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.
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.