Center for Shared Insight, PC

Why does my partner act distant?

July 31, 2018
Posted By: Kristen Hick, Psy.D.

Most likely, you have experienced a partner acting distant or disengaged in a relationship. This might look like long response times between communication, not opening up about his/her experience, or at it’s extreme, the silent treatment. This can feel uncomfortable for almost any partner, but if this feels dysregulating to you, it’s most likely due to a tendency towards anxiety within relationships and in some cases, and an anxious attachment style.

In this blog post, we’ll look at the role of attachment in distancing behaviors, ways to effectively balance needs and expectations around these behaviors, and how a fear of intimacy might play into these challenging dynamics.

Attachment theory

While distancing behaviors, such as withdrawal, not opening up about feelings, and the silent treatment doesn't necessarily mean that a partner has an avoidant attachment style, it is more prevalent in individuals with an avoidant approach to relationships. And most often, the partner on the receiving end of distancing behaviors has an anxious attachment system. This discrepancy in attachment systems, which are ways we connect with others and are born out of early childhood experiences, is particularly alarming to the anxious partner as he or she attempts to navigate the misunderstandings that come hand in hand with misaligned attachment needs and expectations.

Distance, such as the silent treatment, is one of the possible ways an avoidantly attached partner responds to a secure or anxious partner when needing distance from their partner or the overwhelming feelings arising in a relationship. Perhaps the distant partner seeks solo travel (for work or pleasure), independent activities/hobbies, or even needs to date others early on in the relationship to create space and distance. Ironically, those choices can keep them from the very thing they want and are afraid of - closeness.

Balancing needs and expectations

What is key to overcoming the challenges of this relationship dynamic is mutually understanding how the distant partner can balance their need for personal space and time with attending to the needs of the relationship. Often the avoidant partner needs some distance (physically or emotionally) to self-soothe and then return to more closeness. As the distant partner learns how to communicate more about their need for space, while also respecting the needs of their secure or anxious partner, the situation can feel less like withdrawal and isolation to the more anxious partner. Communication of this is key to the avoidant’s partner at least intellectually understanding what is going on and then being able to self-soothe during that time of distance.

Overcoming these dynamics might look like a mutual agreement of healthy boundaries within the relationship, honest communication, and the ability to identify triggering situations. Staying ahead of situations that might be triggering looks like identifying times that withdrawal might be necessary for the distant partner to rebalance. For instance, if the couple has a weekend getaway planned with lots of time together, the partner who more naturally needs and chooses distance might let the more anxious partner know that he/she may need some time to take a solo walk while away or will need some time apart following that trip right up front, to avoid the confusing feelings that sudden distance might evoke from a partner who prefers frequent connection. Getting on the same page around needs and expectations for the couple’s time apart is central to relationship success when different attachment systems are at play.

Fear of intimacy

The irony of distancing behaviors is that they prevent avoidant partners from the thing they desire the most -- full-spectrum intimacy and connection. This fear of closeness is at the core of the tendency for a partner to withdrawal and is often rooted in their earliest experiences of relationship. A fear of intimacy goes hand-in-hand with emotional unavailability. Establishing healthy boundaries, as well as building trust, consistency, and understanding in the relationship can help reduce this fear for an avoidant partner. And, having a mutual understanding about what the withdrawal is truly about, whether that be a fear of intimacy or needing space to rebalance as an individual, is key to mutual understanding.

The team at Center for Shared Insight works to help individuals identify the dynamics that are at the core of their relationship challenges, and strategies to overcome them. If you desire a deeper understanding of problems in your romantic relationships, including a partner acting distant and withdrawn, our team of skilled therapists can help facilitate a deeper understanding. We offer a free consultation to get you started.

Related Blog Posts
September 15, 2020
Why is online dating so confusing?

Online dating. It seems like the perfect way to meet an ideal match while being efficient with your time, selective with your choices, and intentional with your approach. Especially if you live in the suburbs or don’t go out much, it appears that online dating would be an excellent way to meet someone you have a lot in common with. But online dating is not without games, confusion, and ghosting. Digital communication makes it oftentimes more difficult to understand true intentions and can lead to a very confusing ...

August 25, 2020
Podcast: How Attachment Theory Helps You Grow

Dr. Kristen Hick and Dave Glaser, host of the Believe Be Real Be Bold Podcast, talk about various topics, from ways to cultivate self-awareness to resolving conflicts with your partner in this podcast. Framed around understanding behavior through attachment styles, Dr. Hick and Dave remind listeners to be more compassionate for themselves and others as they discuss these relationship topics. 

In this post, we’ll recap some of the highlights of this conversation.

Improving Relationships Through Self Awareness

Romantic relationships are a portal to self-awareness. Romantic ...

If you have difficulty using our website, please email us or call us at (720) 644-6698
View the ADA Accessibility Statement
This website is designed for general information only. The information presented on this site should not be construed to be formal psychological or mental health advice or treatment nor the formation of a therapist-client relationship.
CSIP UPDATE - Offering Online Therapy sessions (to COLORADO residents) during Covid-19.
Our therapists are here to help you during this uncertain time. We know you and others are trying to do your part to social distance due to Covid-19, which is why we are happy to provide online therapy sessions through our secure video platform. We are here to talk with you about how we can meet your therapy needs. 
Contact us today to learn more!