When Married Couples Drift Apart

My best friend Nancy was recently blindsided by a big hit that is changing her life forever. I really feel for her. Her husband Stewart, who has been unemployed for the past five years, announced out of the blue that he is filing for a divorce. I was shocked and saddened beyond belief by her news. I mean, here is a wife supporting the household with a successful law practice, extremely grateful that her husband has chosen to be the primary caretaker of their two children. Stewart has always been nuts about the kids and she thought they had a successful arrangement of working together as a family. But he came home one day and announced he is fed up with being Mr. Mom and that was it. Can you believe?! And with two little ones, ages three and five. Moreover, Stewart is refusing to do any kind of counseling to repair the marriage.

Nancy is crushed, to say the least. Obviously, I wonder if there is more to this story. My friend said she never saw this coming. I don’t believe that. For years she and Stew rarely did things together, leading separate lives. Stewart and Nancy never came over together — with or without the kids; it was always Nancy alone with the kids. When I asked her if it ever bothered her to never have Stew all to herself she said, “No I’m just pleased that I have a husband who is so good with the kids. My career is about all I can handle right now.” It always felt that her life was grim, more about duty and making money than enjoying life. I don’t think she has any idea what she is missing! At least she has me.

Any of us can be shocked by dire news that a family we know, which has always looked good on the surface, is going through unexpectedly difficult turmoil. We have come to expect that people who seem to be getting along will continue doing so or at least get help when they don’t. It can be a slap of cold reality when seemingly loving partners decide to split for no apparent reason. We may worry that such unanticipated tragedies can happen in our own marriages. Such is the case when two married partners seem to just drift apart from each other only to come to a bitter end. Most of us believe that old married folk just stick together forever for good or ill like a pair of two old shoes. Actually just the opposite is true. When partners drift from each other they are more likely to get divorced.

Signals of distancing between partners

WeCanAllGrow299x56The distancing I am referring to is not physical or time separation, but rather emotional separation. Some partners may see a lot of each other but be like two ships passing through the night at home. They don’t connect on a heart level. Conversely, some partners may live in different parts of the world but be on top of the emotional issues that bind them. Any of us can go through times when we are less lined up with our beloved, need time alone and then later connect caringly. Also, some partners have low intimacy needs in general and accommodate the emotional distance between them quite well in a live-and-let live mentality. Most couples, however, do not accommodate emotional distance very well, especially when there is hidden anger in the relationship. Problems with distancing may arise when there is a continuous pattern in a marriage of:

• being emotionally detached in general or just being detached from the life of a loved one
• regularly taking separate vacations and avoidance of fun time alone together
• taking partners for granted as if their personalities are set in stone
• suppressing anger and conflict while maintaining a false optimism that all is OK in the marriage
• passive-aggressive conflicts between mates
• failure to set life goals of a future together
• nagging unacknowledged competition between partners
• living together like roommates with no romantic interests
• regular periods of deep loneliness and depression
• just taking for granted that you and your loved one will always be together
• overfocusing on activities of the children or in-laws
• being regularly unaware of your partner’s whereabouts and interests
• having outsiders basically supply what is missing in the marriage
• overall fear of facing emotional issues
• pattern of developing romantic fantasies about people outside your marriage

How culture separates married partners

In some ways, our culture is not very family friendly. We are actually near the bottom of the list on many healthy lifestyle standards across the world. For instance, new parents often struggle to get leave from work when children are born, whereas in many countries abroad parents take an extended time off from work to welcome their new babies. Husbands and wives are compelled to work long hours away from their families and to be on-call at the discretion of their employers. The electronic revolution has made it nearly impossible for family members to have uninterrupted time being truly together at a family dinner. There is indeed enough love to go around in most families, but compulsory extracurricular activities for children and the pressure for them to achieve in school in a success-driven society leaves little quality face-to-face time for family members. Most married partners today live in a manic blur of unnecessary obligations, so much so, that it is just downright inconvenient to expect emotional closeness in a marriage. It’s far more convenient to pretend that all is OK and hope for the best.

One of the greatest family crises is when families decide to take a vacation together to (heaven forbid) relax and get to know one another. Usually such notions get ruled out or mechanized as fewer and fewer families even take vacations together. Many employers today have to mandate that their workers take time off for R&R experiences. Otherwise, vacations would never happen. Married people resisting down time together fits quite well into a work-obsessed culture consumed by materialism. Occasionally social sanity seeps into the lives of married people, but it may be quickly dispatched as married partners have various personal reasons for keeping away from one another.

Why do people choose distancing?

Most of us start out our married lives with high hopes and enthusiasm. Scientists know that the honeymoon period for sexual attraction between newly weds is about six months on average. What follows shortly thereafter is the so-called intimacy stage of relationships, where ideally the initial zing of attraction gets replaced by deeper, more meaningful emotional ties between lovers. No sooner has the champagne been put away, the bride kissed, and the rice thrown at the newlyweds, than do married people come face to face with an unconscious horror. They now get to relive what they have learned from their past families experiences on how to be close to one another. Marriages raise personal expectations, social obligations and haunting ghosts. That’s why many modern couples avoid marriage like the plague. For some couples these ghosts are mere bumps in the road; for other couples they are their worst nightmares.

To be fair, marriages can also be amazing blessings, especially if partners truly are in it for life. We can all grow from facing ghosts – especially when teamed in a loving relationship. Make no mistake, it is often the  ghosts, not the current competence of husbands and wives to get along, that is at the heart of the emotional avoidance. Partners keep a certain distance from one another in a vain effort to keep the ghosts at bay. To put it another way, if partners were able to feel visceral warmth for each other, then they also have to feel the heartache of years past when things were not quite so good. Distancing partners believe that it is better to let sleeping dogs lie and keep ghosts in the closet.MyMotherSaidIMust181x304

Making positive changes

I am a fan of prudence. Sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lay. Especially if one’s basic survival is at stake. Most of the time it is better to rouse the dogs and face the ghosts, especially if you can do so with a helpful guide who emphasizes safety and forgiveness. Marital therapists, especially those trained in emotionally-focused couple therapy (EFT), help partners help each other as they collaborate to face difficult issues from the past that are currently causing emotional distance. Read Love Sense by Dr. Sue Johnson (LIttle Brown and Company, 2013) for guidance. Going to a qualified marital helper can feel like going to a competent dentist. Hopefully the pain of the procedure is done in stages and is made bearable by the helper. Often the healing doesn’t happen soon enough but feels like it is headed toward a good outcome. It’s best to have a friendly relationship to the helper as that makes the process way more tolerable. Patience is required but eventually — before you know it — you are finally getting somewhere. Before your very eyes, with much continuing effort, you and your partner become closer than you’ve ever been. All closeness occurs when the grief of what you have never had in your life is fully felt. Like a good dental procedure it’s over before you know it and it takes as long as it takes. To find a good therapist trained in EFT go to www.ICEFT.com for local resources.

To start the discussion with your partner on getting help it’s best to take some quiet time and disclose to your partner that something important is missing between the two of you and that you need help in finding what is missing. At first such discussions do not go well but may lead to later favorable talks. You may disclose how sad and lonely you feel despite the many good aspects of your relationship. You may ask if he or she feels the same way as you do. Don’t be surprised if what you get back is not very encouraging. Realize that you have had time to think about what is missing and your partner may be caught off guard as well as be very nervous about what is involved to have positive change. You may ask if your partner could at least try three sessions and see if there is value to him or her. Don’t be surprised if you get cold feet when your lover agrees to go with you to couple counseling. It takes two to tango when it comes to marital issues, and you yourself may feel threatened at having to look at yourself and your part in the repair. Just realize that when you go to a qualified helper you will feel like you’re making progress in tolerable doses, much like when you visit a good dentist. There is pain involved in all of this healing; there is even more pain involved in not healing.

In my experience, the further away your spouse is emotionally, the more gusto you have for being close and the more you want it to last. If your partner does not join you, go to counseling yourself and see what your options are for the rest of your life. Life is way too short to miss out on authentic love. It’s even better than what you see in the movies.

John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

John’s interview on the Mary Hanson Show on this topic:


Last Updated on February 6, 2020