Why We Build Emotional Walls in Relationships

(Illustrated by Hannah Jacobs for Yahoo Beauty)
Illustrated by Hannah Jacobs for Yahoo Beauty

Women often describe feeling emotional distance from their partners before a split. Their boyfriends spend more time at the office, or they’re away on the weekends. They couldn’t, or wouldn’t, open up about obvious frustrations and visible angst. They spent a lot of time telling their girlfriends, “Everything’s OK” or, “Things are great” — until, of course, they leave.

It’s alarming how many relationships begin with no emotional support whatsoever. Signs of an “emotional wall” have almost always been recounted to me in retrospect, when I ask a woman if she could sense something was wrong. Women regularly describe feeling “locked out” by their partner, or a “hollowness” to the relationship. This may happen to more women than men, or perhaps women are just more aware of any emotional wedges.

Blame their socialization as nurturers, or the silent tick of the biological clock, but women tend to live in future potential and hope for the best in every relationship. Their emotional investments in relationships are more natural, as they’ve been taught to speak the language of feelings since childhood. Woman are geared toward conversation and socialized to lend support.

So when that support is not present, women typically notice faster and are more aware of emotional lockouts from romantic partners — especially from men, who are not inclined to deal with emotions unless they see a clear necessity. I’ll address this set of gender dynamics today, but just know the “emotional wall” is not exclusive to the female sex. It can arise in any intimate relationship.

Let’s meet Kate, who embodies this phenomenon. The early-30-something publishing executive told me there were always emotional elements missing from her two-year relationship. “We seemed solid to everyone else, but I don’t think we ever reached ‘that level’ of intimacy,” she said. “He was never capable of having the hard-hitting conversations.”

Her ex-boyfriend was always withholding. It took seven months of sporadic dates for them to finally get together. They never had an official conversation about where the relationship was going or what they both wanted from it. She always had the sense that they were never on the same page.

Right before he pulled the plug on the relationship, the tension his withdrawal caused Kate had built to the point where she thought he might be cheating. They ultimately took a weekend apart to decide what they wanted. Kate wanted to work on their relationship; her boyfriend did not. “I think he never really felt 100 percent himself around me,” she said. “The person he presented himself as just wasn’t him; he presented himself as the person he thought I wanted him to be.”

Perfect is a façade. If your partner is trying to play the “perfect part” in a “perfect-on-paper couple,” that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a winning relationship. Or that he’s truly all in. The ability to get an emotional read on your relationship (or even your would-be relationship) is a crucial skill.

There are a few common reasons for the emotional barriers, all very different.

While all men and women fall along a single spectrum in how they view relationships, more men are clumped on the side of “compartmentalization.” They’re more likely than women to invest modestly in relationships that are short-term versus long-term. This can lead them to hold back emotionally. They can ignore problems, bottle their feelings, and keep independent mindsets even while they have a girlfriend. This is because these guys are not prepared to do the work. They’re not worried about emotional glitches, because when it stops running smoothly, they intend to leave.

After talking to hundreds of men and women, I’ve developed a theory: People make emotional investments in relationships when they see a future. But people often pull back or withdraw emotional support when that future has evaporated.

Some guys, especially men who have been single for a long time, internalize when they have problems. They have a health scare, and they hide it from their girlfriends. Or they’re worried they might lose their job, and they don’t say anything about it. This is usually intended as a way not to worry their partners and maintain a picture of male strength, but it tends to have the opposite effect; women feel the Emotional Wall and dwell on potential problems.

My good friend always talks about a litmus test she has for partners whenever they’re dealing with a personal problem: “Does he turn toward me, or away?” If her boyfriend can’t “turn toward her,” at least gradually, she knows it won’t work — even if the reason isn’t lack of love, but a fear of rejection in revealing his total self. Sharing vulnerabilities is an essential component of intimate relationships, and this form of withholding is a bad pattern that only creates distance between partners.

Withholding intimacy can actually be part of an emotionally abusive cycle; some partners will not give emotional support or affection because they’re trying to punish you or assert control over the relationship. This creates a toxic environment for any healthy relationship to develop, because the victim ends up self-blaming and fearful of angering the abuser again.

If you feel your partner withholding support as a direct result of frustration toward you, know this isn’t OK. Call it out, and say you feel punished or alone after you disagree; if they’re unreceptive or don’t care, they don’t care enough about you. Abuse is abuse, whether physical or psychological. It’s never justifiable.

Emotional barriers are felt or sensed, and the signs are often subtle. Remember, you’re usually trying to acknowledge a lack of support or vulnerability, which can often be harder to pinpoint than clear signs of problems, like arguing or nitpicking.

If you feel an emotional wall arise in your relationship, you have to talk about it. Don’t ignore that emptiness for fear of rocking the “perfect” boat. Key in on moments where you feel the wall in an acute sense, as it’s arising; maybe it’s silence after you plan a double date and don’t tell him about it first, or perhaps he changes the topic when you want to discuss your past or your feelings.

Tell your partner that you need to know what’s on their mind, or that you sense something is wrong. If they refuse to confront their emotional side, it’s time to acknowledge the relationship has a bigger problem.

Jenna Birch is a journalist, dating coach, and author of The Love Gap (Grand Central Life & Style, January 2018). Her relationship column appears on Yahoo every Friday. To ask her a question, which may appear in an upcoming post, send an email to jen.birch@sbcglobal.net with YAHOO QUESTION in the subject line.

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