How to Save the Marriage When Your Partner Checks Out
One of the most common issues I see as a marriage counselor is the spouse who comes in feeling completely hopeless because their partner has given up emotionally and is no longer even trying to work on the marriage.
This is a tough one. MindBodyGreen interviewed me recently for a story on the five biggest reasons relationships end, and my answer was emotional abandonment.
Fighting to save your marriage when your partner wants out is the hardest thing you’ll do.
The first step to getting your partner to re-engage is to understand why they dis-engaged. The question you need to answer is why your partner wants out. When someone comes to me about emotional abandonment, as a therapist I start to look for why that person shut down. But as a partner, if I’m experiencing it, I want to confront it.
If my husband has abandoned me emotionally, I want to share my pain and blame him for it. I want to tell him our marriage is dying and it is all his fault.
This is a trap! Don’t give in to that temptation.
Instead, first understand why he or she has closed down.
What makes leaving better than being here?
Once you get an idea of what alienated your spouse, you stop the damage…whether you agree with the fact that this is damaging or not. This isn’t the time to argue about intentions or who is right and who is wrong. You will never get a checked out spouse to re-engage this way. You have to show them a different behavior.
No one leaves a relationship unless they think there is something better to go towards. What are you doing that’s making it so awful for them to stay?
The answer may be that you want to talk about the relationship all the time.
It may be that your spouse views you as critical and negative.
It may be that you’re not thinking about the relationship enough; you’re too self-absorbed, you’re too into your work or you’re too into other people.
There’s a particular “Save Your Marriage” program out there where it is all about leaving little love notes every day, buying your partner gifts every night. That may work for 25 percent of those I see.
If your partner is turned off and tuned out because you’ve been neglectful, that’s great. But if they feel like you’ve been smothering, and you write notes every day, its over. So you can’t just use a one-size-fits-all approach.
For some clients, this may mean completely backing off. It may mean stop talking about the relationship. Stop asking your partner how they feel all the time and give them space to breathe. For another client; you may need to get more engaged. You may need to start paying more attention to your partner. You can’t fix the problem until you understand what your partner is needing so they want to get close again.
That doesn’t mean it is your fault that he or she wants out.
It also doesn’t mean your spouse is the full problem.
Emotional abandonment just means that whatever is going on right now, in that dynamic, is pushing your partner farther away from you. And that is the place you have to start if you want to have a chance at getting to the deeper issues. The goal is to get your partner checked back in so they will be willing to work on the relationship.
Okay, so how do you address emotional abandonment?
You approach the discovery of the real issue with curiosity and vulnerability, not defensiveness or blame.
Where I see many couples go wrong is some form of the following:
We want to understand what our partner is thinking and feeling, and so we ask.
And our spouse may timidly or forcefully tell us. But the first thing we do is justify, minimize and deny.
Well, I only do that because you…
Or That’s not what I meant.
Or That’s not how I remember it.
Or we say it wasn’t that bad instead of hearing that our partner is in a place of pain.
We asked the question but we’re not open to the answer.
So you’ve got to be vulnerable and have empathy. And cool your jets. You’ve got to be able to just listen to what they are saying without trying to fix it.
You have to listen without trying to make it okay or just brush it off as something they’ve made up.
Remember, until they are ready to work on the relationship, you are not going to be able to change their perception. You’re not going to be able to fix the problem.
But you can make yourself more inviting, more approachable, more understanding. You can draw them in with questions and curiosity.
So if my partner really did believe all those things about me and I did not see it, I’d feel sad that he really experienced that. And that’s what I’d want to share with him.
Honey, I’m so sorry.
After empathy and vulnerability, then it changes.
I’m telling you, more times than not your partner will be open to your perspective when you listen and are not defensive or blaming them.
Spend a significant amount of time hearing them and showing them your remorse about their experience.
Don’t show remorse for something you don’t believe you did, show it for what they’ve experienced. This is painful for them! That’s why they pulled away.
Once you show that empathy, they will soften.
So are you open to a different perspective on that maybe?
And most times they’re like, Okay, sure.
Now you’ve got some dialogue happening.
And if they don’t listen?
I’ve had clients where emotional abandonment turns around in one session. It just takes giving that partner hope that something really can change.
But I’ve also seen it take months. It varies widely. If there’s a lot of anger, if there is a lot of defensiveness, it is going to take much longer.
That’s when it helps to get an objective, third-party view on the relationship. It helps you make sure you’re not missing something.
What we do at The Marriage Place is really get in there, do a forensic evaluation, start looking at how the problem began, help make an action plan, and monitor it along the way. If the approach doesn’t work, we try something else until we get the results we want.
Having a partner who has given up is incredibly hard. So if you’re in that situation, get help! Give us a call or contact us online to make an appointment today.