I’m not able to tell whether my spouse can’t connect with me emotionally — or just doesn’t want to. He’s a great provider and very loyal, and everyone he meets loves him. But the two of us don’t share any interests and can’t seem to relate. The emotional distance is just too huge. We’ve been to several marital therapists: Some think the issue is that our communication styles (love languages) are different. One counselor said my husband is self-absorbed and needs to grow up and take responsibility for being married. And another suggested he has narcissistic personality disorder. Whatever’s going on, I’m ready to be done with this marriage. I don’t have a biblical reason to divorce, but I’m exhausted.
Before saying anything else, we want to validate all you’ve done to this point to save and improve your marriage. And at the same time, we want to acknowledge the very real draining effect of the loneliness you described.
God designed the freely chosen commitment of marriage to lead to deep intimacy and connection. So when that doesn’t happen, it’s normal to feel frustrated that your husband won’t engage with you emotionally. It’s normal to feel discouraged that you can’t get a straight answer from people who are supposed to be experts. It’s even normal to feel like quitting your marriage.
That’s why we’re glad you continue to reach out for help. There is hope that you can enjoy a successful marriage. Instead of giving up, now’s the time to press in even harder and dig even deeper. Why? Because you’ve seen several counselors about the same concern and get different opinions. That’s often a clue there’s more to the story.
With this in mind, we encourage you to consider three not-so-common, easy-to-miss issues that may contribute to the emotional distance in your marriage:
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Reactive attachment disorder
- Traumatic brain injury
This Q&A is just an overview. Still, as you read, ask yourself if anything stands out. Make notes to share with your therapist. Counselors aren’t always trained to look for or diagnose these situations. So any light you’re able to shed on what’s happening can help them identify root issues and come alongside you and your husband in the best way.
Autism spectrum disorder
It sounds like your husband might not know how to respond when you need him to understand your feelings. He may be faithful to your marriage and things important to him while at the same time be uncomfortable or unable to connect emotionally or physically with you.
These behaviors can be evidence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which includes Asperger syndrome.
An example of what autism spectrum disorder can look like
When the hospital called to tell Melissa that her mother wouldn’t survive the night, she darted out the door to be with her mom. Her husband stayed home with the kids.
Melissa spent eight hours at the hospital and was there when her mother died. She returned home early in the morning — overwhelmed, grieving, and shaky. She just needed a hug and to be told that everything would be OK. But when she woke her husband to talk, he immediately started listing all the chores he took care of while she was gone. Then he said goodnight and went back to bed.
Reactive attachment disorder
Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) — also called disrupted attachment — is normally reserved for diagnosing young children. However, if a child experiences a disrupted attachment, they won’t just outgrow it.
The underlying lack of attachment to a primary caregiver continues to impact the person throughout life. In fact, research suggests that over 50% of marriages may have at least one non-securely attached partner. But because behavioral symptoms of RAD usually change over time, an accurate diagnosis can be difficult.
If your husband has a disrupted or broken attachment, he may:
- Have a hard time trusting you or other people — or he doesn’t trust people at all.
- Express his love conditionally and quickly withdraw it if the relationship becomes tense or strained.
- Go through life thinking he doesn’t need you or anybody else.
- Act like a revolving door: He wants you close, then he doesn’t, then he does, then he doesn’t … The cycle never ends.
- React defensively when you press him to be relationally vulnerable or close.
- Not be able (or refuse) to connect emotionally to you.
An example of what reactive attachment disorder can look like
Robert and Claire had been married for 11 years. While they were dating, Claire felt that Robert put a lot of effort into hearing her story and giving her words of affirmation. Things changed after they got married, though. Robert no longer asked Claire how she was feeling or discussed what mattered to her; he just wanted to talk about politics, the news, or his frustrations at work.
Claire began to feel emotionally distant. She tried to do things Robert asked and be interested in things that mattered to him, but her attempts were often rejected or ignored. Claire felt that whatever she tried to do to get close to Robert made him push her away. He sometimes called her clingy or needy.
Traumatic brain injury
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is the third not-so-common issue that can cause emotional distance. The injury could be a closed-head injury, like a concussion, or it could be a penetrating open-head injury. And it can cause mild to severe changes to a person’s mental health and personality.
Did your husband ever take a hit to his head during a sports event or accident? At the time, he may not have been officially diagnosed with a TBI. However, if his inability to connect with you emotionally can’t be credited to any other reason, consider talking with your primary care doctor. Get a referral for a CT scan to confirm or deny an undiagnosed chronic brain issue.
An example of what traumatic brain injury can look like
17-year-old Sandy and her family were in a car accident. Her parents and brother were fine, but Sandy’s head hit hard against the door window where she was seated.
The hospital cared for the gashes to her skull and sent her home, but Sandy wasn’t herself. She couldn’t stand loud sounds. She didn’t interact with people like she used to. And when she did respond to someone, it was with agitation — especially if the conversation required her to engage emotionally. She increasingly ignored family and friends to do her own thing.
Hold onto hope
Because the counseling you’ve already tried hasn’t given solid answers, you might feel despair at the thought of another round. But we encourage you not to give up.
Instead, keep in mind that although the situations we’ve described aren’t common they can greatly impact a person’s ability to relate in normal ways. One or more may be what’s keeping your husband from emotionally connecting with you. Getting to the bottom of things can open doors to healing.
Where should you start?
Find competent mental health and medical professionals
Look for professionals who can assess for autism spectrum disorder, reactive attachment disorder, and traumatic brain injury. Take time to research and interview each one. And be prepared to see several because there might not be a single therapist in your area who’s competent in evaluating for all three of these unique issues.
The process may feel like finding a needle in a haystack, but it’s worth the search. Developing a strategy to move forward in your marriage will be easier once you have a more complete and accurate understanding of the issues impacting your husband’s behaviors.
When you have your team in place, you might first need to set up individual therapy sessions. Then, at the right time, your counselors may suggest one or more joint sessions for you and your husband to address the issues together.
Set realistic expectations and achievable goals
We need to offer a note of compassionate caution: Working toward healing doesn’t mean your husband or your marriage will be “fixed.” Rather, getting an accurate explanation of what’s going on will give you the insights and tools needed for a marriage that can be successful, joyful, and God-honoring — even in the face of ongoing challenges. The path won’t be easy; it might even be painful. But it will be ultimately freeing for both you and your husband.
Be intentional about self-care — and your support system
Self-care is about addressing your physical, emotional, mental, relational, and spiritual needs. As part of self-care, make time to prayerfully build relationships with wise people who will support you in your marriage and this journey — not those who will give their opinions about what they think you “should” do.
Remember where your hope lies
God loves you and your husband, and He cares about your future and your marriage. Stay the course. Trust Him with your exhaustion, trust Him with the counseling process, and trust Him with the outcome. Hold onto the Lord’s promise of hope.
Find ongoing support
If you’d like to talk more about what you’re walking through, call us for a free over-the-phone consultation. Our licensed or pastoral counselors would welcome the chance to hear your story and help you take the next steps toward restoring hope. They can also suggest referrals to ongoing support from qualified counselors and Christian therapists in your area. In the meantime, the resources below can be helpful.
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