bored couple on ferris wheel

Photo credit Gabrielle Bremer of Daily Dot

When we first start dating someone we really like, we will do anything to keep them close to us. We even reveal vulnerable parts of our inner selves. This kind of emotional engagement along with the prolonged eye gazing and gentle caresses of new relationships, makes us feel special and safe. This kind of attachment ultimately creates intimacy.

Long-term relationships bring up our fears

After a while, the relationship settles into a more permanent status and our brains are less flooded with love chemicals. We have spent enough time together to have stepped on each other’s toes a few times. We remember those times well. It starts to seem both unnecessary and risky to engage in emotional exchanges often. We are in a steady relationship. We know each other well now. We know what topics of discussion push our partner’s buttons. To maintain connection, we avoid potentially explosive topics and swallow our emotionally tinged words. We may worry our true feelings make us less attractive. We may fear our partner using our weaknesses against us. If we express a fear or even enthusiasm, there is a chance the person we count on most for support leaves us hanging. They might laugh at us, disagree or worse, ignore us.

The relationship may become task focused or child focused or fun focused. These foci, although all important and valid, can keep the couple’s interactions on a superficial level — one without enriching and bonding emotions.

When there is no emotional engagement in your relationship

I’ve hit this wall of emotional omission in all but one of my long-term relationships. Now when I say I hit the wall, I do not mean there were no emotions expressed. I mean there were either no emotions expressed or there were plenty of emotions expressed but no reciprocation or understanding. It sounds weird, but in my marriage I don’t think we realized we were not deeply emotionally connected until after being together about eleven years! We kept so busy with kids and new houses we didn’t feel like anything was missing. When we were newly married I honestly did not even realize emotional engagement was a thing. I found my husband interesting, smart and capable. We did things together. He reassured me enough about our future together that I did not worry about being abandoned. We just kept moving forward with our plan for success.

The last few years of our marriage we felt something was missing and we did not know how to define it or create it. We did not know how to be positively emotionally engaged.

Another relationship had me gushing emotions and tear-filled kleenex all over my partner, to no avail. Although he is a sensitive guy, at the time, his way of dealing with emotions/conflict/potential relationship work, was to run away. I admit his tactics made me emotionally noxious. That need for responsiveness and validation was so strong and so unmet. My insecurity soared. Uh oh. Needless to say, we did not make it as a couple.

Why we are emotionally starving now

The more intellectual we are as a population, the further away from emotions we get. Actually, the further away from connection in general we get. If we (want to) consider ourselves intellectual, we often focus on rational behavior and thoughts. We have to problem solve and fix things without getting too worked up. We rely on our pre-frontal cortex to help us heal relationships when it’s our limbic brain region that holds the secrets to soothing our wounds. The limbic brain knows our nervous systems need another person’s care and mirroring.

The tech dominated world we live in also leaves us emotionally starved. Emails and texts do not convey emotions well. We rely on technology to do a lot of things that used to require human interaction. For example, the other day I wondered if I should put my aloe plant outside in the sun. It currently resides inside in my kitchen. In the old days I would ask my dad or someone else I know with a green thumb what to do. Now I just turned to Google for the answer. It can go outside as long as the temperature stays above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, by the way. If I would have called my dad we probably would have had a nice sweet conversation and it would have boosted my mood, but Google is quicker and always available.

What we say when we feel disconnected and how to get back to closeness

When feeling emotionally disconnected we may say things like…

He’s always busy. He’s either on the computer or on his phone  or

We are more roommates than lovers or

I’m just trying to get a response from her, any response or

I feel alone most of the time. 

When we feel disconnected from our loved ones we may protest by complaining or lashing out. It is hard to articulate the discomfort or pain we feel when we feel let down by someone. Our primitive brain, trying to protect us, has us react quickly and often harshly. Below are several ways to get back to emotional security without causing more hurt:

  • Create safety in the relationship by increasing your level of responsiveness to your partner. Increase eye contact and turn toward your lover when they address you. Don’t let texts go unanswered. Listen with the intent to understand.
  • Instead of seeing your partner as the enemy, see the distance or the cycle of pursuit and retreat you and your partner play as the problem. Notice when you fall into the familiar pattern and name it.
  • Remember your partner wants emotional confirmation (I see you and how you’re feeling) and caring, not advice or problem solving.
  • Get to know your lover’s raw spots as Dr. Sue Johnson calls them in her book Hold Me Tight. These are areas where your loved one has been hurt or neglected in previous relationships (including familial relationships). The raw spots cause quick self-preservation reactions in all of us. They are best soothed with empathy and understanding.
  • If you find it hard to be emotionally attentive, think about how you act with a child when they are scared or hurt or even when they are happy. You express yourself freely because children do not threaten our security as much. They tend to accept us unconditionally.

Often we mask our need for emotional closeness to avoid being hurt. In conflict, we blame other things like money issues, not enough sex, someone’s tardiness or a lack of organization, but when it comes down to it, most things are a mask for our feelings of loneliness or disconnection.

It’s hard to understand and articulate emotions but if we can allow our emotions to surface and work to understand how our feelings affect our partner and vice versa, we have a shot at feeling full instead of starving.

Are you missing emotional connection? Is your partner asking for it? How do you maintain closeness? 

If you would like help reconnecting with your loved one, I would love to work with you. Please contact me for relationship coaching.