Reviving Your Relationship: What to Do When Your Partner is Inattentive and Disengaged


One of the most frequent reasons couples come to couples therapy is that one person experiences the other person as withdrawn, checked out, or inattentive.


One Woman's Story:

A woman in her mid-twenties, for example, complained that her husband enjoyed playing video games more than he enjoyed talking to her.

Because she did not want to be a nag, she would sometimes wait patiently on the sofa in front of the TV, hoping her husband would come join her of his own volition.

Every now and then, however, her loving patience would reach a limit and she would find herself getting quite furious inside. At this point she would make a restrained but sarcastic remark like: “Are you ever going to stop playing video games?”

Her husband would now sigh, and timidly come to the TV room, looking like a boy who just got in trouble.

The wife, however, was now stuck on the sigh, which she rightly took to mean that her husband was simply doing a chore by coming to join her to watch TV. This of course defeated the purpose of her less than direct request to begin with, and she would now secretly find herself thinking: “Is this what our relationship has come to? Am I really that much of a chore to be around?”

Outwardly, however, she would say nothing of these thoughts, but would simply become more short with her husband and more impatient with his constant checking of his phone as they proceeded to watch "American Idol".

When her husband would then respond by giving her more of an attitude and would seem to become more emotionally disengaged, she would finally reach her limit and blow up at him. She would now tell him to go back and play video games "if it is too much to ask for them to spend some quality time together as a couple."

Needless to say, this was not turning out to be the evening they both were hoping for.

Scenarios like these, where one person wants more attention or connection, but doesn’t want to have to ask for it, is an all too common experience in relationships. And so are the arguments that ensue when the oblivious partner once again disappoints and acts like they don’t really care.

In some relationships, this dynamic might persist for so long that the person who is trying to make their partner more invested in their relationship eventually ends up feeling like they are stuck in a loveless marriage.


Why Communicating Doesn't Work:

For many people who feel alone and disconnected in their relationships with their partners it can be hard to know what to do to get their relationship back on track and create the closeness they crave.

Oftentimes they have tried to address the issue directly with their partner without getting the response they want.

When the woman who felt she was losing her husband to a videogame addiction finally brought up her concerns about the quality of their marriage, it did not exactly evoke tender loving feelings in her husband.

Instead he would do one of the following:

  • Defend himself by cross-complaining, saying things like “I don’t hear you apologize to me when you go out with your girlfriends! It seems like you have double standards”
  • Try to argue her out of her feelings, by saying things like: “I do plenty of things to show you that I love you. It doesn’t make any sense for you to get so upset about me playing video-games every now and then”
  • Or, comply with his wife’s wishes to spend more time together, but seem ever more checked out, only to throw his favors back in her face when they finally end up in a fight: “I’ve been going on shopping trips with you, and patiently sat with you to watch your favorite TV shows, and have you ever once expressed appreciation”

Sadly for the wife and for their relationship, none of her husband’s responses actually address her underlying pain and sadness.

Why is this?

Because when the wife says, “I feel alone”, or “I feel abandoned”, or “I am not sure if you really loved me”, he reacts with panic inside. This at least is what attachment theory tells us.


Why He Can't Respond:

The mammalian part of his brain tells him “you are in danger of losing your wife”. “If she keeps complaining and being unhappy, she is going to get tired of you and dump you.” “If her feelings are not eradicated or explained away as soon as possible, she will dwell on how much of a disappointment you are, and how much of a failure you are as a husband, a lover, and a man"

With this alarm system going off inside, the husband cannot listen to his wife, all he can hear is a call to bring out the fire extinguisher to fight fire, and go out of his heart and into his head to try to manage and control the situation.

What does this look like?

  • It looks like problem-solving, such as coming up with logical and practical solutions of how to change things
  • It looks like being logical and rational to try to convince his wife she does not really feel what she feels, or making her believe her feelings are over-reactions
  • It looks like trying to defuse a situation by apologizing, complying, and saying or doing things just to appease and help calm the situation down
  • It looks like walking on egg-shells and becoming ever more emotionally reserved because of the feeling that any little wrong-doing or random thought can lead to another feeling of rejection in his wife and possibly a fight
  • Or it looks like blowing up with anger because he has finally "had it" and feels like he can no longer be himself around the house

Of course neither of these responses really provides the magic cure that his wife is so yearning for...


What the Wife Really Wants:

The husband’s panic system and his attempt to manage a fire has made him miss the fact that his wife complains because she wants more of him – not less of him:

  • She wants his understanding and empathy, not just his problem-solving
  • She wants a husband who cares for her feelings, and doesn’t invalidate them
  • She wants a husband who is okay with disagreeing with her and standing his ground on issues that matter to him
  • She wants a husband who is not afraid of her, but wants to share his thoughts and feelings with her freely and openly
  • She wants a husband who can address his concerns as they come up instead of bottling up his feelings


These are the actions that will show her she is dancing this relationship dance with a partner and is not dancing all by herself.


How to Get Out of the Rut:

Couples often need help to break the negative pattern of complain/withdraw.

The wife in this example needs help to communicate her feelings in a softer way that lets her partner know she misses him and wants to know him and isn’t just seeing him as a perpetual disappointment. The husband, on the other hand, has to learn to manage his fears of disappointing his wife, so he does not become the incredible shrinking man or try to act the part he thinks his wife wants him to act, while becoming ever less emotionally present.

Only when it feels safe for the husband to be himself, and when he feels encouraged - not discouraged - to open up and be seen, can he be present enough to meet his wife’s true desire for connection.


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2 Responses

  1. J
    I would like some examples of the soft start up.
    • A soft start-up would be when you come from a place of expressing you needs, wishes, and feelings rather than a place of anger, attack, or criticism. It is best done by taking a step back from your immediate indignant feelings and getting in touch with the softer or more hurt feelings that lie beneath. For example instead of saying "You are inconsiderate and selfish" (attacking, attributing malintent), say "sometimes I don't know if you consider my feelings and that makes me feel that I am not that important to you" (doubt about intent, focus on impact on me/ my own feelings) ... It could also simply be prefacing what you are about to say with the communication that it is said out of love or with the intent of preserving good relations. For example: "You know I love you, but sometimes I get a little frustrated when I come home and see the mess in the kitchen"...

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