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Lessons from a Couples Therapist: Marriage Is Destroyed by Emotional Distance, Not Conflict

We all search for love, support, and care in our relationships. Whether you want to enrich a healthy relationship, refresh the one that started feeling like a roommate marriage, or to rescue a dying one, there is one thing to keep in mind: it is emotional distance — not a conflict — that destroys a marriage.

If you want to create a stronger, more secure relationship, you need to be attuned and responsive to each other and to reestablish the emotional connection, according to Dr. Sue Johnson, developer of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy. And you will accomplish this only if you reach the emotional foundations of your relationship: by reaching your deepest and most delicate emotions. By recognizing that you are dependent on your partner and emotionally attached to him/her the same way that a child is attached to a nurturing parent.

The Secret of a Successful Marriage Is in Turning Towards

Dr. John Gottman, who has studied relationships for decades, found that partners who stay together after years of marriage tend to turn towards each other’s emotional bids for connection 86 percent of the time. An emotional bid is a signal for affection, attention or any other form of positive connection that one partner sends to another.

The emotional bond between the partners is a foundation for keeping love alive and making sure that conflicts are just challenges to face together and ways to strengthen the relationship.

However, emotional bids can get tricky, and you can easily miss some of them. This is a behavior Dr. Gottman calls turning away from bids for connection. Also, you can consciously choose to turn against or reject your partner’s bids and respond to their emotional bids with disrespect, critic, or resentment. According to Gottman’s research, turning against emotional bids is the greatest killer of a relationship.

Turning away or against emotional bids kills closeness and creates an emotional distance that easily turns soulmates and lovers into strangers.

In addition, many couples often feel that their sexual intimacy has faded away after a few years of marriage — once a passionate relationship has turned over time into something that looks more like a roommate marriage. Many couples lose the spark sooner or later. The kids, work, and chores and other grinds of everyday life often turn a passionate relationship into a roommate one with time and you slowly but definitely start growing apart. Also, sexual problems can be both a cause and a symptom of problems in a relationship.

If you feel that your emotional and sexual intimacy is falling apart, you need to start working together on rekindling your closeness as soon as possible because, no matter how distressing, conflicts are usually not something that will kill your relationship. What will destroy it, however, is the emotional distance between you and your partner.

The emotional distance between partners usually develops slowly, making it easy to miss until it becomes irreparable.

How to Save and Enrich Your Relationship

Dr. Sue Johnson teaches that the best way to protect and improve your relationship is to rebuild a safe emotional connection. In other words, if you want to keep your relationship safe and healthy, you need to maintain the secure attachment bond.

The center of attention of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is emotions and patterns in the relationship. EFT encourages both partners to become accessible, responsive, and emotionally engaged.

Instead of withdrawing or accusing each other, dig deep and be vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to disclose your most tender feelings and use the words “I need” with your partner. Instead of criticizing, condemning, and stonewalling, learn to express your needs in an assertive, yet respectful way. By doing that, you will secure intimacy, trust, support, and all those good things that come from feeling safe in the relationship with your partner.

Summary

Adults are capable of “secure attachment” and healthy dependency, which means that they value bonding in close relationships while keeping up a strong sense of self. Also, securely attached adults know how to ask for their needs to be met and have no problem seeking support when they need it.

We often blame conflicts and poor communication for the failure of our relationships. However, it’s not an argument that destroys our romantic relationships but the fact that we start growing apart from each other and become emotionally distant. Emotional distance usually develops slowly, making it easy to miss until it becomes too late. Thus, emotional distance is often a clear sign of crisis within a relationship. The emotional bond between partners is closely linked to intimacy, security, trust, care, and mutual pleasure.

However, the secure attachment with your partner requires constant care — like any other thing worth having, relationships and marriage are hard work. They require much more effort and dedication than most of us think: each relationship is a process that evolves and changes over time.

Lessons from a Couples Therapist: Marriage Is Destroyed by Emotional Distance, Not Conflict

Irina Baechle, LCSW

Irina Baechle, LCSW is a couples therapist and a relationship expert in Wake Forest, NC. She is the author of A 5-Step Connection Guide To Your Dream Marriage and is passionate about working with couples who love each other, but do not like each other. Previously featured in Bustle, BestLife, Romper, and Reader’s Digest.


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APA Reference
Baechle, I. (2019). Lessons from a Couples Therapist: Marriage Is Destroyed by Emotional Distance, Not Conflict. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 22, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/lessons-from-a-couples-therapist-marriage-is-destroyed-by-emotional-distance-not-conflict/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 12 Jan 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 12 Jan 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.