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Do You Want To Change Your Emotionally Distant Partner?

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Do You Want To Change Your Emotionally Distant Partner?

If you’re looking for mission impossible just try changing your emotionally distant partner!

You’ll have a happier marriage if you don’t try to make a cat into a dog.

Here’s important advice from Marriage Rules:  A Manual For The Married and The Coupled Up.(link is external)

You may have paired up with someone who is a private person—who doesn’t want to debrief after every dinner party or talk in detail about the symptoms of his stomach flu. If so, don’t count on the power of your love or your nagging to create something in him or her that wasn’t there to begin with. When we interpret genuine difference as a problematic distance, we can end up making things worse.

One therapy client, Phyllis, was married to Doug, a quiet, introverted guy, who was an only child in his first family. She herself came from a “big, loud, glommed-together family” as she described it, and she was drawn to Doug’s coolness, his quiet independence, and his singular passion for his work and his students. No doubt he was drawn to her extroverted nature, and her large, colorful family.

Later in the marriage, as often happens, she resented the very qualities that drew her to him. She began to anxiously pursue her husband for closeness, now reframing his love for his work as “workaholism” and catastrophizing about his failure to share more of his inner life (“I don’t know how we’re going to make it if you never open up about your feelings”). Phyllis noted that Doug retreated further in response to her judgmental and critical pursuit, but now she felt his coolness was an indictment of her.

I suggested that Phyllis think of her husband as a cat, and try not to take his need for separateness personally. Phyllis loved her cat who, in keeping with typical feline behavior, would sit on her lap and purr contentedly, and then jump off for no apparent reason and curl up in a corner.

When her cat wanted space, Phyllis didn’t anxiously ask herself what she had done wrong, or why he wanted to get away from her just then, or whether this signaled an impending disaster in their relationship. Nor did she try to force him back on her lap, knowing he’d only jump off again. She accepted his behavior as part of his essential catness, and saw his moves toward and away from her as about him, and not about her.

This shift in attitude didn’t “solve” Phyllis’s wish for more closeness in her marriage. Rather, it helped her to remember the good qualities in her husband that had attracted her in the first place. As Phyllis took Doug’s need for privacy and space less personally, she was able to calmly invite more connection, rather than anxiously demand it. He, in turn, warmed up quite a bit. Although he never turned into an over-eager puppy, their marriage was a whole lot better.

[Harriet Lerner]

Dr. Lerner is one of the world’s most respected voices in the psychology of women and family relationships. She is the author of 11 books published in 35 languages. These include The Dance of Intimacy, Marriage Rules, and The Dance of Anger, a New York Times bestseller that has helped rescue men and women from the swamps and quicksands of difficult relationships. Dr. Lerner hosts a blog for Psychology Today.

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