There’s an incessant pace to running a household. Kids need to get dressed. Garbage has to be on the curb, and bills have to get paid. But the work never stops. Often, complaining ramps up, and downtime and personal space essentially disappear. At a certain point, it can become too much and you decide to create your own space by pulling away. Men are more prone to withdrawing from their partner. But why do men pull away?
Sometimes, the retreat is done in anger for any number of possibilities. You feel like you’re constantly being critiqued. You feel as if your opinion isn’t valued. You feel like an understudy. Politeness has been replaced by snappy comebacks and bickering. It doesn’t make anyone want to engage. “I don’t know anyone who likes to be browbeaten,” says Lesli Doares, licensed marriage and family therapist outside Raleigh, North Carolina and creator of the Hero Husband Project.
But it’s not all white-level heat. Robin Barry is an associate professor of psychology at University of Wyoming and studies romantic relationships. She’s found that men pull away because of stress, exhaustion, depression, or focusing on any other responsibility besides the relationship. What might have started as hostility is now just resignation. “You can teach yourself not to care,” she says. “We’re just not trying anymore.”
What Barry found in her research is the mere act of avoidance affects the relationship. You’re not spending the same time with your partner — far from it — and, because of that, you miss out on any positives that might change the dynamic. It’s hard to get unstuck. “Our responses become habitual,” she says. “There’s short-term relief, but in the long term, it bites you.”
Since nothing changes on its own, the question is, How do you close that distance? What do you do when you start to pull away?
A lot of the solution lies in the pure intention of giving priority back to the relationship. It’s as low-tech as saying, “Please,” “Thank you,” and, “Great job with the kids,” more often, Doares says. It’s about listening, not to give an answer, but just to let the person talk. On the most basic level, it’s using words and tone that show that you care about your partner’s feelings.
“How we talk to each other matters more than what we’re saying,” says Debra Roberts, a relationship expert, communications specialist, and author of The Relationship Protocol.
It’s as slight as a shift in perspective. When you’ve been hurt or frustrated, before you react, you give your partner the benefit of the doubt. All you have to do is pause and consider what the motivation might have been. You might not figure out the answer, but you’ve moved from pure emotion into problem-solving. “Your partner isn’t the enemy anymore,” Roberts says. The volume is down, and you can work on, How do we get back on the same team?
One fundamental way is that you make decisions together. No one replaces a living room chair or books a non-refundable trip unilaterally, unless someone has unequivocally stated, “I absolutely don’t care.” It’s baseline stuff of consideration and respect. Doares calls it the policy of joint agreement. If you have something in mind that you want to do, the next question has to be, How would your partner feel?, and, if you’re unsure, you find out. You don’t always have to agree, but you have to be in concert. “You need to play together or you’ll lose,” she says. “That consideration says that the other person matters not more or less than you, but the same.”
You need to have more fun together. Anything that’s new helps. It could be a hiking trail, board game or restaurant. Or you could just talk, for at least 15 minutes to get out of the purely informational exchange. Ask questions that tap into memories. Favorite present? Favorite vacation? Favorite holiday celebration? Follow-up with, “What was the best part?” You’re being curious, like when you were dating. Your partner feels appreciated. You’re learning something about someone you already know well. It’s exciting, and the novelty releases dopamine that brings connection, says Doares, who adds to occasionally take on chores that your partner does. Load the dishwasher. Fold clothes. Make the beds. Without any words, you’ll letting the person know, “Someone notices I do these things,” she says.
There’s no one magical thing that shrinks the distance, but the upside is that you have many options. You just have to choose something, as the old adage is always in play: You can’t control someone else. But you can determine if you’re doing your share. If there’s a problem, you can bring it up. If there’s a compliment to pay, you can open your mouth. “You’re only responsible for your actions,” Roberts says. “If you’re not communicating, that’s on you. If you don’t communicate, the other person doesn’t know.”