The Great Divide: How Dissociation Can Affect Relationships

Arms to chest, staring out window Dissociation is a way people, to varying degrees, disconnect from their thoughts and feelings in order to avoid pain or traumatic memories. It is a refuge of sorts into an altered state of mind that is often characterized by obsessive thoughts, fantasies, or even non-thinking states. It can be employed consciously or unconsciously as a defense mechanism and can range in intensity from mild daydreams to feeling separate from one’s body.

In this time of advanced technology (societal dissociation?), dissociating is easier than ever. You can simply turn on the television or, better yet, turn on your computer or mobile device and find yourself on a high-speed train through the internet highway, encountering all kinds of people, distracting yourself with all kinds of information, and stimulating yourself in all kinds of ways. All the while, your body is there, in the chair or wherever it is, coping with the emotional unrest residing deep inside.

Although dissociation can be an effective short-term strategy for pain management, it often wreaks havoc on relationships.

The Impact of Dissociation on Relationships

Relationships flourish when the participants relate to each other, which requires mutual sharing of thoughts and feelings not just about each other but about their lives and the world around them, about their pasts, and about the future. Relating is the “food” of a relationship.

Dissociation can distress relationships because it undermines the ability to relate and thus starves the relationship over time.

Dissociation can distress relationships because it undermines the ability to relate and thus starves the relationship over time. It is a bit of a catch-22: people often (unconsciously) choose partners who will bring up elements of their painful past in order to grow, heal, and develop. For those who dissociated during that original pain, however, employing the strategy now starves the relationship of the food of relating to each other.

Many people who frequently dissociate find that relationships can feel quite stifling. Inevitably, painful memories and feelings arise in the relationship and they (unconsciously) dissociate. At the same time, they see this other person there feeling hurt that they’ve disconnected or “left,” and feel trapped. They can’t leave, but they can’t stay, either. It can feel agonizing, lonely, and confusing to both partners when dissociation occurs. 

How Couples Counseling Can Help

A good couples counselor can be an invaluable resource and guide to finding a new way forward, both for the individual who dissociates and for the distressed couple. Specifically, couples counseling can help by:

  • Identifying and naming the issue: It may be hard for a couple to recognize that dissociation is causing distress in the relationship because it often is an unconscious coping process and is easily confused for intentional emotional distancing. If there is something beyond dissociation going on—and there often is—a therapist should be able to help identify that, too.
  • Helping the couple understand what’s going on: Dissociation often leaves the other partner feeling abandoned, unheard, and unloved. A therapist can help both people recognize that this is not about a lack of interest or love but rather a deep survival mechanism. A dissociating person typically only wants to feel better, not make their partner feel bad.
  • Making space to slowly reduce dissociative symptoms: This is vital. A therapist can slow things down enough to help each person observe the dissociation and, over time, feel into the pain as a means of reducing symptoms.
  • Helping the couple find new skills: This is the creative aspect of therapy—helping the couple discover new ways to respond when painful feelings and memories arise.

If there is unresolved pain or trauma in the background of your relationship and you suspect dissociation may be hurting your ability to relate to your partner, contact a trained and compassionate couples counselor. You don’t have to suffer alone.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ben Ringler, MFT, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • willis

    June 28th, 2016 at 9:16 AM

    I had a girlfriend once who had had some really terrible things happen in her childhood but the fact that she had never resolved many of those issues left the two of us at an impasse. We could never see eye to ye on anything because I think that she was always too busy placing up walls to not get hurt again, but it kept us from being able to get close.

  • Jayme

    June 28th, 2016 at 11:33 AM

    Willis, I can understand your frustration. But I do have to hope that the next time something like this if it ever happens you would consider checking out some counseling to do with your significant other. It is probably not that she meant to have something like this happen, but this has been her coping mechanism for a while and you have to understand the tendency that anyone will have to not wish to be hurt any more than what they have already been through in the past.

  • therese

    June 28th, 2016 at 4:07 PM

    I would unconsciously do things to push my husband away, he would see it but I would not have a clear realization that this was what I was doing

  • Juliana#

    June 29th, 2016 at 5:15 AM

    The title of this is the most clever, because yeah, it can cause the greatest divide possible.

  • Martin

    June 30th, 2016 at 4:34 AM

    I think that there are also some ways though that you can start to see this as a positive thing. If the couple is truly ready and willing to work on these things together then their marriage can be even stronger than it ever was before. It does not always have to lead to divisiveness. It can not only help to give you a better sense of who you are as a couple but also who you are as a person and those two things can be a wonderful addition to any relationship.

  • Benjamin Ringler

    June 30th, 2016 at 3:53 PM

    I appreciate the dialogue started here around this issue. Martin, I agree that if a couple can recognize this pattern and address it, there is a great opportunity for a better relationship, personal growth and more fun! This is one reason why I so appreciate couples therapy.

  • christa

    July 2nd, 2016 at 8:24 AM

    heartbreaking really when you consider that this is probably something that they want so terribly to move past and somehow it keeps coming back and damaging you while you consistently try to move forward.

  • Maurice

    July 4th, 2016 at 9:15 AM

    You have to know that barriers like this will keep you from ever getting close to someone. You do it out of fear and for need for protection from those things in the past which so greatly traumatized you, but at the same time those things that you believe are keeping you safe from the past are the exact same things that are keeping you form making any kind of international forward progress in your life right now.

  • Sasha

    September 3rd, 2017 at 4:53 PM

    I had to end my relationship because my boyfriend of 6 months started to disassociate and I told him I felt him doing so. Apparently, it was time in the relationship to go to the next level and this brought up a lot of fear for him. I was only told of disassociation through my therapist, and because I wasn’t aware of what it was initially, it just came off as him having lost interest in us, him blowing me off, etc. It got so bad that he literally would not get on the phone with me or see me, however he’d text and tell me that he missed me, loved me, etc. I felt like I was losing my mind. There was zero communication and I finally told him he needed to go to therapy. The pain was just so unbearable and still is as I miss him terribly. It was strange, though, because I never quite felt like I could “reach” him. It always felt like he was somewhere else. The thing that kills me now is the fact that it *feels* as though he is able to just move on mentally, even though I’m told that’s not true. I envy the fact that he can just distract himself from this awesome relationship ending.

  • Kris

    May 17th, 2021 at 9:07 AM

    My GF has just started to disconnect, she says she feel numb and is pushing me away. Her ex wife cheated and left her life flipped upside down. She is now saying she doesn’t feel she can love or give love like she loved before her was married. She loves me,but can’t love me like I should be loved. What can I do? We are long distance and Its breaking my heart she is now shutting me out after 5 months. I know she is scared. Any advice?

  • Lyle

    June 9th, 2021 at 6:24 PM

    My girlfriend dissociates often because of a whole lot of trauma she’s been through her entire life but, when she does, she can get really aggressive over small things and will say hurtful things to me. She never hits me or anything she just says rude things and gets mad at for me anything and everything.

  • Aymiee

    August 25th, 2022 at 12:13 PM

    Good afternoon
    I need advise I’m someone that suffers with this myself and also Mulitple personality disorder.
    I can sit here an read everything understand from my own point of view. This is one of the hardest things to have an sometimes it’s soul destroying. As myself I’ve been with my partner for 4 years and she suffers with PTSD in which it feels like a ticking time bomb .
    As my brain just won’t stop at all it’s feels as though in my head im doing everything I can to fight mentally yet on the outside it looks like I’m self destroying my own world and my own relationship. I feel myself dieing inside with no clue of how to stop . I have had mental illness now since I was 13teen years of age .. I have seen doctors , therapist everything you could think of but the problem is inside.
    I’ve been with my partner for 4 years an we’ve hit a wall she explaining its to hard to be with me but I don’t understand is there someone on here that can make me understand the true depth of how hard it can be as I don’t know what else to do ?

  • Rebecca

    October 5th, 2022 at 6:29 AM

    I’m not certain that what my soon-to-be ex-husband experienced is the same as dissociation, but I highly suspect it. He claims his dad had a very strong personality and was very domineering even though he obviously loved him very much in the only way I think he knew how. His dad had been abused himself by a male cousin and I think he was terrified of anything bad happening to his only child. Therefore, he allowed him a lot of “freedom” by being a permissive parent but was VERY overprotective and would easily become angry when his son didn’t do what he told him, let him know where he was and what he was doing, etc. He supposedly even got in the way of a job he wanted at a convenience store. He was very intimidating and yelled a lot and my husband walked on eggshells. I think he unintentionally replayed this pattern out with me after his dad died by pushing me away emotionally. He became suicidal after we got married and I was pregnant with our daughter. His father had passed away 3 years before I got pregnant and he was still grieving, but didn’t disclose about his father’s emotional abuse until later. My husband was raised by and loved his father very dearly, but still struggled with the way his dad demonstrated his overprotectiveness. Misguidedly, I also was very overprotective of my husband because I knew he was secretly sensitive and got deeply hurt by people easily. We were thick as thieves for years, but I always felt an emotional distance I couldn’t explain. He wouldn’t stand up for me the way I stood up for him and that made me very upset. He obviously loved me, but he would “ignore” me for no reason, disengaging from what I felt were normal conversations about every day relationship issues. I had been intentionally stonewalled by my first husband and tried many times to bring it up to him. He would apologize but I got to the point where I no longer believed him and felt he was doing it on purpose to hurt me because in my mind if you’re truly sorry, you change your actions. After our daughter was born, he got passive aggressively angry at me for things that weren’t my fault and started pulling away after being so supportive during my labor and immediate recovery in the hospital. He started acting childish, having “adult temper tantrums,” doing what I could only describe as gaslighting and playing word games with me. He would feel terrible afterwards, but we had horrible fights and the damage was done. He ignored me alot even thoigh he was home. He was not fully engaged with or bonding healthily with our daughter. All he wanted to do was go to work, come home, sleep, sit in his chair, and he ignored me frequently even when I was right next to him trying to talk to him. He would seem to zone out and dissociate using the tv, his phone, etc. He eventually told me he heard voices and had on and off over time since he was 14. He didn’t feel the need to tell me because he thought they were gone. He told me they told him I was going to take our daughter from him and he eventually had fantasies of killing me, our daughter, and then himself. He later admitted this was his original intention but that he loved us too much to do that to us. I accused him of being abusive and told him he didn’t love us because although he would get scared and go to the hospital, he ultimately thought he could handle whatever was going on with him by himself. It was so painful and confusing. I literally just thought he was abusive, controlling, and playing abusive games with my mind. He was extremely depressed but I became so angry after he wouldn’t attend outpatient treatment regularly that I didn’t really care any more. He suggested therapy, but I wasn’t about to be the only one doing “the work.” I know you can’t make anyone who doesn’t want it get help and I believed he didn’t want it. Maybe he’s just sick and a horrible person, but I just feel in my heart something else is going on. He was deeply disturbed by his symptoms and his behavior, but couldn’t seem to fix it. He would still be sweet to me in his own way, going to get things I needed when we were separated when I was sick or on my period. I miss him terribly, but I know our relationship is too far gone now. I’m scared of him for myself and for our daughter even though I don’t want to believe he’d be capable of hurting us, especially her. I pray this is his issue and they pick up on it so that he can get some help. I’m heartbroken and torn apart. Everything in my heart tells me he’s not a bad person but I just can’t live with it. I struggle with PTSD and bipolar disorder myself. Please tell me if this sounds like it might be dissociation and/or a condition he cannot help. I will always love him, but we cannot be together.

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