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Why Some People Become Emotionally Distant

...and how they can learn to reconnect.

When interacting with other people, many of us experience some anxiety. Whether it's an introduction to a new person, a chat at the mailbox with a neighbor, or even a dinner with an intimate partner, any degree of self-disclosure can be scary. It can be so intimidating that our unconscious desire to avoid it is powerful enough to sabotage some of these interactions from the moment they begin.

Anxiety and the conflicted need for intimacy

What drives this anxiety? What are we afraid will happen if we let others know too much about us? The fear of connection to others often comes from:

1. The belief that we aren’t good enough. Letting someone else see us as we are can be terrifying. We fear that they will discover everything we dislike about ourselves and reject us. Perhaps they ascertain that we are not that smart, talented, or interesting. This fear drives us to stay away from others so that we don't have to worry about being found out and, inevitably, rejected.

2. The fear of being beholden to others. We might think, “If I allow myself to become emotionally connected to somebody else, she might start doing nice things for me. And if that happens, then I’ll have to do nice things for her. And being under obligation is the last thing I want! One thing will lead to another, and then, before you know it, she’ll be asking me to do scary things with her like go for coffee after work, or even invite me to her house for dinner!” To avoid reciprocating, we shut that connection down before it even gets started.

While these two types of scenarios appear to arise from different impulses, they originate from the same self-protective motivation: the refusal to give another person the opportunity to know anything about us, under any circumstances.

What does this relational avoidance look like?

We regularly encounter all kinds of potential interactions and contacts, and may use a variety of techniques to short-circuit their attempts to connect with us. Digital communication technology provides quick and easy methods for putting off or stopping communication before it starts. Caller ID allows us to be “unreachable” without the embarrassment of having to give an excuse or explanation, and we can ignore voicemails. If we unexpectedly encounter a person we’re avoiding, we can almost plausibly plead that network issues or service outages kept us from getting calls. It happens to everybody—right?

We distance ourselves from others “in real life” when we find inventive ways to avoid that co-worker who wants to meet us for lunch or pretend to be on the phone when the “chatty” colleague walks by our door. Or maybe we keep track of our “overly friendly” neighbors’ habits so that we don’t run into them when we check the mailbox. In this way, we find ways to minimize encounters with people who seem to want to connect with us.

But we can also be guilty of avoiding emotional connection with those with whom we are in long-term relationships. Perhaps we just as carefully manage our lives to ensure that we are never at home—or even in the same room together—for too long. Maybe we allow ourselves to become overwhelmed with chores, getting the kids to school and extracurriculars, and business commitments so that we are not home (or awake) at the same time as our partner. Perhaps we rarely eat a meal simultaneously and don’t share any hobbies, friends, or other interests outside the home. While some disconnection is inevitable, we may orchestrate some of this busyness to avoid the vulnerability of admitting that we want and need one another.


Given how challenging it can be to connect—even when we know that attachment and relationship are as essential for us as oxygen, water, and food—discovering an unmet need is a great opportunity. When we recognize our own unmet needs, we may face a touch of despair or anxiety. However, we begin to embrace more fulfilling relationships by learning to be self-compassionate, slowing down, and assessing who we are and what we need.

Perhaps we start prioritizing spending meaningful time with those who are close to us already. Maybe we commit to reaching out more consistently to friends we haven’t seen in a long time. And perhaps, every once in a while, we allow ourselves to run into our overly friendly neighbors and chatty colleagues.

Facebook image: Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock


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