Brave New Kitty

Overcoming a Dysfunctional Litter

Emotionally Distant Relationships: What’s the Payoff?

There’s a great movie called “Roger Dodger” in which the main character, played by the wonderfully offbeat Campbell Scott, spends most of his screen time spouting cynical, somewhat misogynistic beliefs about women and relationships. One of his lines, speaking to a pretty young girl about her boyfriend problems, is “It’s the emotional distance that counts, right?” As dark as that sounds, it contains a powerful truth. It’s a succinct summary of the “nice guys finish last,” “women want men who treat them badly,” “why can’t I find someone who loves me for me,” “why am I attracted to jerks” sort of complaints in the relationship world.

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that emotional distance is the norm, but Roger was on to an important idea, certainly one worth considering if you have any of these chronically misery-causing issues recurring chronically in your life. There are some specific things to look at, and they are not the sociological reasons that there are no good men—or women—anymore. The reasons are inside you, and if you want to remedy this situation, that’s where you must look to find out what the payoff of emotionally distant relationships really is.

First of all, what is an emotionally distant relationship? It can take myriad forms, but it is basically a relationship that should be intimate but isn’t. For whatever reason, you don’t feel completely comfortable with your partner, you don’t feel completely safe, there are impenetrable barriers between you, and you’re not getting what you want. You’re not happy. Or at least, you’re not happy most of the time. Occasionally, you feel alive when you have a moment of connection or you’ve evoked some strong reaction, and these moments can keep you hanging around for a long, long time: sure, neither of you are happy, but you don’t know how to do it any differently, so you stay in this pattern ad infinitum. If you do break out of the relationship, but don’t address the reasons for the pattern, you are destined to repeat it. It’s like your subconscious does the interviewing, and will only allow the space to be filled by somebody with the same emotionally distant characteristics.

Why? Why do we pick people who don’t make us happy, who we don’t feel close to, who we don’t feel safe with? Then do it again, and yet again? While everybody has different patterns and specifics, I think the underlying reasons break down into some combination of the following categories:

  • It’s safe
  • It satisfies different wants than intimacy
  • It’s easier, and thus more common
  • It re-creates an unresolved childhood issue.

Let’s discuss each of these.

It’s Safe
Even if you don’t feel “safe” with a person in the sense of being yourself and not being judged, there is a different kind of safety involved here, and that is the safety of not having to risk too much of yourself. If you’re with someone who doesn’t demand a high level of emotional involvement, then you’re never at risk of being vulnerable. It’s like an emotional airbag, constantly employed, cushioning you from the harsh reality of emotional injury. Often you hear about people who have a bad breakup and then get married to the next person they hook up with, maybe just a few months later. This is often about this kind of safe. Having been badly hurt, they decide that they never want to feel that kind of pain again, so they pick someone who will never be able to stir strong feelings. These relationships aren’t the worst kind of emotional distance, as there’s usually no nastiness or abuse, just two shut down people who’ve settled for each other in implicit agreement to never demand too much. It’s bland, but it’s workable.

It Satisfies Different Wants than Intimacy
While “safe” also fits here, this category covers a lot more ground than that. People can pick their partners for many different reasons than love. Sometimes, they don’t want to be alone. Other times, they need to have a partner for career advancement (married men are promoted faster than single men, and ambitious people know this). Or wealth is important, so they marry somebody rich. Or they can’t see past a big fancy wedding. Or they think their family will approve, or it’s just time they got married, or they want to have babies, or they think they’ll never find anyone better. Relationships based on any of these reasons usually aren’t terrible either: If your reasons for getting into a relationship are only tangentially about your emotions, then a strong emotional attachment just isn’t a priority. Again, bland but wholly workable, in an empty sort of way. However, if you start looking for passion on the side, you’ve proven to yourself that your initial reasons for getting into a relationship weren’t very good ones.

It’s Easier, Thus More Common
This means simply that there are a lot more people in the world who haven’t reached a high level of emotional maturity than who have, just as there are fewer college graduates, fewer people in really good physical condition, fewer people who reach self-actualization, etc. In any endeavor, average is more common than exceptional (that’s why it’s called average), and emotional development is no exception. Therefore, there are all kinds of emotionally immature people getting into relationships with other emotionally immature people. Emotional immaturity is a virtual guarantee of emotional distance by default: intimacy is not for the timid, the faint of heart, or the naive. If you’re still figuring out who you are and what you want, you won’t have a lot left over for somebody else. And that’s just fine, and as it should be. It’s when you try to do a relationship anyway that you get in trouble (and who among us hasn’t had this experience once or twice?)

When two emotionally immature people get together, sparks can fly. The emotional distance can take all sorts of awful forms: loud fights, name calling, attacking each other’s vulnerable areas, unfaithfulness, as well as the blander varieties of disconnectedness listed above.

If neither person wants a deeper connection, then things might work out. Remember the scene in “Annie Hall” when Alvy is wondering what makes a relationship successful, and asks a couple on the street? The man looks into the camera and says, “I’m completely shallow, and have no opinions on anything.” Then the woman smiles and says, “And I’m exactly the same way!” Dark, perhaps, but it speaks accurately to the emotional maturity issue.

It Re-creates an Unresolved Childhood Issue
Now it gets interesting. Much has been written about people marrying their mother or their father, and I think much of it is true. Deeply rooted impulses in our subconscious make this almost an inevitability. Many of our ideas about relationships—as well as most other personality traits—are shaped by the time we’re six years old. The best we can do is to be aware of them.

It’s not always a bad thing. If we had kind, loving parents who we felt close to and safe with, then we are likely to seek out kind, loving partners. However, if we had emotionally distant parents, particularly our opposite sex parent, then we grew up with a gaping hole where love and intimacy should have been. Since a child does not have the intellectual or emotional maturity to deal with the overwhelming feelings caused by such a lack, she tends to repress them. She quickly learns to grab any morsel of kindness, love, or support thrown her way and rationalize away the rest. It’s actually a healthy way for a child to deal with scary emotions, because she literally has no other way; emotionally distant parents is a problem she cannot solve. But she learns two powerful lessons that fuel her subconscious relationship impulses and control her behavior for the rest of her life, or until she decides to face the painful—and painful it is—truth. One, she learns that lying to herself is an effective way to deal with emotional distance. Two, she learns that love is connected to performance, and that if she can get the performance right, she can earn someone’s love.

Both of these are, of course, tragically false. Lying to yourself about how someone is treating you creates all sorts of awful situations. Physical abuse. Emotional abuse. Addiction. Prostitution. Sexual compulsion. You hang on, convincing yourself that it’s “good enough” or that “he’s hurting and I can fix him” or that “I don’t deserve anything better,” or that “it’s better than being alone.” The truth is that no one deserves to be treated badly, there is no reason or excuse that could ever make it okay, and that someone who says he loves you yet treats you badly is a cruel, emotionally immature, person. There is no hope of ever being happy with someone like this, period. He may change, but it won’t be because of you or for you. The sooner you accept that fundamental truth about human nature, the better off you will be.

When love is connected to performance, you have a sense of wanting to “fix” someone. You tend to pick “fixer uppers,” people who aren’t quite what you want, but could be if you can find the right combination of behaviors to make them how you want them (that is, to give you the love you want). Generally these partners are emotionally distant in ways similar (if not identical) to your opposite sex parent, and the “fixer upper” is really you; if you can perform just right, then you will earn the person’s love. There are so many glaring omissions of logic about this idea, I’m not sure they need to be pointed out. And yet, so many of us engage in this behavior. That’s how needy our emotionally distant parents left us—we know on some level that what we’re doing is an ineffective way to feel loved, but our deeply-rooted impulses push us down that path anyway, and we follow willingly.

Love tied to performance is not love. If you have to be a certain way to get your loved one’s approval, then you are in an emotionally distant relationship. This dynamic usually results in a dance of power and control, where one partner seeks approval and the other gives it when it’s beneficial for him to do so. Like the emotionally distant parent, he controls his partner’s behavior by giving or withholding his affection/approval/support.

People can stay in unsatisfying and even abusive relationships, and relationship patterns, for a long time, never really dealing with their unmet needs for closeness and connection. Why? The reason is amazingly simple: it’s too painful to deal with having been unloved as a child. Most people would rather believe that their parents loved them, that they got what they needed from them, and that they’re getting what they need from their partners (or, that they have bad relationships because there are no good prospective partners) than face the ugly truth. However, the divorce rate, the infidelity rate, and the addiction rate in our society all say differently.

A Distance of Our Own
There is the final piece to all of this and it’s the most hopeful, but also the most difficult to look at: our own need for emotional distance. Thus far, I’ve been talking only about emotionally distant partners, but if we get into emotionally distant relationships, then we, too, are emotional distancers. We pick jerks, abusers, alcoholics, and all other types of emotionally distant people because we know subconsciously that we’ll never have to get too close. The emotional distance itself is the payoff for us. So powerful is this drive, we are willing to put up with all manner of poor treatment to avoid intimacy. It’s the skewed way we protect ourselves when we learn very young that being vulnerable is painful and dangerous.

The problem is not with our partner. It’s with us. Exclusively. Completely. Irrevocably. And without exception.

This is terrific news! It means we can do something about it. We can’t make other people change, and we can’t change our childhoods, but we can change ourselves and we can start this very moment if we want to. The big feelings we’ve been avoiding for a lifetime can make it seem more complicated than that, but it’s really not. It’s also all we really have, but it is enough.

Summary
I have come to these conclusions through personal experiences, which, although anecdotal, I believe express a common struggle. I worked hard for many years to come to terms with my emotional issues. After years of therapy, self-help books, bodywork, support groups galore, antidepressants, and gallons of healing tears, I reached a simple, rather elegant awareness: that when all is said and done, all my self-destructive, addictive, shame-based, dishonest, unproductive, and emotionally distant behavior was about dealing with (or rather, avoiding) my grief. Those of us who grew up with parents who weren’t very good at loving us have a deep, heavy grief underlying everything we do until we come to terms with it. It’s not a grief that ever goes away; it will be with me for my lifetime, but accepting this sort of took away its power. It can no longer hurt me or control me. This big, scary, powerful lion that I spent the first third of my life avoiding, with irrational urgency and terror, turned out to be a lamb, a bleating baby that, in reality, had no power at all. It just needed love like everything else. Less than two years after I accepted my grief and all the residue that came with it, I got into the first loving, mutually supportive relationship I’d ever had. This was no coincidence.

Emotional distance is a deceptive weapon. While it may protect us from emotional pain, it also prevents emotional fulfillment. In the end, you can only be honest with yourself about which is more important to you, and make your choices accordingly.

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Categorised as: Relationships, Shadow


69 Comments

  1. Stacy says:

    Thank you so much for your article. I will be reading this everyday for how ever long it takes. You have described my life. I am currently in the decision process of whether or not to divorce my husband. I have been wanting to leave for 7 years and just haven’t yet. I have stayed for the financial security.

    Recently I had some things come to light as far as our differences and just how much control he has over my life. I decided that I needed to find myself again, that I have become lost in the marriage and I don’t know who I am anymore. I hide the things I like and sneak enjoying the things I like when he is not around just so I don’t have to hear his complaining. I am thinking I should get out of it so that I can be on my own and just get back to the things I enjoy and reconnect with my friends. At this point I feel that friendships would provide more in my life than what my marriage is providing.

    Your article backs everything that has taken me so many years to figure out. You just explained the last piece I had not figured out yet. Thank you for the info.

    Stacy

    • Kitty says:

      Hi Stacy,
      Thanks so much for your comment. The first thing that jumps out at me is how terribly unhappy you sound. You absolutely owe it to yourself to do something about this, whether it’s get help, find a parallel life within your marriage that satisfies you, or get a divorce. What does “help” look like? At the very least, therapy for yourself, maybe marriage counseling, or maybe a 12 Step group like Al Anon. You are not alone, and getting help basically means you find support and a safe place to talk through your issues.

      It sounds like your husband is, at the very least, controlling. And probably a narcissist, which I have written extensively about in the last year. It is so easy to lose ourselves with a partner like this, believe me, I know. And that feeling of lostness is just tragic. It’s a terrible, terrible situation.

      Again, you owe it to yourself to make some changes. I don’t know enough to give you any advice in this area, except to be honest with yourself about what you want and follow your heart. Best of everything to you, dear, and please keep in touch and let me know how you’re doing.

      Hugs,

      Kitty

  2. madame x says:

    This article amazes me- it describes my relationship (that just ended). This is a sad time for me- but when I read this I know I’m not alone! I can’t wait to read more of your blog!

    • Kitty says:

      Hi Madame X,

      Thanks so much for your comments! Oddly enough, since I’ve decided to take an indefinite break from blogging about a month ago, I’ve had a lot of new readers and pingbacks. Go figure. Maybe the Universe is telling me something, I don’t know. There are about 5 years of posts here, though, so you’ll have plenty to read if you’re interested. I also checked out your blog and found it well-written and interesting. Also odd is that I have stacks of old journals, too, and I was just thinking about them the other day. There’s a part of me afraid to read them, to see who I was. Your blog was encouraging to me that I don’t have to be.

      I’m sorry for your breakup. Please stay in touch and let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.

      Take care,

      Kitty

      • Madame X says:

        Wow- a compliment from you on my writing has made my day- because I thought the same about yours! I can see why you might have wanted to take a break from blogging, because it’s obvious a lot of thought and work goes into each post. From what I’ve read, it seems we have a lot of the same themes in our lives- but you seem so organized and together!

        I understand that fear to read your journals- I have felt that before too. As I have plunged in, though- i find myself alternately admiring and laughing at that old me. We shall see!

        • Kitty says:

          “organized and together” lololol. I have just spent a lot of time reading and thinking about certain things. And I spose I have spent a lot of time working through my stuff. I feel most of that’s behind me now, but I do hope I can pass on my experience to others doing the work. I’m just grateful there are a few out there who like what I have to say. :)

          Hugs,

          Kitty

  3. Madame X says:

    I posted a link to this article in my blog.

  4. [...] Emotionally Distant Relationships: What’s the Payoff?. [...]

  5. Katherine says:

    Hey Kitty,

    What you’ve written really resonated with me. I’m newly married and have found I keep going in circles of times where I think Im in such an amazing relationship and times of strong emotional distance which leads me to be restful and feeling hurt, stuck, like its never going to change. The difficulty is I believe it’s me that is causing this, but then sometimes I feel it’s not me and I do t know how to figure this issue out. Unfortunately I know if it continues my marriage will either be very unfullfilling, or alternatively end in divorce.

    I know we blame each other how we are feeling, and my hubby holds all the cards as to what we can/can’t do or alternatively what I can/can’t do. It’s not controlling but perhaps borderline taking away my sense of freedom. I’m sure he feels the same about me and I feel it’s me causing it, but I haven’t asked. I feel that if I’m feeling it, then surely he must be.

    Currently confused as to what step to take next, have seen a counsellor on my own and a marriage counsellor together, I have a mentor and I am reading ways to communicate better with him. He’s very open to the marriage counselling but not so much in the practical aspects such as actively listening.. He feels its agreeing with me so refuses to do it.

    It makes me feel like I am single but stuck in a cell wishing to get out and explore the world again. It’s most likely me stopping myself but now I’m beginning to hide things I’m doing such as looking for a new job and joining a weightless group. I feel there isn’t much point telling him anymore cos there would be a way he could change my mind and or I don’t really want his opinion. I know this is a red flag but this time I don’t really want to work on it. I think I’d prefer to leave it and stay in this loveless, passionless marriage. Sounds horrible! Hence why I feel stuck and my immature actions are causing this issue.

    Any insight or suggestions? Thanks for your post!

    Regards,

    Katta

    • Kitty says:

      Hi Katta,

      Thanks for your comment and I’m so sorry for your struggles in your new marriage. To offer you any real insight, I think I would have to know more details of your situation. You painted a vivid picture, but even so I wouldn’t feel comfortable offering too many suggestions without knowing more. It’s great that you’re seeing a therapist and working with a mentor. IMO, these two things are more important right now than the marriage counseling. Your biggest priority should be figuring out what YOU want. Also, if your husband truly refuses to do active listening, that is an indication that he may not be interested in hearing about your wants and needs, which does not bode well for a happy future. He may just be confused about the concept of active listening, but IMO this is a point you need to clarify before you can move forward with any counseling together.

      Also, you might want to read some books about controlling or narcissistic men and see if he fits any of those patterns. I can’t recommend any offhand but I’m sure Amazon will have several titles.

      If you want to send me more details, as in a private email, I would be happy to talk more and help if I can. There are also some other posts here on this site about relationships that may give you some insight. If you click on the Select Category drop down and select Relationships, you will find a bunch of posts. One I’m thinking about in particular is about “Poor Raw Material.”

      Best of everything to you and please keep in touch.

      Hugs,

      Kitty

  6. Adaptogenic says:

    Hi. Thanks so much for your words! I, too, was in a relationship with an emotionally distant man. When I would tell him over and over about my emotional needs, he would reply that “that’s how I am” and “You knew that about me a long time ago”. He was no help at all … it broke my heart irretrievably over and over and over … I couldn’t take the tears and the heroic efforts to save myself and my sanity while holding it all inside any more ….

    I appreciate your words. I have identified his problem, and I see the part I played. Now I need to help myself. My question is how can I recover from being in a relationship with an emotionally distant person?

    • Kitty says:

      Hi Adaptogenic,

      Thanks so much for your comment. That’s a Biiiiiig question you ask me. But it is the right question! Not “how do I fix my partner” but “how do I fix myself?” Brava!! Unfortunately, I can’t give a full answer here, but I will try to get you started.

      My suggestion would be to dig deeper into your personal history and try to understand why emotional distance is attractive to you. You can do this by reading books or going to a therapist or self-help group, and my suggestion is to start with a therapist who is willing to dig into your childhood with you. Emotional distance is almost always rooted in our relationship with our parents, cliche as that may sound.

      Being emotionally present is a brave thing to do. We have to first be present with our own feelings, our own unresolved issues and emotional pain and fears and insecurities. Which takes courage. Then, we have to be willing to be vulnerable enough with another person that we can show these things, and see theirs, without running for the hills. It requires a fair amount of personal fortitude. Intimacy is not for the faint of heart.

      That said, you do not have to do any of this perfectly. You just have to have a fair amount of understanding about your motivations and the willingness to be present with yourself and with another person. If you have the willingness, the rest will follow; if you don’t have the willingness, everything else will be an uphill battle.

      Hope that makes sense. Best of everything to you, and I am sending lots of love and positive thoughts your way!

      Take care,

      Kitty

  7. Luka says:

    For the past few months, I have been considering leaving my…boyfriend, for lack of a better word. He saved me from an abusive relationship, and seems to have those same traits himself. He doesn’t hit me, it’s verbal, emotional, and physiological.
    He’s distant. He tells me its because he doesn’t like to talk much, but its more than that. When I tell him my problems, especially ones I have with our relationship, he says that its only because of me. I can’t tell him when I am unhappy, because -he- had it worse, so I should not bother him with my trivial concerns. One of these nights he called me an idiot and said I couldn’t even be trusted to go to the store after I forgot something he wanted, and went to bed. I was up crying for hours after he went to bed. When I came to him crying, he was mad I had woken him up. I need to get out but I’m scared…

    • Kitty says:

      Hi Luka,

      Thanks so much for sharing. You probably know this, but it’s really common for us to keep getting into relationships with the same person over and over because of our own unresolved issues. I did this more times than I can count. The only thing that worked for me was working on myself. For me, that meant sobriety, therapy, 12 step meetings, and meditation. Or, on a deeper level, it meant coming to terms with my painful past, healing, and getting on with my life.

      Knowing you picked another guy with similar traits is a huge first step. And just from what you’ve written here, I agree that he does not sound like a loving and supportive partner. Name calling and belittling your problems is not only unsupportive, IMO it is emotional abuse. Whether he “had it worse” or not isn’t the issue when someone comes to you in distress. You were the one in pain at that moment; he was not. Saying “he had it worse” is belittling and cruel, not to mention utterly beside the point.

      What are you afraid of? This is important to identify. If he is dangerous and you are worried for your physical safety, then you absolutely must be careful in leaving him, perhaps enlisting the help of authorities to make sure he leaves you alone and you stay safe. If your fears are more personal, though, such as fear of being alone or fear of not knowing how to find a different sort of man, then you have to find ways to deal with this on your own. This comment is one way you’ve done that–reaching out and asking for help. Congratulations! There are lots of resources to help you. The first thing I would do is find a therapist you feel comfortable with and begin exploring your past and how it affects your current issues. If you can’t afford one, there are low cost alternatives. Call the local YWCA or a church or even just a medical clinic and ask them to help you. And don’t be afraid of it: therapy will be the best, most loving thing you can do for yourself!

      If it’s financial worries you have, I’m not sure how to help. But I do know that you can make it on your own no matter what. It will be harder, yes, but infinitely more satisfying. Maybe you’ll have to save up some money before you can leave; if so, start saving today. Make a plan! I have done this and it was one of the most satisfying things I ever did for myself.

      Whatever your fears, you can start working on them, and on yourself, today, right now, this very moment! Find a therapist. Go to a bookstore or get on Amazon and get some books on abusive relationships (there are some good ones just on emotional abuse). If there are any substance abuse issues, go to a 12 step meeting (Alanon is for the friends and families of alcoholics). Talk to your most supportive friend(s) about what’s going on. And if you don’t have anyone, you can talk to (email) me. I am happy to help.

      My heart goes out to you, Luka. Best of everything and please let me know how it’s going!

      Hugs,

      Kitty

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