The Emotionally Distant Spouse/Relative Healing
"Man and woman, created as a unity of the two in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God, through which the Three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life." Blessed John Paul II, The Dignity of Women, n.7.
A description of the origins and treatment of the emotionally distant spouse has been significantly updated in the fourth chapter of my new martial book, Habits for a Healthy Marriage: A Handbook for Catholic Couples, 2019 which I recommend. The director of the National Marriage Project, Dr. Brad Wilcox, has written of my book, that, "Anger, selfishness, controlling behavior, and emotional distance are some of the most toxic behaviors in a marriage. Dr.Fitzgibbons confronts the emotional roots of these marital toxins and gives husbands and wives the tools to overcome them in their marriage."
The emotionally distant spouse can be a source of significant unhappiness, stress and conflict in marriages and families. Most often, we hear wives make this complaint about their husbands' behaviors. The pain of loneliness, insecurity, mistrust and anger caused by the emotionally distant spouse can intensify over the years of marriage and can lead to a desire to separate or even divorce. Unfortunately, in many marriages there is a failure to honestly discuss and address this weakness in self-giving. The good news is that this serious marital conflict can be uncovering and resolved through the hard work of growing in virtues. This healing process can lead to a strengthening of the romantic aspect of the marriage, marital friendship and betrothed love which in the writing of John Paul II includes sexual intimacy, but primarily is the challenging movement of the heart and mind from "me to we."
The most common causes of emotionally distant marital behaviors in our experience are the result of men modeling after fathers who had this conflict and serious damage to the ability to trust caused by the trauma of their parent's divorce or by a parent's controlling or angry behaviors. Although some spouses gave freely of themselves during the early years of their marriage, under the influence of numerous types of stress, the emotional wounds of mistrust from childhood and adolescence emerge. These can lead them to pull away or criticize in an unconscious attempt to protect themselves from further betrayal. Other important factors which can lead a spouse to withdraw love and self-giving are various hurts over the years of the marriage, giving into the epidemic of selfishness in the culture and the use of oral contraceptives.
A mistake made by some wives is to erroneously diagnoses their husband's emotionally distant behaviors as being the result of Asperger's syndrome (a previously used diagnosis for mild autism). This diagnosis is often made without an understanding of either the family of origin causes of emotionally distant behavior or of the marital conflicts that cause them. We caution wives to never make such a diagnosis of autism without this understanding and without expert consultation from those who understand all the causes of emotionally distant behaviors in marriage. Asserting to children that their father has autism severely damages the trust in the father and, in fact, can be the result of a wife's difficulty in trusting because of unresolved conflicts with one of her parents, most often her father.
Case studies will be presented from our APA book, Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, 2014. These marital stories hopefully will help you come to a deeper understanding of the process of healing the pain in the emotionally distant spouse. You will be asked to complete a checklist which evaluates marital self-giving in both your spouse and in yourself. Then, specific virtues will be recommended which are helpful in the healing of this serious marital conflict that inflicts so much harm upon spouses and on children.
The Distant Husband
Helen came into treatment for depression, which she believed was the result of severe marital loneliness. Her husband, Mike, loved her but was not physically affectionate and rarely told her that he cared for her. Also, she grew up in a home in which she felt little affection from either parent. Her depression resulted in chronic fatigue and she began to neglect her children and home. In an attempt to escape from her loneliness, she met a man on the internet and considered having an affair with him. As a result, Helen felt very guilty and became even more motivated in her attempts to improve her marriage.
In the marital sessions, Mike stated that he had justifiable anger with his wife for acting in an irresponsible manner regarding the care of the home and children. Her behavior was interpreted, in part, as a manifestation of depression and of passive-aggressive anger toward him.
Initially Mike was quite resistant in examining his own weaknesses from his family of origin. He was loyal to his father, whom he viewed as an excellent role model in most ways and it took several months before he could admit that when he was young, he wished often that his father had been more affectionate and affirming. Slowly, he came to understand his wife's needs and the fact that he had difficulty in being sensitive to her as a result of modeling after a father who was markedly limited in the communication of love. The uncovering of Mikes childhood and adolescent anger with his father was a lengthy process.
When he understood that his unconscious anger with his father was an important factor that interfered with his ability to love his wife, Mike tried forgiveness exercises in order to improve their marriage. He was given a written cognitive forgiveness exercise on which he was asked to picture himself as a child and as a teenager and think, "Dad I want to try to understand you and to forgive you for not giving more affection, praise and warmth to Mom and me." Then he was asked to imagine communicating to his father, "I want to model after your good qualities, but not your weaknesses. I don't want to be emotionally distant like you." Mike came to realize that his fat her' style of relating was the result of modeling after Mike' grandfather and that he had not meant to hurt his family.
As Mike worked at forgiving his father and committing himself to act differently, he actually began to feel freer from the weakness which he had acquired from him. Slowly, he grew in his ability to communicate to Helen and during this process, he was able to apologize to her and express remorse for the ways in which he had hurt her by his aloofness.
Helen, at the same time, was struggling with her anger and tried daily to understand and to forgive him for being distant. She did not want to continue to vent anger at him in passive-aggressive ways. After forgiveness was explained as a method for letting go of her anger which would help in the healing of her marriage, she agreed to try it. Initially, she employed cognitive forgiveness exercises in which she did not truly feel like forgiving him. As her understanding of Mike's family conflicts grew and as she saw him work to change his behavior, she felt much more compassion and was able to genuinely want to forgive.
Helen also came to recognize that she had been overreacting in anger at Mike as a result of her failure to resolve her childhood and adolescent anger with her emotionally distant father. Helen's father had lost his own father when he was three years old and had grown up in foster homes. Helen was asked to try to understand and to forgive her father. In the process of using past forgiveness exercises she imagined herself as a child and teenager thinking, "Dad, I want to try to understand and to forgive you for being so emotionally distant." The resolution of Helen's anger with her father and with Mike for past hurts diminished her resentment and as her anger decreased, her husband then felt safer with her.
The resolution of the anger associated with the conflicts in Mike and Helen's relationship took several years of treatment. The psychotherapeutic use of forgiveness was employed successfully with each partner and led to a marked improvement in their martial relationship.
In the deepening phase of the forgiveness process, each came to a greater understanding of their partner and their trust in each other grew. Each realized that their spouse did not deliberately want to inflict hurt, but had acted out of unresolved emotional conflicts from the family of origin. They also grew in a greater sensitivity to their own weaknesses which had created tensions earlier in their married life. They were more hopeful as a result of a greater confidence in their ability to resolve marital conflicts in a more peaceful and positive manner. Finally, forgiveness became an important tool in protecting their communication and their marital love.
The resistance in many men in facing their issues with their fathers can be formidable. Unlike Mike, a number of men steadfastly refuse to examine the influence of their own fat her's relationship upon them and their marriages. Uncovering father anger in these men can be facilitated if the therapist shares how he or she worked to break through the denial in order to understand and forgive a parent or significant other.
The Distant Wife
Walter, a thirty-five-year-old man, entered therapy for the treatment of severe depression and it required the use of several antidepressants to restore his sleep and cognitive abilities. The history disclosed that he had been extremely lonely in his marriage. Walter complained that his wife was acting more and more like her unaffectionate mother. He was conflicted because he still loved his wife and feared that a divorce would severely harm their two young children.
His wife, Susan, thought the marriage had deteriorated after the birth of their oldest child nine years earlier. She believed she had developed a postpartum depression at that time, but it had gone untreated. Susan, too, was upset about the emotional distance in the marriage. She admitted that she had great difficulty in feeling good about herself and in offering emotional support to Walter. However, she also believed that his anger kept her at a distance.
Susan had a good deal of insight and was aware that she had unresolved conflicts with her critical and cold mother and was highly motivated to resolve them. She believed that her mother had never been emotionally supportive of her and never would be. When asked what she had done with her anger with her mother, she related, I tried to bury it as deeply as possible within. However, she intuitively knew that this denial did not free her from the anger or the sadness associated with it.
Each spouse recognized inner excessive anger and was motivated to overcome it. After forgiveness was explained to them, they demonstrated no resistance in making a decision to employ it in their marriage. Then a forgiveness assignment was given to each of them. Walter was asked to try to think of being patient with his wife and of forgiving her for the weaknesses which she had acquired from her mother. Susan was requested to employ past forgiveness exercises for her anger with her mother. She would reflect daily that she wanted to both understand and forgive her mother.
Since her mother was such a controlling and difficult woman, Susan did not want to involve her in the work phase of the forgiveness process. Instead, psychodrama techniques were used in which Susan would visualize her mother seated in a chair and relate to her, "Mom, I've hated your insensitive and controlling manner of treating me from the time I was a little girl. I can't express fully how much you have disappointed me as a mother. I don't want to act like you. I want to let go of my anger with you." Then, even though she did not feel like doing so, she would try to think that she wanted to forgive her. This work phase of forgiveness was very difficult for Susan. She related, "This is the most difficult thing I've had to do in my life, but I know I have to let go of my anger with her if I want a good marriage." She was able to move ahead in the work of forgiveness, in part, because she came to view her mother as an emotionally sick woman.
In Walter's work phase of the forgiveness process, anger emerged with his father who kept everyone at arm's length. Walter came to realize that at times he may have overreacted to his wife's distancing because of similar pain he had felt as a boy and as a teenager with his own father. In marital healing it is helpful to ask each partner to work to resolve anger with the parent who had disappointed them the most. Also, in this phase each partner was asked to seek forgiveness from their partner and to promise to improve their behavior. Susan related, "Walt, please forgive me for acting like my mother and for overreacting in anger." After granting forgiveness, Walter asked, "Please forgive me for being short tempered and for misdirecting anger at you which was meant for my father."
Slowly the anger diminished in this marriage. However, Walter told Susan, "I'm afraid of trusting again because I'm afraid you're going to pull away again and put up walls." It took many months before he felt comfortable being vulnerable to her. However, as he saw her becoming warmer and more giving, Walter felt more comfortable in being vulnerable. Susan grew in her ability to communicate love and affection as she resolved her anger with her mother and as she committed herself to act in a very different manner than her mother. Fortunately, she was able to identify a loving aunt as a healthy role model for emotional giving and tried each day to model after her. Susan had great difficulty in absorbing the years of pain with her mother, but the rediscovered relationship with her aunt was very comforting.
Cognitive and Behavioral Interventions
The process of change from being distant to being more emotionally giving and receiving takes a significant amount of time and effort. Since the most common cause of this conflict is the result of modeling after a distant parent, important initial progress occurs when the person thinks daily that he wants to repeat the good qualities of a distant parent, but not the parent's weaknesses
Many spouses are helping by developing more by developing more positive thinking patterns and specially bringing to mind that they spouse is trustworthy and needs warmth, affection and praise. Also, thinking that on e's spouse is one's best friend, that one is safe in the relationship and committing oneself to daily strengthen the friendship are helpful. The distant spouse can work on trying to:
commit communicating in a positive, hopeful manner with one's spouse for one half hour after dinner each night
receive the communication, warmth, advice, gifts and goodness of one's spouse
identify areas of common interest
be cheerful and positive
work on the romantic aspect of the relationship
think that love is deeds
praise and compliment
void expressing anger by using immediate forgiveness exercises
ask for forgiveness for hurts
be physically close to spouse in the evening
relax with each other after dinner
go to bed at the same time
try to enjoy some exercise together such as walking
be patient and understanding
let go of an excessive sense of responsibility
avoid one word answers
avoid being negative/sarcastic
communicate all important issues in one's life to spouse
The Role of Virtues in Strengthening Marital Friendship
Growth in virtues strengthens the character or personality and facilitates self-giving in the romantic, friendship and intimate aspects of marriage. Pope John Paul II wrote in his first encyclical, The Redeemer of Man, "To be sincere gift of themselves human persons must possess a full freedom which comes only from mastery of oneself." The virtues enable us to gain greater mastery over ourselves.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1803, states, "A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in a concrete way. The goal of the virtuous life is to become like God."
Our clinical experience has been that a commitment to work on growth in the virtues of trust, forgiveness and faith are particularly effective for healing in the distant spouse.
The Role of Faith
The role of faith and prayers have been demonstrated to be beneficial in physical and in emotional healing. For example, Dr. Herbert Benson has demonstrated the beneficial effects of meditation on on e's cardiovascular health and has written extensively on the role of faith in healing (see www.mbmi.org).
John Paul II's description of marital self-giving to romantic love, friendship and betrothed love in marriage from his book, Love and Responsibility, can assist couples in understanding their most important calling in the sacrament of marriage to truly love and give to their spouses as Christ loved and gave himself to the Church. I recommend that you visit that chapter on our site.
Some of the following daily meditations have been reported to be helpful for those who are emotionally distant -
- Lord help me to trust you and trust and feel safe with my spouse.
- Lord help me to give myself cheerfully to you and to my spouse and children.
- Lord help me to receive the special goodness and gifts in my spouse.
- Lord help me to appreciate more my special God-given gifts at every life stage and protect my confidence in these gifts.
- Lord help me to forgive those who have damaged my confidence, trust and ability to give myself and to receive.
We have found for Catholics that prayers and sacraments can be highly effective in strengthening marital self-giving and in resolving conflicts which lead spouses to be emotionally distant. For those with childhood and teenage wounds of mistrust and fear meditating upon Mary as a protective other mother or St. Joseph as another protective father can very effective. Also, the sacrament of reconciliation can assist in resolving parental, peer or spousal anger, which can imprison one in mistrust. Some spouses report that receiving the Eucharist on a regular basis helps them feel safer, happier and more loving.
Couples also report that they are helped in their giving to each other and their children by saying a rosary together daily and by asking the Lord to free them from modeling after a distant parent. Finally, spouses relate benefits from meditating upon asking the Holy Spirit to help them to become one with their spouses in every aspect of their marriage.
The Other Spouse and the Role of Faith
The person who struggles with an emotionally distant spouse regularly experiences a number of stressful emotions including loneliness and sadness, anger, anxiety, conflicts with confidence. An awareness that this difficulty can be healed can bring hope.
These spouses are helped by trying daily to understand the causes of this conflict in their spouse and to try to forgive him/her. Prayers for healing of the spouse's weakness can bring hope, wisdom and courage. When the origin of this weakness becomes clear, it is advisable to discuss the reasons one believe he or she is emotionally distant. Many spouses fear being honest for numerous reasons. They may fear an angry response, may believe the marriage might end if this serious conflict is faced or lack the confidence to be honest. A major weakness here which blocks honesty about marital conflict is that of not trusting the Lord enough with the marriage.
When spouses are struggling to be honest I sometimes quote the writing of St. Josemaria Escriva, "You never want to get to the heart of the matter. Sometimes, through politeness. Other times, most times, through fear of hurting yourself. Sometimes again, through fear of hurting others. And, always, through fear!" (The Way 33). If a spouse gives the marriage to the Lord many times daily, he or she will not be fearful, but rather have a sense of trust and protection which facilitate honesty.
Husbands and wives are asked to express their desire for a closer relationship and to ask the spouse to try to be more emotionally giving. If their spouse has a spiritual life, they may request that he/she ask the Lord to heal their conflicts and to help them to be more emotionally giving love. Also, one can ask if one can make any changes to improve closeness in the relationship. During this healing process the giving spouse can find comfort meditating on in the Lord's steadfast love and in prayer for the healing of this weakness in their marriage.
Some spouses relate that they have found that their loneliness has diminished by asking their emotionally distant husbands or wives to spend one half hour after dinner reading together the gospel of the day and discussing how it applies to their lives. This discussion is enriched by the use of a scripture commentary.
The person married to an emotionally distant spouse can suffer from what amounts to a type of post traumatic stress disorder. They are troubled by recurrent memories of the past when their spouse hurt them deeply by insensitive and cold behaviors. These memories can lead to a significant fear of trying to work on the marriage and of being hurt again. A certain purification of the memory can occur through understanding and forgiving the distant spouse and through giving the painful memories of the past to the Lord. Many report that their fears of betrayal diminish by meditating many times daily, "Lord help me to feel safe and protected in my marital relationship." Finally, growth in the virtues of faith, hope and love can strengthen this spouse to pursue Go d's will for marital healing.
While the the emotionally distant spouse and parent can cause great suffering in marriage and family life, the good news is that this emotional "wound" can be healed. These individuals can grow to become loving and giving husbands, wives and parents, particularly if they are open to grow in virtue.