How To Talk To A Partner Who's Emotionally Distant, According To Experts

by Laken Howard
BDG Media, Inc.

One of the best parts of being in a relationship is having someone to share everything with: experiences, milestones, opinions, and, perhaps most importantly, feelings. While some people are super emotionally open, not everyone is naturally comfortable expressing their feelings — and having an emotionally distant partner can be difficult, especially if you have no problem saying exactly how you feel. But before you can figure out how to help your partner to open up emotionally, it's important to understand exactly what emotional distance is, and how it can impact your relationship over time.

"Those who are emotionally distant in a relationship may keep their deeper thoughts and feelings to themselves, instead of freely sharing them with their partner," counselor, coach, and healer Anahid Lisa Derbabian, LPC, MA, NCC, tells Bustle. "This creates an emotionally distant and emotionally unsafe scenario for their partner, while creating an imbalanced relationship as that person may tend to be viewed as holding all of the power, or as being powerless in being distant."

Essentially, someone who is emotionally distant might hold back more of their true thoughts and feelings from their partner, which can make it very difficult to communicate authentically and navigate relationship issues together. If that sounds like an accurate description of your relationship, watch out for some of the other common signs that your partner is emotionally distant.

"An emotionally distant partner will shy away from talking about feelings," licensed psychotherapist Karen R. Koenig, MEd, LCSW, tells Bustle. "[They] will make a joke, change the subject, or respond with thoughts rather than a heartfelt answer. Sometimes [they'll] seem stumped by your questions or comments about feelings and may even get defensive or angry when pushed for a response. Sometimes people give intellectual responses to questions about feelings, that is, they say what they think, not what they feel. These people may not be connected to their own emotions and feelings are like a foreign language to them."

How To Talk To A Partner Who's Emotionally Distant

Ashley Batz/Bustle

If you're the kind of person who's super open with their feelings, it can be tricky to navigate communicating with someone who's less open. The key to talking to a partner who's emotionally distant? Don't rush things, because emotional intimacy takes time to build in any relationship — particularly if one person is just generally more reserved emotionally.

"Some people who are emotionally distant are starving for intimacy, yet too frightened to move toward it," Koenig says. "If they give you [mixed] messages about wanting and not wanting it, you might be best off to find another partner, but if they seem genuinely interested in gaining emotional intelligence skills, then you might want to give them room to grow."

It might not happen overnight, but if you're willing to be patient, you can be a safe space for your partner to slowly learn to share their feelings more freely. The first step? "Initiate a conversation in which you share your desire to begin connecting at a deeper emotional level," Derbabian says. "Help [them] to recognize that [they are] safe in sharing with you, and that it will help your relationship."

If your partner is eager to grow closer to you by building emotional intimacy, that's great — but it won't necessarily be a quick and easy process. The good news? There are plenty of ways to incorporate emotional sharing into your everyday relationship dynamic in a way that isn't overwhelming or scary for your partner.

"Try to get buy-in for having a short conversation two to three times a week on a topic of [your partner's] and your choosing," Derbabian says. "Do a fun activity at least once a week that is conducive to emotional sharing, such as together going for a hike, walking your dog, playing ping-pong, while sharing together. Have [them] initiate a feeling or a meaningful topic while you both are snuggling on the couch or in bed, [or] ask [them] to respond with words and emotion to your sharing."

What If Your Partner Won't Open Up?

Unfortunately, not everyone is willing (or able) to be totally emotionally open and vulnerable in a relationship. If your partner seems wishy-washy about trying to become more open, pay attention, and watch out for red flags that they'll never let you see what's inside their mind and heart beyond the surface level.

"Don’t settle for someone who can’t give you what you want emotionally — which is full-fledged intimacy," Koenig says. "You will need to be hyper-sensitive to their reactions to emotionality. If they don’t want to talk about feelings in the moment, that’s OK. If they don’t want to talk about feelings ever, that’s not OK. If you need to keep pushing them, they may not be able to give you the kind of closeness you want because, the more you push, the more likely that they’ll retreat."

Although it's never fun to envision breaking up with someone, if your goal is to have a long-term relationship that's balanced and full of mutual emotional intimacy, you might be better off letting go of someone who can't open up emotionally. The silver lining? You'll then be free to find someone who's willing to develop a deep, lasting, emotional connection with you — and what could be better than that?