“I was diagnosed with cancer and my relationship fell into the Pursuer/Distancer dynamic, after which it ended.”

"Tempest" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Tempest” by Mimi Stuart ©

“I was diagnosed with cancer and my relationship fell into the Pursuer/Distancer dynamic. I needed more and more support, care, and demonstration of love while he grew colder. My relationship ended shortly afterwards, as I was unable to deal with the fact he distanced me in my time of greatest need. The same pattern occurred again in the relationship that followed this one.”

The effect of increased anxiety on relationship

A relationship should be able to withstand imbalances of need and support. However, people vary in how they handle increased stress from serious problems such as illness or job loss. The fact that someone is ill does not necessarily lead to their desiring more care, support and demonstration of love from their partner. Some people would become more emotionally closed.

A person’s illness or other challenge will intensify a person’s already existing tendencies. So the increased anxiety from an illness will tend to magnify any existing imbalance in the relationship, and may cause the relationship to become destabilized.

Emotionally self-contained vs emotionally open

Generally, people are attracted to those who balance out their own propensities. People who tend to desire support and connection are often drawn to emotionally-independent types. An unconscious need to become more emotionally self-sufficient causes them to be attracted to those who instantiate that characteristic. The opposite may also be true — self-contained people may initially be drawn to someone who has the ability to be emotionally open and express his or her needs.

However, people do not become emotionally contained by accident. Such a tendency is often promoted by the family of origin, which may have fostered self-reliance, toughness, and action, rather than feeling, connection, and interdependence. It may also be a defense mechanism to protect oneself from being disappointed, hurt, or criticized.

Because such inclinations are generally deeply ingrained, it would be best to contain your need for support from those uncomfortable in giving it. Ironically, when there’s less need of support, Distancers don’t recoil from giving it because they sense a limit to the need. What Distancers dread most is what feels to them like a devouring need that has no end.

Avoid one-sided caretaking

Also beware of allowing a great imbalance in caretaking to develop in a relationship. This may be difficult when you’re serious ill. However, when the primary way of relating in a relationship becomes focusing on one person’s needs, you will see passion and mutuality diminish or disappear. So it would be best to try to find additional support for your extra needs from outside the relationship. I recommend that you look for emotional support from people eager to give it, whether they are supportive friends, nurses, counselors, or support groups.

I’m sorry about your diagnosis, and hope that you feel better and that you get better soon.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Read “I am overwhelmed by worry.”

Read “Pursuing Connection with a Distancer? ‘We never spend time together.’”

Read “Opposites attract: ‘Can’t you ever stop and just sit down with me!’”

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