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 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ben Ringler, MFT, Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by 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.

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