Tools for Couples Happiness — 26 February 2014
Emotionally Disconnected

Emotional intimacy is one of the most compelling human needs that propels individuals to seek and commit to a life partner. The absence of emotional connectedness is a distressing state of aloneness. How can mates establish and maintain ongoing emotional connectedness?

There are many reasons for a temporary emotional distance between loving partners such as: illness, physical distance, work or other preoccupations, depression, grief, anger or hurt. When mates feel safe enough to explain the causes for their temporary emotional withdrawal, they reduce their distress and become reassured that the distance between them is temporary and remediable.

When emotional distancing becomes chronic, it may be caused by Alexithymia, a syndrome described in 1973 by Peter Sifneos as: “a personality trait in which the individual has difficulties in identifying, describing and abiding by his own emotions or understanding them in others.”

In “Alexithymia and interpersonal problems”, Stijn Vanhueule found that “two interpersonal problems were significantly and reliably related to alexithymia: cold/distant demeanor and nonassertive social functioning.”

Researcher Paul Yelsma studied the impact of unmatched emotional responsiveness between couples, “Research findings suggest that when either husbands or wives have lower levels of emotional expressiveness than their partners, their marital satisfaction will be negatively influenced.”

Before labeling your partner as emotionally deficient be aware that Alexithymia only affects less than 10 percent of the population. The emotional unavailability of a partner is much more likely to be related to unmet needs, hurts, disappointments or stem from feeling unappreciated/unsupported rather than to any psychological disorder or character flaw.

Even people who are in touch with their emotions may shy away from expressing their feelings for fear that they may be viewed negatively by their spouse. For example, sharing one’s emotions about a conflict at work may evoke the partner’s doubts about one’s competence or worthiness. Talking about feeling hurt, rejected or ignored by the spouse may seem weak and needy. Expressing anger, sadness, confusion or uncertainty may arouse fears about being viewed as less than competent.

An additional common hesitation about expressing one’s feeling is the anticipation of disapproval, rejection or being misunderstood by the mate. Thus, withholding emotions is a protective stance to preserve one’s esteem.

Partners who have been open with their emotions and encountered a dismissive, shaming or critical response learned to withhold their feelings for psychological safety at the cost of being perceived as emotionally disconnected.

A dissatisfied wife kept reiterating, “All I need is your understanding and support, nothing else.”

Healthy partnership requires ongoing recognition, compassion and support for each other, particularly during stressful times. The partners’ feelings do not have to match but words must convey understanding and acceptance. Being accepted and respected is needed to cement the couple’s bond and empower both to thrive.

Be emotionally connected to your mate:

  • View your non-expressive mate as distressed not emotionally flawed.
  • Validate your partner’s emotions/opinions even if you feel no emotional resonance.
  • Show caring by saying, “I understand your distress and I support you.”





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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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