The frequency of the behavior is what makes the difference.
When one member of a couple drifts emotionally or seems “checked-out” of the relationship, it can be a response to their partner developing habitual problematic behaviors. Certain relationship behaviors are common and manageable when they occur infrequently. But when they become habitual, they can go from irritating to damaging in terms of relationship satisfaction and longevity. However, because these behaviors are common, the person exhibiting the problematic behavior can be blind to the damage they cause. They might perceive their partner’s emotional distance but miss the connection to their own habitual behavior.
Here are five habits that are likely to push your partner away and create emotional distance.
1. Too much criticism: The golden ratio for communication is that 80 percent of what you say should be positive or neutral and only 20 percent should be critical or directive (e.g., “Your turn to take out the trash”). But in some couples, that ratio is almost the opposite. When one member of the couple constantly voices small (and not-so-small) dissatisfactions and complaints, it can be completely demoralizing for the other, who then begins to feel as though they can do nothing right, and as a result, they begin to drift emotionally.
2. Uneven match of argument or relationship-talk skills: When one member of the couple is a far better communicator about emotional issuesthan the other, it gives them an unfair advantage during arguments and conflict. The partner who does not communicate as well or who cannot express their thoughts and feelings as fluently is likely to lose most of the arguments as a result, even when they are in the right. Over time, they learn that it’s pointless to argue or bring up concerns, because they can never win, and so they shut down and withdraw (read “Does Your Partner Shut Down“).
3. Lack of empathy to emotional distress: When one member of a couple is in emotional distress, and their partner fails to display compassion or empathy, it can have a devastating impact. We expect our partner to be the person we rely on most for support and compassion during challenging times, and when they repeatedly fail at this task, it is common for the unsupported partner to withdraw and seek to fulfill those emotional needs elsewhere.
4. Ignoring important complaints: As much as too many complaints are a problem, ignoring your partner’s meaningful complaints, especially when they are brought up repeatedly, will make them feel dismissed and neglected. One of the most common examples of this dynamic occurs when one member of the couple raises concerns about feeling unsatisfied sexually or frustrated by a lack of intimacy (read more about sexual complaints here). People tend to voice such complaints only so many times before feeling too rejected and too hurt to try again. And by that point, the damage may already be done.
5. Technoference: Too many of us are addicted to our phones and screens and pay them far more attention than we do our partner. When phones are continually looked at or used during dinner, while watching shows together, in the middle of conversations, and yes, even during intimate moments, it can have a dramatic effect on the mood, happiness, and relationship satisfaction of your partner (read more about Technoference here).
To be clear, each of these behaviors is common, and they occur within most relationships. But when they occur with significant frequency and become habitual, they can do significant damage. If you see these behaviors in your own relationship and are unclear about whether their frequency is within the norm or excessive, the best thing to do is discuss that very question with your partner.