Even good relationships have periods of feeling stuck, disconnected, and unhappy. It could be a busy season at work or surviving a terrible boss. You or your partner could have been ill, or just focused on raising your young children. Whatever the cause, feeling stuck in a relationship is not where you want to be.
In the same way, a present but emotionally absent partner can leave you feeling lonely and stuck. This happens when you see your partner every day, but you don’t talk about anything significant. Or maybe you hardly interact at all.
In some instances, the disconnection or emotional absence sneaks up on the relationship. Years pass with a gradual distancing that leaves you wondering how you got there.
In fact, you may have spent years stuck in a relationship that lacks connection and depth.
You may feel your partner barely notices you now. And what might make it more difficult is if your partner is affectionate with your children but not with you. It’s not that they can’t be affectionate period, but for whatever reason, they’re not affectionate with you.
The good news is, disconnection is normal. It happens in all relationships. Ultimately, disconnection or even feeling stuck is not a problem—as long as you reconnect eventually.
The problem arises when you feel the disconnection and you haven’t been able to reconnect and repair hurts or emotional mismatches for years. Then you truly feel stuck, and it turns from a mild, stuck like a shoe in mud feeling to a stuck like you’re sunk to your neck in quicksand feeling.
When there’s no opportunity for repair and reconnection in your relationship, you may turn away from your relationship and seek comfort and fulfillment in work, distractions, addictions, or affairs.
Disconnection – What leads to feeling stuck in a relationship?
Disconnection comes in many forms, and each of these is a reflection of the inner emotional state of the partners. Each person’s early experiences affects their ability to manage the challenges or conflicts within a relationship.
When things get hard, what is your partner’s strategy to cope with hurt or disappointment and repair conflicts? What is yours?
In some way, each of us has had to deal with difficulties in relationships. They start with the earliest relationship with our mother and our immediate family. If those early relationships were fraught with emotional absences, for whatever the reason, we may also end up being emotionally absent in the face of challenges in our adult romantic relationships.
Fortunately, there is hope. And there’s no need for blame or shame.
As psychologist Dr. Ed Tronick and pediatrician Dr. Claudia Gold write in their book The Power of Discord, we don’t need to stigmatize learned emotional absence (Tronick & Gold, 2020).
On the contrary, understanding where disconnection comes from can help you and your partner develop empathy and find reconnection.
Types of Disconnection
Doctors Tronick and Gold also point out that, “people can miss out on the opportunity for mismatch and repair in different ways” (Tronick & Gold, 2020). They explain that individuals in relationship may be emotionally absent for an infant as a result of depression, exhaustion, marital struggles, addiction, or any number of other factors.
In romantic relationships, some seemingly innocuous distractions that lead to emotional absence include throwing yourself into work or hobbies.
Maybe you started working longer hours, or weekends. You might volunteer so much time at the local animal shelter your partner feels like the puppies know you better than he does. He’s stuck in a relationship with a person he never sees.
Or you and your partner may find yourselves drawn more and more into your smartphones. Technology is one of the biggest demands on our attention today. Finally, addiction is one of the more extreme manifestations of disconnection between partners. If one person is mired in their need for drugs, sex, or gambling, they cannot be present for the other person.
Stuck in a Relationship with No One—What happens when we’re disconnected
As you may know all too well, disconnection can lead to profound emotional distress. And, often times, it comes from a place of emotional distress experienced in you or your partner’s past.
Being emotionally disconnected from an important person in your life can leave you feeling anxious, sad, hopeless, and even depressed. If you feel alone, it’s easy to start to feel hopeless and eventually desperate. It’s hard to find purpose in life and an understanding of where you fit.
When you’re stuck in a relationship, it’s often the result of gradual disconnection and continued missed opportunities for repair.
Ultimately, emotional well-being and emotional distress are both affected by the quality of your relationships. If you feel seen and responded to, connected, you’ll feel better about yourself and about the world. At the very least, you’ll feel resilient because you know when you fall, there will be someone to catch you.
Healing After Being Stuck in a Relationship
So how do you deal with disconnection in your most important relationships? How do you reconnect and move forward with your partner?
As Tronick and Gold explain, when you’re having trouble managing your own emotions, you’ll have trouble connecting with your partner. They say that for healing in relationships after this difficulty connecting, you just need ‘time and repetition’ (Tronick & Gold, 2020).
More simply—you just need practice reconnecting after disconnection.
Many couples who experience disconnection and conflict can reconnect and heal with therapy. There’s no need for perfection, either. In fact, the process of having conflicts or misunderstandings and repairing them is what builds a strong, healthy relationship.
To heal after long or significant disconnection, you may first need to feel the pain of the lost relationship. You’ll have to admit to yourselves just how stuck you and your partner got. And we’ll be straight with you. It can get worse before it gets better.
But couples therapy, particularly emotionally focused therapy (EFT), is a great way to open the door for healing. A recent review of studies reported that the majority of couples were more satisfied with their marriages after participating in couples EFT therapy (Beasley & Ager, 2019). According to the American Psychological Association, EFT is effective for 70-75% of couples—even highly distant or distressed couples.
About Dr. Irena
Dr. Irena offers online therapy for women and couples in Houston, The Woodlands, and New York City. As a certified EFT therapist, she uses Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) to help couples who feel stuck in their relationships develop and maintain emotional connection and move forward together.
If you would like to schedule a session, email Dr. Irena for a free 10-minute video consultation: [email protected] or call (281)-267-1742.
Beasley, C. C., & Ager, R. (2019). Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy: A Systematic Review of Its Effectiveness over the past 19 Years. Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work, 16(2). https://doi.org/10.1080/23761407.2018.1563013
Tronick, E., & Gold, C. M. (2020). The Power of Discord: Why the Ups and Downs of Relationships Are the Secret to Building Intimacy, Resilience, and Trust. Little, Brown Spark.