How can I navigate a relationship with an emotionally distant partner?
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“My boyfriend works from home as a musician. He is very busy and, admittedly, a little emotionally distant. We have a strong relationship, but he often says he’s too busy to commit time to doing bonding activities while we’re isolated right now or that he doesn’t feel like doing emotional work. What should I do?”
Are you familiar with the Enneagram? If not, I suggest pausing for a moment to read this piece.
One thing I love about this tool is that it illustrates how every person processes the world through a distinct lens. What feels emotionally distant to me, may not feel as emotionally distant for my partner. I’m an Enneagram 4, so I’m comfortable being emotional all the time. My husband is a 1, which means he’s action-oriented and holds emotions in his body more than his heart. Vulnerability energizes me and depletes him. And while my baseline in relationships includes sharing deep feelings from the get-go; he is reticent and less forthcoming.
My hunch is that your boyfriend—while admittedly busy and unavailable for bonding activities—isn’t naturally an emotional person. Perhaps he lives in his head or his body more often than his heart. And my guess would be that he doesn’t realize the toll his emotional detachment is taking on you.
From what you’ve explained, it seems like you’re both happy and committed to this relationship, so I’m not concerned that this an indicator of a bigger problem. Rather, I’m wondering if you and your boyfriend need to have a conversation about emotional expectations and needs so that you can be on the same page.
With every relationship, no matter how strong, there’s going to be give and take. The challenge is walking the fine line that exists between respecting another person’s unique wiring while also comprising and showing up for your relationship.
Here’s what I’d suggest. Invite your boyfriend to have a conversation sometime in the next week. You mentioned he’s working a lot, so ask him for a date and time that feels comfortable for his busy schedule. Let him know that the conversation will include some emotional topics so that he feels prepared.
During the conversation, tell him that you desire more emotional connection and bonding time, and explain why it’s important to you. Then open up the space so he can express his needs in the relationship. Considering asking how you can support him and his music while he works to emotionally invest in your relationship.
I’ll give you a quick example. My partner loves to show up for emotional work and heavy conversations as long as he has fair notice. I’ll let him know early in the week that, say Friday night, I want to do a bonding activity or talk about some things on my heart. This works because we’ve agreed to balance these conversations with light-hearted and embodied activities. We’ll have the conversation on Friday, then watch a movie or go to the park on Saturday.
Lastly, it is possible your boyfriend can’t be there for you right now. This is a unique time in the world and not all of us are going to be able to engage in the ways we’d like. For many of us, it’s a struggle to even show up for ourselves. My suggestion would be to have grace for him and grace for yourself. It won’t always be this way.
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Kayti Christian (she/her) is an Editor at The Good Trade. Growing up beneath the evergreens in the Sierra Nevadas, she returns to California after a decade split between states—including three years lived abroad. With an MA in Nonfiction Writing, she’s passionate about storytelling and fantastic content, especially as it relates to mental health, feminism, and sexuality. When not in-studio, she’s camping, reading memoir, or advocating for the Oxford comma.