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.
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.
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.