Is there a silence creeping into your relationship? Is there a coldness there you haven’t felt before? There is nothing more empty or alarming than a sudden, quiet shift in your romantic relationship. What once felt so stable and supportive and suddenly become the biggest source of insecurity in your life. It’s a scary place to be, especially when your partner is shut down and pulling away.

Emotional detachment happens to many couples for many reasons. In each case, you find one person pulling back, the other person standing still…stunned. The intricacies can be confusing, and it can feel so big and terrifying that most couples ignore it until it’s too late.

That’s not the path to take. Want your relationship to bloom back into life? Want the silence and the walls to thaw? Confront the obvious and act in line with your reality.

What is emotional detachment? Why does it happen?

The emotional detachment of a partner is incredibly painful. Slowly, with an evaporation of openness and vulnerability, the person you love disappears. They stop talking to you, stop showing up for you. Invisible walls go up all over your partnership.

A breakdown like this looks different in every relationship. Very different motivating factors lie behind each couple who find their partnership disintegrating. For some, it’s a result of disappointment. Growing apart, partners can become resentful of one another and feel as though they’re not getting what they want.

Then there are the couples who are touched by the unpredictable hands of life. Not the result of any betrayal or personal failure, some couples grow apart after unavoidable catastrophe and the natural tragedies of life.

Maybe one partner experiences a huge personal loss (like the death of a parent, losing a career, etc.). Navigating that hardship can make them distant, detached.

Some couples become stronger in the overcoming of adversity, but some couples don’t. For some, the only option is shutting down and reconfiguring. On the other side of that configuration, we’re not always looking at the same person who will continue the fight.

Signs your loved one is detaching from you.

Is your loved one shutting down? Are they pulling back emotionally and numbing themselves in your partnership? It can be both a scary and cold process. The longer it goes ignored, the worse it will become. For you to have any hope of salvaging your relationship, the walls have to be addressed. Acknowledge the distanced behavior and recognize the damage it’s inflicting.

Communication breakdown

Every relationship is made or broken by communication. Both partners have to be on the same page, and that comes through talking. We talk about the good stuff and the bad stuff; our dreams, hopes, and fears. That’s why the silent treatment is such a bad sign. It’s an early indicator that your partner is detaching from you emotionally.

You can’t hold on to those deeper ties if you aren’t opening up. Look out for the partner who doesn’t talk about anything — good or bad. If they’re not interested in listening to you or sharing their stories with you, it’s a sign that their attachment to you could have changed.

Social circuit stop

Do you and your partner spend quality time together? Do you get out into the world and make memories together? When looking out for emotional detachment, it’s important to look at the voluntary time you spend together. Happy couples enjoy being in contact with each other (and the world). Miserable couples do not.

If your partner is constantly avoiding you, establishing entirely separate social groups, it could be a worrying sign. Emotional detachment drives us from craving the contact we once desired. Once the detachment grows too great, we can feel a revulsion being around the person we used to love.

The desert of affection

Affection can also be an important indicator of your relationship and where your emotional connection stands. The partner who is deeply, emotionally invested in you will have no problem giving or receiving affection. There’s always a brief hug, a smile, or the easy passing of “I love you.”

That’s not so amid emotional detachment. The love is dried up; gone. The detaching partner will show little interest in giving you affection. They may act like they don’t want to touch you , and they may refuse to tell you they love you. In a strange way, it’s telling the truth by omission.

Cycles of total sabotage

Not all signs of emotional detachment are so subtle. Some partners will go to bigger extremes to show how distanced they’ve become from your love. That’s certainly the case when one partner sabotages the other one.

Watch the partner who sets you up to fail. Or the spouse who sabotages events or days that are important to you. They will get in the way, weaponize incompetence, or cannot show empathy altogether. It’s a means of punishing you and making you feel as small and resentful as they do.

Empty empathy vessel

Empathy is a big part of what makes us human. To have empathy is to not only recognize the emotions of others, but to feel them yourself. You understand them deeply, and because of that understanding, you can relate to other people on a much more real and vulnerable level.

That empathy is not always a matter of black and white, though. We can begin a relationship deep in love and full of empathy for the other person, but that changes when pain becomes detachment. There, you find the partner who has no empathy for you and who doesn’t care if you suffer.

Pity over passion

Passion and physical connection are another core component of any happy relationship. Sure, all couples have different levels of needed physicality. The need still exists, however, and it is always affected by the major ebbs and flows in a partnership.

For the partner who is detaching, passion and intimacy go right out of the window. They withdraw not only their affection; they withdraw their desire too. It’s hard to keep that passion going strong when coldness or resentment become the norm.

Rage, resentment, explosion

If you are someone who has tried to repair relationships like this in the past, what happened? How did the drifting partner take your approach? Did they welcome it with open arms? Break down and open up to you? Or did the walls go up harder? Did they become confrontational or upset?

Not all communication dries up when your loved one drifts. For some, emotional explosions become more of the norm. One partner acts incredibly defensive and lashes out any time they are confronted with the relationship. The worse the conflict gets, the more it does the job of pushing the other person away (and potentially out of the partnership).

Facing what comes next with courage…

Many will see aspects of their relationship in the descriptions above. They will acknowledge the partner who is walking away emotionally, and they will think (sadly) that they wish things could be different. Not everyone has the strength for what should come next, however.

At some point, you’re going to have to stop the thinking, the feeling, and take action. You’ll have to face what comes next with courage.

  • Accepting the issue: Take a full inventory of your relationship. What is happening? What are the root causes of the pain you are feeling? Focus on your experience — not assumptions about the other person. Figure out what the bottom line is and what you need repaired in order for the angst and insecurity to go away.
  • Addressing the pain: Once you’re clear about what you feel and what you need to say, it’s time to take action and say it. Find the right time and place, sit your partner down, and address the issue. Tell them why you feel emotionally detached from them (focusing on “I feel” language) and ask them to explain what’s going on from their end.
  • Accounting for action: After the problems are laid out on the table, it’s time for the full cycle of action to be put into place. If both of you are committed to repairing the pain, then set out a plan of improvement. What specific actions are each of you going to take to make things run smoother? How will you avoid these types of shutdowns in the future?
    The last consideration to be made is the hardest…

If repairs cannot be made, you and your partner have set your sights higher. Not every relationship works, and emotional detachment can be the last horn for a partnership that has been on the rocks for a long time.

Don’t stick around and wait for a partner who is not willing to let down the walls for you. Avoid settling for a relationship in which you are getting less than you need and deserve. If the harder paths need to be taken, take them, and do it in good faith to yourself and your happiness.

© E.B. Johnson 2024

I am a writer, artist, NLPMP coach, and podcaster who helps people build creative and fulfilling lives after trauma. In my free time, I have a passion for fresh bread, history, and all things watercolor. Learn more about me here. Join my mailing list.