Married to a Rock? Living with an Emotionally Detached Spouse

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Is your spouse cool and distant? Not one to share his or her feelings or try to understand yours? Has he or she always been this way?  Are you struggling in the relationship, craving emotional intimacy, connection, and attachment that you can’t seem to get? You’re not alone, and the good news is that you can do something about it.

Be aware there can be many reasons for this unresponsiveness that have nothing to do with you. Perhaps he sees emotional expression as a weakness and has learned to “man up” and suppress his feelings.  Or maybe she detached from her own emotions early on in life as a means of avoiding pain related to childhood abuse or neglect and is now uncomfortable with your feelings too.

Some individuals focus their energy on intellectual development and achievement rather than emotional maturity.  In America this achievement-orientation seems particularly common and is why we wrote The Love Fight: How Achievers & Connectors Can Build a Marriage that Lasts. Many of these Achievers are intellectually strong while being emotionally weak; they simply don’t “get” feelings.

So what can you do if you’re in an emotionally disconnected relationship?  First is to simply understand that your spouse is not necessarily rejecting you. Even if he or she doesn’t change, this new understanding can go a long way to helping you feel better about yourself, the relationship, and the limits of what you control.

The most comprehensive and effective solutions come when couples enter counseling or therapy together with a mutual goal for a stronger relationship and acceptance of responsibility. In therapy, most individuals can grow in their ability to share in their partner’s emotional life and learn to understand and share their own feelings to a much greater degree. We talk a lot about this in our book. It’s work of course, but ultimately people are glad they did it. Unfortunately many emotionally unaware individuals won’t begin therapy unless a crisis occurs and/or divorce is imminent.

Short of therapy, you may be able to try some things to help nurture closeness. Simply spending time together for example. Men, especially, often connect in shared activities rather than through conversation. Consider spending more time with your husband, even if it means accompanying him on business trips or just errands around town. The more time you spend together, the more likely you will be there when he is ready to share his thoughts and feelings.

Also, perhaps you can identify some particular circumstances where your spouse is “more emotional,” and you target spending more time in those activities. Perhaps your wife likes watching movies and, connecting with the characters’ feelings, she becomes more able and willing to express her own. Then you might decide to watch more films with her. If something is working, do more of it.

Conversely, you may need to do less of some things too. What usually doesn’t work is complaining, nagging or finding fault with your partner’s inability to meet your emotional needs. This may even drive him or her to distance him- or herself further from you, exactly the opposite of what you’d like to achieve. So think about any counterproductive strategies you may be employing, and do less of what’s not working or harmful.

But it can be hard to figure all of that out by yourself, and then there are your own feelings to understand and manage. You could probably use some help. Don’t be reluctant to go to a marriage counselor or therapist as an individual. It doesn’t mean you are the problem, and it’s common for therapists to work with just one of the partners. Usually it’s the more emotionally aware one who is willing to seek help.

There is hope for you and your relationship, but you will have to take action. As the saying goes, different isn’t always better, but better is always different. Your partner may or may not change, but you can be different. Best wishes.

Tony and Pete


Tony Ferretti, PhD, is a licensed psychologist specializing in helping power couples through relationship woes. For over twenty years, he has shared his expertise in psychology to help others recognize the additive nature of power, control, and success. His methods have helped thousands of clients to achieve balance in their relationships and he has been recognized through the Dr. Phil show.

Peter Weiss, MD, is a physician and health care executive with a passion for helping others to physical and emotional health. From the bedside to boardroom, Dr. Weiss has seen talented friends and colleagues lose their marriages through misplaced priorities. As a high-powered professional himself, he has tempered his interpersonal style to sustain close and fulfilling relationships.

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