Emotional Health

Dr. Ford on Emotional Health: Loving the Emotionally Distant Man

Many people who share your partner’s history avoid close relationships altogether. The reasons are usually twofold. On the one hand, they lack important interpersonal skills, so forming connections is difficult. On the other, if they do form a bond, they live with the fear of abandonment and the devastation of re-traumatization.

Your friend has chosen a middle path, to be close but not too close. He is probably constantly dealing with the opposing needs of desire for affection vs. desire for protection from harm. This is often largely unconscious: He may be unaware of the internal struggle to maintain this balance and may only experience urges to pull back when he feels he is getting “dangerously” close.

Since he has lived a lifetime this way, what can be done for your partner, and for you, to help improve your relationship? Psychotherapy might help, but unless it is extremely intensive (e.g., psychoanalysis) it is likely to be of limited use for such a lifelong personality style. Even the relationship with the therapist in such cases can be fraught with mistrust and fear. Furthermore, in my experience the sadness and depression that is carried by those who have lost a parent in early childhood is among the most intractable of problems to treat. To continue the gardening analogy, a tree that is bent by poor early care can grow, but it may not be as tall or as straight as one that was tended properly.

Nevertheless, your partner has shown a willingness to “engage” and has stayed with it for four years, and that is a credit to you both. I have a few suggestions that may help you do better in the future. Though in fact it is true, perhaps, that he is “doing the best he can,” he can learn to be more aware of your needs if you are willing to be explicit about them. For example, you can tell him that you would like to celebrate holidays with gifts or dinners, and if necessary, arrange then yourself. Many women feel that if it does not come from him, it doesn’t “count,” but it is often necessary to “teach” such things to people for whom such ideas don’t come naturally. He may find he enjoys these “rituals,” and, in time, learn to contribute to them himself.

Remember, though, it is quite unnatural to him to be intimate and celebrate closeness. Couples therapy that focuses on behavioral changes (rather than deeper internal issues) may be of help. If gently led, your partner could lean to be more sensitive and giving.

Up to a point: Remember that he is likely dealing with two conflicting wishes. His urge to be close is countered by another to pull back and seek “protection.” If pushed too far, he could be frightened and pull back even further.

You have to ask yourself how much you are willing to bend, or tolerate, to be with this man. Loving someone inherently requires us to accept his or her flaws, but when the flaw is in the very realm of loving itself, it can be impossible to maintain your connection to the other. Does he give back enough for you to stay connected, or are you caught in a trap, like many of us, in which you feel that if you keep trying you can “rescue” this man or this relationship?

If you decide to continue with him, besides the efforts to educate him in ways he can be more attentive, I suggest that you seek support elsewhere. Make sure to keep up with your friends and outside activities. We have been led to believe, inaccurately, that couples need to be all things to each other. Most successful long-term couples have well-developed lives outside the relationship, and they understand that each partnership is unique. Expecting love is one thing; expecting it to be expressed in a certain way may not be good for us.

We need only look at the pressure people feel about Valentine’s Day to see this in action. Men worry that they won’t “get it right” and she’ll be mad. Women worry that he won’t “get it right” and she’ll be hurt and he’ll feel guilty. This generates great profits for restaurants and florists, but rarely does much for your relationship. In reality there is no special day or special way to express love. The important thing is to teach your partner to do it in language you understand, and treasure what is said.

 Cecilia M. Ford



The Origins of Attachment Theory, by Inge Bretherton

Reference: Developmental Psychology (1992), 28, 759-775

The Nature of Love,” by Harry F. Harlow, American Psychologist, 13, 673-685.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • LEE February 23, 2015 at 9:36 am

    wonderful and comforting..thanks.

  • Fiona February 19, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    Thank you for the thoughtful treatment of an issue that touches many people. Especially relevant are the historical sources cited. It is easy to forget that we function in the context of culture and its norms and influences. Wonderfully useful discussion of the realities and potential solutions.

  • Andrea February 19, 2015 at 7:40 am

    Dr ford – you have answered this woman’s concerns so thoroughly and with such great compassion and understanding. This is a challenging situation. Once again it proves how important a stable and loving parent-child relationship is. Thank you for your insight!