6 Ways to Find Happiness with an Emotionally Unavailable Partner

6 Ways to Find Happiness with an Emotionally Unavailable Partner May 21, 2019

Dear Terry,

I’ve been unhappy for a long time because my husband and I are like roommates and rarely spend time together. We’ve been married 20 years and have two kids, 14 and 16. My husband is pretty emotionally unavailable. It’s not really anything to do with our kids since they are busy teenagers who are independent in most ways.

I think we just have different needs for being close and my husband, Joshua, rarely initiates conversations with me, physical contact, or sexual intimacy except late at night when I’m tired. I do love him but I would like to connect more emotionally and not be made to feel that I’m bothering him.

What can I do to change this dynamic between myself and Joshua so we can be close, like we were in the early years of our marriage?



Dear Diane,

While it may seem like an odd concept that you can find happiness with someone who is emotionally unavailable, it’s entirely possible if you have realistic expectations. By the way, it’s not the same as settling for less than you deserve.

A problem exists when the pattern of pursuing and distancing becomes ingrained because the behavior of one partner provokes and maintains the behavior of the other. While all couples need autonomy and closeness, many couples struggle with the pursuer-distancer dance—feeling chronically dissatisfied with the degree of intimacy in their relationship.

While pursuing and distancing are common ways that couples relate to one another when they are under stress, these patterns can become dysfunctional. If they go unnoticed and persist for a long time, they can even lead to the downfall of a relationship or marriage.

According to Dr. John Gottman, a renowned relationship expert, the tendency of men to withdraw and women to pursue is wired into our physiology and reflects a basic gender difference. In his classic “Love Lab” observations he’s noted that this pattern is extremely common and is a major contributor to marital breakdown.

Dr. Gottman cautions us that if it’s not examined, the pursuer-distancer pattern will persist into a second marriage or subsequent intimate relationships. If this pattern isn’t reversed, it’s easy to see how both partners can begin to feel criticized and contempt for each other—two of the major warning signs that their marriage is doomed to fail, according to Dr. Gottman.

Ways to communicate with your partner to support him/her and grow together:

  • “I feel left out when you don’t talk to me about what’s going on in your head, and I’d like to know what you’re thinking.”
  • “I feel hurt when you read the paper when we’re eating dinner, because I’d like to learn more about your day.”
  • “I feel unimportant to you when you don’t include me in plans with your friends. I’d like to be kept posted, even if you prefer to see them on your own.”

Rather than expressing criticism or contempt, this type of dialogue will hopefully foster positive communication since the intent is to get information rather than to criticize or nag. In fact, many of the women I’ve counseled who are pursuers don’t feel good about nagging their partner to open up and they want more supportive ways to improve communication.

6 Ways to find happiness with an emotionally unavailable partner:

  • Accept that the pattern exists and find some positives in living with a partner who has a different style of relating. For instance, they might cause you to be more reflective if you are a pursuer.
  • Work on changing your reactions to your partner. For example, if you are a pursuer, take up walking fast to release stress or a hobby such as scrapbooking to occupy your time.
  • Write in a journal or dialogue with a close friend or trusted therapist—it can be extremely helpful to get a healthier perspective on your relationship.
  • If your partner seems overwhelmed, give him or her space but not in anger or blame. Disengage as a way to restore your composure not to punish your partner.
  • Attempt to take a break for at least 20 minutes when you feel you’re being overreactive to triggers such as your partner giving you the silent treatment. For instance, listening to music or reading a magazine is a great distraction because you can flip through pages rather mindlessly.
  • Resume a conversation with your partner when you feel refreshed and able to talk calmly and rationally. Always use a soft start up such as “I love you and miss spending time with you,” rather than a criticism.

At times, you might find it easier to blame your partner rather than to acknowledge your part in the problem between you. However, real change starts with you. Repair work begins with expressing your intent in a positive way and taking responsibility for your part in it. Both people need to make a commitment to work on improving their relationship in order to break a negative pattern.

Twitter, Facebook, and, movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.

I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here. Thanks! Terry 


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