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How emotional distance ruins marriage

Suggestions for staying close with your spouse.

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Today's couples are quick to squelch the urge to argue with each other. But just because you seldom argue doesn't mean your marriage is strong. The real silent killer of marriage is distancing yourself from your partner.

The solution? Don't worry so much about your fight response – that instinct to duke it out verbally. Instead, focus on your response – the instinct to avoid your partner. If we can learn to spot the distancing pattern in our relationships, we can help prevent family problems and divorce.

Recognizing flight mode can be tricky: things like working late, switching on the TV, or spending more time with the kids may seem harmless, but they can be a slippery slope leading to a distant marriage.

When families come to me for coaching, their symptoms vary but there is often a simple distancing pattern that causes much of their suffering. Here's a classic example:

Mr. and Mrs. Smith come to me trying to save their marriage. Mr. Smith has had an affair. Mrs. Smith, devastated, seems to be the hapless victim.

Certainly, cheating on one's spouse is not something to rationalize away, but behind such behavior there's a common pattern:

Soon after they married, Mr. and Mrs. Smith were surprised at some of the tension and dissatisfaction they felt with each other. At first, they tried to talk it out. Over time, this didn't seem to be working, so they'd lose patience and argue more often. But open conflict is unpleasant, and pop psychology has taught us that arguing and anger are bad things that doom a marriage.

So the Smiths (subconsciously) decided to keep the peace, and avoid the touchy topics. They communicated less of their true thoughts, feelings, and dreams to each other. As they distanced themselves from each other, he filled the gap by focusing on his career and she focused on the kids. Everything seemed fine, because he was succeeding at his career and she could meet her need for affection with the children. But over the years, this pattern slowly, insidiously, became a problem. Mr. Smith's job obviously couldn't meet his intimacy needs, so in a moment of temptation he unwisely stumbled into an affair.

Mr. Smith's affair is a symptom of the distancing pattern that's been going on between them for years. By the time a couple call me, however, all they focus on is the affair, which they believe is the problem. Neither party is aware of their distancing, or its consequences over time.


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