Interview: What to do when partners distance themselves?

by | Nov 16, 2023

For the online Corona Congress, couples counselor Ralph Piotrowski talked about how “partners and families can get through everyday life in one piece“. This article is a continuation of the interview from the article: “How can you behave as a couple in an exceptional situation?

In the previous article, we learned that it is crucial to establish a daily structure in order to maintain reliability in the daily routine. It is important to communicate this with your partner. But what do you do if your partner withdraws and communication is difficult?

What should I do if my partner distances himself or herself?

Interviewer: You describe it so beautifully, when two people are consciously together, talk to each other, both have a feeling for each other and can also talk to each other, as you just described, then it certainly works. What do you do if your partner doesn’t join in? What can you do for yourself so that you are not so burdened by it?

Ralph Piotrowski: This is where questions about more specific couple dynamics come in. […] What usually happens when your partner gets upset is that you yourself are no longer at peace in some way. The question here is why these couples so rarely manage to see it as interesting information that their partner is obviously in distress and needs support.

Interviewer: Can you briefly explain to us why that doesn’t actually work and why it often gets so heated in a situation like that?

Ralph Piotrowski: It can sometimes work, it’s just very difficult for some people. But it’s something you can train so that it works all the more often. The problem isn’t the argument normally, the problem isn’t that at some point you somehow emotionally leave yourself, but what happens afterwards:

  • How quickly can you get back?
  • How quickly can you get back into the conversation?
  • Does it cause you to withdraw for hours or days on end?

I think that’s the really stressful thing. Or do you get back into conversation relatively quickly, where you can look each other in the eye again?

It happens because we are hormonally controlled and physiological reactions take place. But once they have happened, it is usually too late. The training does not consist of being able to regulate yourself immediately after being out of control. I don’t think anyone can do that. The training consists of realizing that something is happening that is not good for you. Something happens inside you, because ultimately it’s never the other person you can’t stand. In the end, some feeling, some emotional reaction rises up inside you, making it so unbearable for you that it then goes out one after the other. Being aware of this in good time and perhaps also being aware in good time when your partner is feeling this way […] is crucial for forbearance. The opportunity of the situation really lies in this forbearance that we can now have, because you don’t have to take it personally.

If something happens that makes you unhappy or stressful, you can justify it with the [aktuell] difficult situation, but also with the fact that you are confronted with media reports all the time that you have to process somehow, that you are confronted with existential questions that you are suppressing. […] Somewhere you process that and that can be a burden. This awareness that it is a stressful situation can be credited to you. Your partner is allowed to get upset and it is not directed at you. You know that in your head, even if it feels different. Maneuvering this discrepancy is something that can be trained and is difficult.

Interviewer: What do you say to a situation like this where a partner leaves the situation? Some then feel left alone with their own feelings when their partner simply walks away. Do you think it makes sense to get out of situations so that people can calm down?

Ralph Piotrowski: What you describe is a very typical couple dynamic that takes place. The longer you are together, the more similar dynamics develop. One dynamic that is taken to extremes, but which is also not so rare, is that of the pursuer, of someone who pursues another and the other turns back. It’s just a cycle. The more one person withdraws, the more unbearable it becomes for the other person, the more the other person pursues this, the more they withdraw. […] What happens now, when the partners face each other, is that blame is assigned. One person blames their partner because it haunts them. The other blames the partner for withdrawing.

What happens in couples therapy in the best case is when both partners, who are initially facing each other and pointing their fingers at each other, then both point their fingers at this cycle through the big shift. The other is not the enemy, but this cycle is the enemy. The promising moment in couples therapy is when you learn to express what makes you withdraw or what distress makes you run after the other person and recognize that you are in this cycle.

Methods for dealing with distancing

Interviewer: Do you have any practical methods that you have had good experience with and can pass on to people?

Ralph Piotrowski: The main advice is that you have to start with a basis for yourself. You can also take care of yourself so that you can be there for your children. This may not be easy in this situation, but this thought alone can be relieving. […]

This daily structure helps a lot and also to admit to the children that it is also a stressful situation for the children […]. What I really enjoy doing at the moment is simply running around with the children. If it’s not possible outside, just romp around in bed, have pillow fights, chase each other around the apartment.

What is also very good are the so-called couple’s conversations, where each person talks for five to ten minutes about how he or she is doing and the other person gives him or her the gift of listening. It’s not about commenting, but about being with the other person and giving him or her the gift. It’s also about expressing how you feel at the moment and what the situation is doing to you. I think we’re talking a lot about the situation and less on a slightly deeper level about how you’re feeling and what it’s doing to you. “Where am I in despair? Where am I desperate with the children? Where do I perhaps feel ashamed? Where do I feel overwhelmed?” It’s okay to admit that it’s an overwhelming situation.

Interviewer: Thank you very much for the great interview. Is there anything else you would like to share with our viewers that we haven’t discussed?

Ralph Piotrowski: There are some really great things right now, a lot of solidarity and things that are beautiful and bring joy, which we should focus our attention on. The focus should not only be on the bad things, nor should too much bad news be read. Beautiful things should be shared and passed on. […] Even noticing the smile on the street when you meet at this distance is one of those moments that you can cherish and enjoy.


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