Overcoming Emotional Distance from Your Lover
By Sammi Nguyen
When your relationship settles into a long-term routine, you might find that a queasy feeling of distance has grown up between you and your lover when you weren’t looking, or that trivial disagreement over washing the dishes escalates in no time flat to fights with shouting and tears. The easiest thing in the world is to take your partner for granted, to let a bubble form around you, to stop listening. And with that, the sense of connection that gives your relationship much of its meaning is diminished.
One of the most powerful techniques for couples to learn to listen to each other and from there to reconnect is variously called active listening, empathic listening, speaker-listener, the Imago Dialogue, and so forth. While there are many names and variations, it’s one of those rare and wonderful things whose power comes from its simplicity. The idea is simply for partners to turn their full attention towards one another and be present in the moment as one speaks and the other listens.
Here are the steps:
- Begin by setting aside some time without interruptions or distractions (phones off!). Be sure to make eye contact throughout.
- One person is the speaker and the other is the listener. The speaker does the talking and the listener does not interrupt. Throughout, the listener must resist the urge to offer feedback, input, disagreement, or advice.
- The speaker chooses one simple, circumscribed topic, beginning with one thing in their own life or in the relationship. It is important to keep it focused and narrow; it is not about everything that has happened in the relationship ever.
- The speaker shares what is on their mind, briefly, using “I” statements. The purpose is to express feelings, not to problem-solve or assign blame. “I feel unimportant when you look at your phone rather than talking to me while we are eating dinner.”
- The listener listens carefully, without interrupting, doing their best to quiet their own inner voices, simply to listen and be present. Listening does not obligate the listener to change their own behavior or to solve the speaker’s problem.
- The listener paraphrases what the speaker said. “It sounds like you feel unimportant when I look at my phone rather than being engaged with you during dinner.” Then they ask if they were correct and if there is anything more the speaker wants to say. The speaker then can make corrections or additions.
- The listener validates what the speaker is feeling. “It makes sense to me that you would feel unimportant when I am focused on my phone instead of you.”
- The listener empathizes with what the speaker is feeling. “I would feel unimportant, too, if you seemed distracted when we were spending time together, and that would make me feel hurt and lonely.”
At first, this exercise can feel awkward and forced. Give it the benefit of the doubt. It provides a safe and structured framework to talk about sensitive topics. It is not a problem-solving technique, but in helping each partner to communicate clearly and openly and feel heard, with practice it establishes a foundation for better problem-solving.
Most of us rarely feel truly heard in the course of our everyday lives. Everyone is wrapped up in their own bubble. Your partner’s focus on you in the exercise does not mean they do not have feelings of their own (they will share them using the same steps when it is their turn), but that they recognize the validity and depth of your experience. When your partner is able simply to hold your feelings, it is like a breath of fresh air. This exercise allows you to open your eyes to the depth of each other’s experience, and ultimately find safety that will allow for vulnerability and meaningful connection.
*This exercise is loosely adapted from The Imago Dialogue (Hendrix, 2007).
Sammi Nguyen is a Master’s student in the Couple and Family Therapy program at Thomas Jefferson University and Couple and Family Therapy Intern at Council For Relationships.
To request an appointment with Sammi, please call Client Care at (215) 382 -6680 ext. 1