Tell Me About It

My partner is closed off emotionally

He responds with one-word answers, grudgingly obliges if I ask for a kiss, and some mornings leaves for work without a goodbye

PROBLEM: I’m struggling with my relationship with my long-term partner. When things are good, I feel like we really connect. Other times, I find him very closed-off emotionally. I don’t know what to do in those times. I feel like my emotional needs aren’t met. He responds with one-word answers, grudgingly obliges if I ask for a kiss, and some mornings leaves for work without a goodbye.

For years, I thought that maybe it was something I was imagining. Or I thought I was doing something to make him act this way.

I used to talk to my best friend about it for hours over a glass of wine. I went to counselling for three months a couple of years ago. I went for a number of reasons, including my insecurity in the relationship. My counsellor suggested inviting my partner along, but I didn’t dare ask.

I suspected he had a difficult childhood, and, over the summer, he finally filled me in. What he went through is unimaginable to me, and it breaks my heart that he had to experience it. The thing is, he hasn’t raised it since and I don’t know if he wants me to do so. Our relationship is still up and down in terms of closeness, and it’s a problem I still want to address.

I just really don’t know how to do so, or whether I even should.

ADVICE: You sound like you are self-aware and able to take action on things: you are aware of your insecurities and you took the big step of seeing a counsellor. However, all this self-knowledge has not helped you in your relationship with a man who struggles to express emotion and who buries his issues deeply.

It seems that you see huge potential in your partner, and you often connect, but this is short-lived and the subsequent withdrawal is very painful for you. To feel you have to ask for a kiss or closeness is very sad for you, but it also means that your partner is missing out on some of the best parts of being in a relationship: affection and the right to be in another’s space.

You have not outlined what happened in your partner’s past but it would seem that it has allowed you to make sense of his current closed-off status. That he told you of his past shows he trusts you but the danger here is that you become both his counsellor and lover without the full rights of either position.

If this relationship is to continue into a future that might involve children, these communication issues and past troubles might need addressing so that the next generations do not suffer. Indeed, you might add that your responsibility to yourself and your future happiness requires that these issues be tackled.

Your counsellor was wise in suggesting joint sessions, as your patterns of communication currently leave you feeling frustrated and unloved. However, it seems that you are very wary of suggesting this. Is this because of a fear that the relationship will end or that you sense your partner’s huge vulnerability? In either case, it is important not to let fear ruin your communication, and, as you are the person with the most awareness, it is up to you to take the lead on this.

Sometimes we need a crisis to disrupt our patterns, and this might be a situation that could benefit from this. It would involve you saying the relationship needs outside help and that you do not see a future for it otherwise. Of course, the danger is that your partner will refuse this and then you are left with the stark choice of continuing with the way things are or leaving.

If you choose to stay, you need to take every opportunity to connect with your partner. This will require the courage to say what you are thinking without fear of rejection. There is some evidence that your partner is able to make advances in intimacy; a type of dance where he moves in and then away again. This may be the only pace that he is comfortable with at the moment, and anything else might threaten his sense of safety.

Whatever you choose, it is important to take responsibility for your own happiness and wellbeing. You need close connection in your life, so spend time with good friends, discussing topics of importance to you. If you spread your own connection needs among close people, you will be able to withstand the distances that are the hallmark of your relationship.

Exercising the courage to speak truthfully to your partner will also build your confidence and demonstrate that you believe the relationship is worth the challenge.