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Does Your Partner Use Emotional Distancing to Justify Harmful Behavior?

Sep 10, 2008
When I was working on my degree in clinical psychology, I lived in a small apartment with paper thin walls in Vista, California.

The neighbors who lived on the west side of my apartment were a young couple in their twenties. To say that their relationship had problems is like saying if you fall into Niagara Falls you will get a little wet.

When they were mad at each other, there was constant shouting and when they were very mad with each other, there was complete silence. Being their neighbor rather than their counselor, I found myself hoping they would be very mad at each other so that I could have some peace and quiet in my own apartment.

The interesting thing was that when they were shouting at each other, they were always blaming each other for things that did not seem to be very important. In the time it takes to drive to the store and buy a whole cartload of groceries, one could repeatedly blame the other for forgetting to buy the milk and always forgetting things, while the other could spend the entire time blaming her partner for always expecting her to be a mind reader.

Now obviously fighting about milk won't get you any milk, nor will it really help your relationship with your partner. Why would a couple spend so much time blaming each other for small things?

I got the answer one day when I noticed that a woman would sometimes visit their apartment while my female neighbor was working. My male neighbor's routine with this woman was quite different and from the sounds, they had quite a good time.

Sometimes fighting about things creates an emotional distance that people actually want. It is very hard for the average human being to cheat on someone he has a good relationship with. But if the relationship is not so good, if there is something to hold against his partner, then it becomes easier to rationalize having an affair.

Affairs are far from being the only reason someone would want to be emotionally distant from their partner. Often when people commit to a relationship, it is not done wholeheartedly, and even after the commitment there remains much doubt. Emotional distancing can be a way of trying to hold on to independence and individuality even within the context of a committed relationship.

Emotional distancing can be used to rationalize heaving drinking, drug abuse, computer gaming and pornography addictions, and other harmful behaviors. A close relationship would take away the person's excuse to behave this way.

Blaming others creates emotional distance primarily for the purpose of avoiding personal responsibility. Of course you are not to blame for your partner's personal choices. We cannot justify having an affair because we are not getting along with our partner. We cannot justify excessive drinking or drug abuse because of relationship conflict. We cannot even justify shouting at our partner because of relational conflict.

The reason we cannot justify these harmful actions is because we have other choices. We can go to drug or alcohol rehab; we can work on our relationship with our partner, coach, or counselor; we can decide to make the best of our commitment to our partner even if it wasn't a perfect decision.

When our partner is the one creating the distance, then instead of becoming reactive and adding fuel to the fire, we can look to see what the real issue is. What does our partner really want that closeness would interfere with? We are only repelled by things which threaten our desires. Just as divorce can threaten our desire to have a close relationship, so can a close relationship threaten our partner's desire to be independent.

Working with a relationship coach can help you to identify whether you are contributing to the distancing from your partner, and give you some very practical steps for increasing closeness--even if your partner does not immediately want to do so.

Reasoning, nagging, or fighting will not get you the closeness you desire from your partner. Neither will competing for your partner's attention. If what you are doing now is not resulting in a more intimate relationship with your partner, then it may be time for you to try another way.
About the Author
Jack Ito PhD is a licensed psychologist and relationship coach. Since 1994 he has helped more than 1000 men and women to have better relationships.
Sign up for the Relationship Coach newsletter and receive a FREE Relationship Planning Guide. Visit the Relationship Coach Blog for more daily relationship advice from Professional Relatioonship Coach Jack Ito PhD.
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