A relationship pattern that ends in heartbreak is founded on deception and lack of emotional connection. Deception is birthed from the scar that taught us that revealing our true needs only causes more unpleasant conflict.
When we cut out this part of ourselves, we do so under the belief that maintaining good feelings in the relationship will keep the relationship. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. When our goal is to make our relationship feel good, then the relationship will fail to make both partners feel good.
How Conflict Avoidance Creates Misery
At first, dismissing conflict seems to be a great idea. Problems are avoided and swept under the rug, and the couple seems to move on. But eventually, these problems start sticking together. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, the problems pick up speed, and the issues seem to be much bigger than they actually are.
One day your partner blows up at you for not folding the laundry, and you’re shocked at how upset they are. Are they really that pissed off about folding the laundry today? Fuck no.
Their reaction is a byproduct of being hurt by the hundreds of moments that conflict and hurt feelings were avoided by both of you.
The likelihood of loneliness in a relationship is directly proportional to the unaddressed issues in a relationship.
Our minds are designed to remember the unprocessed issues in our lives, and to let go of the things that have been processed. If you’ve ever laid awake at night thinking about an email you have to send, you are experiencing the Zeignarnik Effect.
This is why a constantly happy relationship is a doomed relationship, because the moments of disconnection and misunderstanding never get processed. The hurtful moments stay fresh in our mind, slowly eroding our relationship, and turning our Story of Us into a negative one.
Eventually, both partners start to emotionally disengage from each other, and start to live parallel lives. Over time they enter the advanced stages of what is called the Distance and Isolation Cascade. They act like everything is okay between them because they are trying to adapt to the current status of the relationship, but they feel empty, annoyed, and unwilling to connect with their partner.
Most of the time, partners are unaware that they are withdrawing emotionally. Many of us are unaware of the misery in our own relationship. Maybe we come from a family that had parents who were emotionally unpredictable so we became anxious. Maybe we have a history of relationships just like the emotionally disconnected one we currently have, so we ended up accepting that love is supposed to be this way. So it doesn’t actually feel miserable. It feels normal.
To assist you in becoming more aware of this pattern, here are some signs that have helped others recognize an emotional disconnection in your relationship.
6 Signs of Emotional Disconnection
- The Relationship is Emotionally Dead: Your partner and you are unresponsive to one another. You lack joy and affection, and don’t laugh about things together.
- Feel like Passing Ships at Night: Your partner and you don’t connect, and are emotionally unavailable to one another. Passion in the relationship is nonexistent.
- Lacking Friendship: Love, trust, and intimacy is built on the foundation of a couple’s friendship. When the friendship starts slipping away, emotional disconnection is sure to follow.
- Pretend Everything’s Okay: If your partner asks you what is going on, you say “nothing.” The truth is you do not feel entitled to your complaints about the relationship. This stems from the belief that there is something wrong with you feeling this way, so you don’t feel right about complaining.
- Lack of Soothing Each Other: When you are stressed, your partner makes little attempt to soothe you, and vice versa.
- Loneliness: You feel alone in your relationship.
These are important signs. In fact, the California Divorce Mediation Project reported that 80% of the time couples divorced were due to partners slowly growing apart and losing the sense of closeness that left them feeling unloved and unappreciated.
How To End Emotional Disengagement
Partners in this situation have to confront the emotional distance spanning between them in order to end their withdrawal from one another.
Healthy and happy relationships recognize that the good feelings are a byproduct of getting the other stuff right. You have to be willing to make the relationship more important than the good feelings, because all healthy relationships must tolerate some level of discomfort for growth and emotional connection.
Typically this discomfort requires us to expose our deeper emotions and to be truly vulnerable with the one we love. If we are unwilling to do this, we seek emotional connection outside of our relationship instead.
The Infidelity of Emotional Disconnection
One of the biggest reasons partners cheat on each other because because they find the connection their relationship has been lacking elsewhere. This happens over compounding micro-experiences of disconnection from our partners and connection with another. Then suddenly cheating, something we never thought of doing, becomes engraved in the resume of our relationship history.
The entire cheating experience often comes as a surprise. And while we can sit here and blame the non-cheating partners for neglecting the cheater emotionally, we cannot neglect the cheater’s responsibility as well. The cheater could have used those moments before cheating on their partner to repair the relationship, rather than disengage.
The Choice to Connect When Disconnected
Maybe it was the opportunity to realize how much I enjoyed talking with Suzie at the office, and how the excitement Suzie is giving me makes me realize that I feel disconnected from my partner.
So when I go home that night, I will inevitably experience what is called a choice point when my partner asks, “how was your day?”
I can either respond:
- “It was good.” This is an attempt to keep the good feelings in my relationship and protect my partner from realizing that I feel disconnected from her. But as I do this, I create a secret that will deteriorate the house of my relationship like termites. As I begin to enjoy the connection with the other person, I will shut my partner out from experiencing connection with me.
- “It was good. I had a really good talk with a coworker and it made me realize how much I miss talking to you. Do you have time tonight to sit and chat?” Thus addressing the disconnection in the relationship, and takes steps to reconnect with my partner.
While choice two may seem easy on paper, for some of us, such a request feels like peeling our adam’s apple. Rather than opening up, we attack our partners, or behave in ways to create more emotional space.
Becoming emotionally cold towards our partners are the oozing of our emotional wounds that have not been properly addressed.
Conflict Is Necessary for a Happy Relationship
Having conversations that address the problems in the relationship are paramount to cultivating a healthy relationship that meet both partners’ needs. I always say that conflict is a catalyst for closeness, because it allows us to experience all of our emotions with each other. It helps us learn to love each other, despite the unpleasant feelings.
In fact, our unpleasant feelings are amazing guides to repairing and enhancing our relationship. We just need to interpret them as signals to take action in order to improve our connection with our partner. Conflict has a powerful purpose because it allows us to speak about what we need that makes the relationship more fulfilling for both partners.
Additionally, a healthy relationship requires partners to say “no” to each other every once in awhile and figure out what works for both of them. You have to speak up for yourself and your needs, and your partner has to do the same. Both of you have to be willing to discuss what will and will not work for each of you in the relationship. This is why it’s called a relationship. It takes two mature people who realize they are responsible for bringing up their struggles in the relationship to improve the relationship.
It’s not always easy, but focusing on the underlying emotions of your partner or yourself, despite the unpleasant feelings you feel during conflicts, will bring both of you closer.
One of the ironic things I’ve discovered about conflict is that sometimes, my partner feels the same way I do. By speaking about it, I invite her into being vulnerable with me, which allows us to connect on a much deeper level.
The quality of your relationship depends on your ability to understand your partner, and vice versa. The secret to understanding each other better comes from the hard work of putting your partners in a position where they can tell you their minds openly and honestly. They need to be given the breathing room to show their fears and vulnerabilities so you can connect over them.
An always pleasant relationship is not a great relationship. It’s a doomed one. It takes a level of discomfort to communicate our needs and understand each other. Love takes work to expose and resolve conflicting beliefs and expectations. And it is our willingness to experience the discomfort of conflict together that deepens our love for one another.