. Treat them like something precious to you and like you chose wisely in the first place.
3. LACK OF EFFORT
Sometimes the problem is a little less obvious than unforgiveness or harsh treatment. It is easy, especially for men, to just assume that the relationship is going along just fine, and so we don’t put in as much effort as we once did. We start to take our spouse for granted, leading them to think that they are not important in our lives. Wives too can get busy with other things and working keep the attraction between you alive may not be as high a priority with work, kids, and more. When the marriage slips from being one of the top priorities in the heart of one or both spouses, the other person senses the distance. This can cause them to feel unwanted or unvalued and in return, they withdraw into their world. Isolation grows.
4. LACK OF TIME
Many of us simply try to pack too much into a day… and into our lives. Our life is so fast-paced and often, our mate gets the leftovers. Ruled by the urgent, we fail to make time for the truly important: things like romancing, talking about issues and really developing a friendship with our spouse. We stay constantly busy, erasing quality “couple times” from our schedules. A marriage relationship cannot thrive if our contact with one another is limited to a quick bite of supper or a brief chat before bed. A good marriage requires weekly face-to-face time and shoulder-to-shoulder time. You need to both talk and have fun.
5. FEAR OF TALKING THROUGH ISSUES
Emotional detachment does not just happen out of the blue; there is always something behind it. If one or both of the spouses has an inability or fear of talking through the issues in their relationship, then this kind of disconnect will be the likely result. Usually both know there is something wrong, but they are hesitant to bring it up because they fear their spouse’s reaction. Or perhaps they feel like they’ve been through this before and it hasn’t helped, so why bother? They leave things alone so it doesn’t get worse. In these cases, there needs to be a clear second look at what it means to resolve conflict in a marriage – how to have a “good fight,” as it were, that really bring things to resolution. Without these skills, and a real courage to step up and deal with problems, the emotional distance will just continue to grow.
6. LIVING IN DENIAL
A lot of times, when things have started to go a bit sideways in the relationship, we don’t want to admit that it’s happening. Often the person truly needing to make some significant changes is most content to deny the existence of any real issues. We kind of live in denial, as if it’s not really happening, or it’s not that bad, or things will get better in time. But pretending things are okay doesn’t fix the real issues; it only causes the marriage to deteriorate for a longer period of time to the point where the couple just does not feel close anymore. Distance and isolation are the result.
WORKING THROUGH THE EMOTIONAL DISTANCE
The first step to dealing with emotional abandonment is to start to identify some of the root causes and to begin to take wise steps to deal with it. Don’t settle for living in isolation. Looks over the 6 causes of emotional detachment as listed above and come to agree on which you each can own. Beyond that, here are some suggestions for re-establishing a loving connection with your spouse:
1. AGREE TO TALK
At some point you have to agree to talk about the problems that exist between you. If you’re going to resolve issues, there needs to be a mutual commitment to listen to the other person’s concerns and to work towards improving the situation. Don’t corner your spouse with an unexpected lecture or a desperate explosion, but agree on a time and start slow but for sure, start together to work through your issues.
2. BE PREPARED
Before you have the talk, take the time separately to think through the unresolved issues that you’ll be discussing. What are your concerns in the relationship? In what areas do you feel you need to improve? What are your expectations of your spouse? To put your thoughts down on paper may be best, but either way, be prepared to be open and honest with each other about the real issues between you. Encourage your spouse to do the same. Be sure to take the time to really listen to what your spouse is saying. Give each other uninterrupted time to share your view on the difficulties.
3. BE DIRECT BUT GENTLE
Neither of you has anything to gain by holding back your true feelings. Be honest but be nice. Remember: unresolved issues lie at the heart of emotional detachment. So lay all your cards out on the table by sharing your hurts clearly. But do this responsibly. Don’t allow things to get out of hand. Be committed to talk through things sensibly. Take breaks to cool off if necessary but agree to continue. It is work but it is worth it. Ask each other the tough questions, and talk through the difficult issues that have been eating away at your relationship. Regardless of which partner initiated the wrong, you both need to work at resolving the problem. Fight for your marriage.
4. BEGIN TO MEET UNMET NEEDS
Often a person pulls back from the relationship because, in their mind, their needs are not being met. A healthy marriage demands that both partners actively work to discern the needs of their spouse, and work to meet those needs. Seek to understand your spouse’s needs and ask yourself how you can start to better express love by meeting these needs. Make your spouse and sorting things out your new priority. Be willing to accept their needs and not downplay them.
5. DEAL WITH YOUR OWN STUFF
If I am feeling abandoned by my spouse, I need to ask myself a tough question: What have I done to drive my spouse away? Now, it may not be solely your responsibility, likely only partially. Nevertheless, you have to find out what you are responsible for and take ownership for your actions. Really listen to your spouse. Drop being defensive or making excuses. Of course, there are things that your mate needs to deal with, and they may be withdrawing from you for selfish reasons, but that shouldn’t stop you from taking the steps that you know you need to take. Graciously work to be the mate that you know you want to be. Both parties must be prepared to make apologies and extend forgiveness as part of your recovery from the emotional detachment.
6. INTENTIONALLY RE-ENGAGE
If you are to re-establish your emotional connection, it won’t happen by accident and it won’t happen overnight. You need to agree to make your relationship a priority and spend some quality time together. Start doing things that allow you to have fun together. During these times, you are not allowed to have any “discussions” about the tough stuff. That is off limits. Each plan a few dates and actually put these into your schedules. It’s time to re-enter one another’s lives again.
7. ACT KINDLY
This may not be a revolutionary new idea, but it can have a great impact on the health of your marriage. You must act kindly toward your spouse. Treat them well. Include them. Admittedly, the wider the gap between you, the harder the attempts will be. Small gestures of warmth, acts of kindness, and efforts to rekindle the romance between you will go a long way toward renewing your bond with one another. Do this from the heart with real commitment to make the necessary changes. Fight for your marriage not against each other.
8. LOVE UNCONDITIONALLY
Somebody has to break out of the negative cycle of eye-for an eye, poor treatment for poor treatment. You need to step out of the insult-for-insult cycle and respond differently. You cannot control your spouse’s behaviour, but you can control your own. For many of us, we need help to break out of bad habits of trashing or withdrawing. Honestly, I’ve had to ask God many times to help me do what is right. He does. And regardless of how your spouse responds, you must choose to treat them with love. This is not easy to do when your partner is not reciprocating, but it is what you vowed to do when you promised to love each other “for better or for worse.” And nothing breaks down emotional barriers like consistent care. Take that “love dare” of 40 days of unconditional love and you will start to see the ice melt.
9. ALLOW GOD TO WORK
Whether or not you come from a faith background, I believe there is a God who wants the best for you and your marriage. I’m going to challenge you to ask God to change you. He can give you the strength to do what is right even when you don’t want to. He’ll always be ready to take full responsibility for any life that totally trusts Him. That also includes re-engaging with your spouse and getting attached in love again. God wants that and He will guide you in that, if you’ll allow Him to.
We’ve all got issues to work through. Whether your sense of emotional distance stems from bitterness, dishonesty, lack of kindness, unfaithfulness, or something else, begin today to make the necessary changes to start the turnaround. You may need to go for outside professional help if the gap seems too wide.
Life is relationships and our marriage is our most important one. You’ll never regret putting your marriage and family first. We all want to be in a marriage that satisfies us. Go after it. Don’t settle for the emptiness and isolation of emotional abandonment. Fight for your marriage not in it. Move toward your mate, not away.
© Dr. Dave Currie, January 2005