Category Archives: Intimacy

When is “distancing” beneficial to your relationship, and when is it harmful?

“Romance of Flight” by Mimi Stuart ©

There are times when “distancing” — seeking more space between partners — is the best thing you can do for the relationship, and there are times when it is harmful. Ideally, there is a balance between distance and togetherness, that is, between being self-contained and sharing thoughts and feelings. Too much of either separateness or connection will cause relationship problems.

Usually people who resist distancing are the ones who need to learn to become more self-contained, and those who crave distance would benefit from learning to balance their need for connection with independence.

When too much connection is harmful and distancing is beneficial

In general, people who are needy and eager to pursue connection may have one or more of the following characteristics:

• they need a lot of attention, approval, or validation,

• they express their thoughts and opinions without discretion, either complaining too much or making perpetual observations even if tedious or uninteresting,

• they are afraid to do things alone—e.g., to see friends or family, pursue interests and hobbies, etc., or

• they don’t have control over their emotions, and tend to express too many negative emotions to their partner.

When people focus too much on getting their needs met by another person, the relationship becomes fused, boundaries dissolve, and anxiety becomes increasingly infectious. The assumption of people who tend to fuse emotionally is that others are responsible for their own well-being. Such expectations increase pressure, anxiety, and disappointment, because people ultimately cannot provide well-being to another person without diminishing that person’s selfhood and independence.

When two people focus on getting their own needs met and become more independent, their relationship tends to flourish and become more reciprocal.

When is distancing harmful

If you feel hurt, angry, or resentful toward your partner, you might need a little time to calm down (to withdraw or seek distance) to figure out if you need to talk to your partner, let the situation slide, or take some sort of action. Hopefully, you will only need a few minutes to sort it out. In more serious situations you may need more time, or you may even need to talk to someone outside the relationship to get help.

Make sure, however, to avoid distancing when it is motivated by a desire to punish, to manipulate, or to avoid conflict.

• Distancing to punish

Beware of using distancing in a punitive way. If you withdraw to punish your partner, you will only further exacerbate the negative relationship dynamic. Your aim should be to understand and respect each other, not to hurt each other.

• Distancing to manipulate

Beware of distancing as a means to manipulate your partner. Causing your partner to fear abandonment may get your partner’s attention, but it will damage the relationship in the long run. Controlling someone through their emotions creates resentment and prevents open, honest communication.

• Distancing to avoid conflict

If your fear of your partner’s reactions causes you to become distant, you deny yourself the opportunity to develop true intimacy, which requires honesty, trust, and openness. Don’t shy away from expressing your feelings and desires but do so respectfully and be ready to listen and discuss.

In conclusion, appropriate self-containment is an important ingredient of a healthy relationship but it’s important to avoid using distance as a way to hurt or manipulate your partner, to avoid conflict, or to get attention. Learn to balance your emotional independence with candid, caring connection.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

When texting is no longer reciprocal.
“Does she still like me?”

“Duet” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

It would be a miracle to find another person to whom you’re attracted and who shares the same expectations and attitude toward relationships that you do. One person may feel hurt when his texts aren’t responded to often enough. The other person may feel dejected when she doesn’t get a gift for her birthday. The list of small frustrations that can cause disappointment is endless.

To have a great relationship, these differences are of minor significance. Partners can and should differ as to their preferences in how much to text, as they do in every other aspect of life. Relationships succeed best when both sides accept many of the harmless differences. What is important is communicating your more important desires and wishes in a way that avoids the following:

1. Attacking the other person, which puts him or her on the defensive and closes off productive and meaningful conversation. “You’re so rude! Why do you wait so long to text me back?”

2. Controlling the other person, which is belittling and demeaning and ignores the other person’s point of view. “When I text you, I want you to get right back to me. Do you understand?”

3. Whining about the situation — a childish and needy attitude — , which is used as a means to manipulate the other. “I miss hearing from you. Are you too busy for me?”

4. Silently holding a grudge, which builds up resentment and resolves nothing.

You can manipulate or badger someone into a desired behavior. But when someone’s actions are emotionally coerced, the strength and autonomy of the individual is undermined. The result is resentment in lieu of passion.

It’s much better to entice the other person with your independence and full life. If necessary, express your desires honestly while being mindful of the other person’s feelings and autonomy.

When addressing your frustrations, start the conversation with a sense of self-respect as well as consideration for the other person. Most important are a tone of voice and body language that embody your respect for the other person’s autonomy as well as your own desires.

In summary,

1. Respect yourself and the fact that you have personal needs and desires.

2. Respect the other person’s autonomy and right to have different attitudes and freely make decisions.

3. Express your desires with a positive specific request.

4. Ask the other person what he or she thinks about your request.

For example, “Hey, I really enjoy hearing back from you when I text you. Lately, you haven’t responded very much. Am I texting you too much?”

Or “It seems as though you’ve been pretty busy lately. What’s going on?”

Some people think they need to be aloof and hard-to-get to be attractive. Others wear their emotions on their sleeve. Both can be off-putting. What matters is how you manifest your feelings for someone. You can express your desire as long as you aren’t desperate and needy, on the one hand, or controlling and manipulative, on the other. There is nothing more attractive than someone who can express desire or love while still maintaining a sense of self and having the self-discipline to resist engaging in a mediocre relationship.

“I really think you’re special and enjoy spending time with you. Lately, I get the sense that you are backing off, and would like to know if that’s right.”

Whether this relationship works out or not, it’s important to start relationships with clear and positive communication to to be able to figure out how to reconcile your different expectations. Whether you’ve just been dating for a month or married for 25 years, communicating openly with respect is the way to keep the relationship improving.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD


Intimacy vs. Agreement:
“I better not disagree with his point of view, or he’ll get upset.”

"First Encounter" by Mimi Stuart ©  Live the Life you Desire

“First Encounter” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Guessing game: Cycle of fusion

People often mistake intimacy with a feeling of closeness and “being one” that comes from all-encompassing agreement and approval, similar to the feeling of falling in love. So in their quest for intimacy, they will anticipate the other person’s response to decide whether to avoid saying something controversial or to show a new side of themselves. If they foresee disapproval, they will screen themselves and limit their expression to what’s tried and true between them. Or they will pressure the other person into agreeing with them.

Unfortunately, too much self-screening and manipulation start the cycle of emotional fusion (co-dependence) and lead away from growth and intimacy in a relationship.

Agreement vs intimacy

People do not get to know one another intimately when they conceal who they are and what they think. When two people are always in complete agreement and busy soothing each other’s egos, their relationships become tedious.

Intimacy develops when people express who they are more fully, even when it does not lead to a feeling of oneness. People may say they want more intimacy, but in fact, real intimacy may be too much for many to tolerate.

Tolerating the anxiety of intimacy

To deepen intimacy, two people must get to know each other more deeply. They each have to be able to express who they are, what they feel, and what they believe. This requires being able to handle the possibility of not getting approval, and that can trigger anxiety. Thus, by developing a better tolerance for anxiety, you enhance your ability to deepen intimacy.

Of course there is some limit as to what you should express to others. You don’t need to share every thought and feeling. There is a point where consideration and discernment count more than blunt honesty and openness. You also don’t want to bore others by expressing every thought you have. It’s important, for example, to avoid expressing every criticism or self-criticism that comes to your mind.

Get comfortable with discomfort

If you get comfortable with discomfort, you no longer need to feign agreement, laugh at a poor joke, or dumb down your conversation to avoid upsetting another person. Your relationships will be based on stimulating thoughts, growth, and authenticity rather than sham consensus.

Respectful communication

Intimate relationships develop best when you express your honest opinions respectfully, and most importantly, when you really listen to another person’s message without shutting him or her down. This means not being reactive — sarcastic, angry, or cold — when someone has an opinion that you disagree with. When you attack someone aggressively for their ideas, you are not encouraging them to be open and honest with you.

Respectful communication is different from acceptance and approval. Good communication does not necessarily make the other person feel his or her opinions are validated, but it also does not make the other person feel rejected or attacked.

Learn to reveal yourself, your opinions, and feelings respectfully, and to listen with equanimity. You will find that, with the right people, you will truly get to know one another, and develop meaningful, intimate relationships that are much more fulfilling than those based on self-screening and validation.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Passion vs. Predictability: The Problem with Emotional Fusion.”

Read “Emotionally Volatile People: ‘He can be so charming and then so defiant.’”

A Passionate vs. a Lackluster Relationship:
The Problem with Emotional Fusion

“Pan Extasy” by Mimi Stuart ©

Do you feel threatened when your partner doesn’t agree with you or behave the way you want?

If so, you may be seeking a type of unity that is both unattainable and undesirable. Although many people in a relationship feel alienated from one another, emotional fusion is more often the problem than insufficient attachment. Emotional fusion occurs when people do not function independently, but are emotionally reactive by being overly acquiescent or rebellious.

Couples use silence, withdrawal, and facial expressions of disapproval to pressure each other to express agreement or approval. These subtle forms of manipulation usually causes people become defensive or to repress feelings and thoughts that are incompatible with those of their partner.

If partners can’t handle having differences of opinion, they miss the opportunity to have energized discussions as two separate individuals. Eventually passion in the relationship disappears, because it can only persist between two separate individuals. While it may seem nice to be in agreement, too much unison usually causes mystery, growth, and passion to fade away and be replaced by predictability and boredom, and/or anger and resentment.

Origin of emotional fusion

Emotional fusion with one’s family of origin often leads to a tendency to fuse with people later in life. When excessive energy is bound in a parent/child relationship, the child becomes emotionally fused to the parent and is unable to function autonomously. Over-attachment, where the child stays substantially merged with the parent, encourages emotional reactivity in the guise of accommodation or provocation. The child thinks, feels, and acts with the parents’ and later the spouse’s potential reactions and feelings in mind.

The child may become a “good boy” or “good girl”, doing and saying exactly what’s wanted, while repressing parts of him or herself that would provoke the parent. Or, the child may become rebellious, often saying and doing precisely the opposite of what the parent desires, in order to try to stake out a sense of individuality.

Often the child alternates between the two extremes rather than developing an organic sense of self based on reflections and experience, not simply one that accommodates or reacts against those on whom the child is dependent.
What’s lacking is an ability to reasonably express thoughts and choose actions without an intention to acquiesce or to rebel against family members.

Both over-accommodation and excessive rebelliousness result from fusion. Emotional fusion replaces adequate separation and real intimacy with a sense of suffocation and/or isolation. If your parent cares about you and gives you adequate space to have your own feelings, thoughts, and some appropriate decision-making power, there’s not much to rebel against. Nor is there an urgent sense to please the parent at any cost.

Repression

The pressured partner may accommodate her partner, while repressing her own conflicting feelings and thoughts. However, ongoing avoidance of discomfort, disapproval, and criticism leads to partners drifting apart, because they are hesitant to share incompatible or new parts of themselves. Soon they no longer have anything to talk about.

Repressed parts of the personality then gather energy in the unconscious, and ultimately seep out in the form of depression, sickness, or secret affairs. Repressed feelings and thoughts can also erupt unexpectedly in anger, violence, and even unexpected divorce.

Anger

Control, anger, and violence can arise from the inability to calmly and firmly withstand the pressure to merge with another person, or from the inability to tolerate another person’s disagreement or disapproval.

Arguing is often a manifestation of the unconscious attempting to balance togetherness and separateness. Focusing on the other through argument provides emotional contact, while anger and resistance to one’s partner’s wishes promote separateness.

Once one becomes emotionally separate, anger is no longer necessary to resist pressures to merge with the other. You can accept the fact that your partner is disappointed or disagrees with you. You can express disagreement or make requests without being angry or scared. Uncomfortable, yes; but angry, no.

Example of Fused Couple: Paul states he does not want Sally to visit her sister. Sally doesn’t go, but is angry for hours or days. Or Sally says she’s going anyway, and Paul stays angry for days.

Example of Differentiated Couple: Paul says he wishes he could go on a trip with her and is sad that she’ll be going without him. Sally says she’s sorry he’ll be lonely, but it’s really important for her to spend some time alone with her sister. Or Sally says that he’s welcome to join her if he can get away.

Partners are equally fused

Partners who stay together for a long time, say a year or more, are generally equally emotionally fused, although they may not think they are. They just express it differently.

For example, it’s not accidental, although it may be unconscious, that a man who seeks his own space chooses a woman who yearns for connection. If she didn’t seek connection, there wouldn’t be any. If he didn’t seek space, there wouldn’t be any. They both need the other to find some sort of balance. Yet, the man may believe that the problem is all hers—she is simply too needy. The woman believes that the problem is all his—he fears intimacy. They’ve both selected the ideal person either to learn from or to blame.

Problems with fusion:

1. No sense of identity

Increased emotional fusion paradoxically creates both a greater need for more togetherness in one person and an urge to flee in the other person. Sometimes one person experiences both. Feelings of being trapped, controlled, and smothered, or isolated, unsupported, and unloved infuse the relationship.

The problem is that neither partner can maintain his or her sense of identity in the presence of the other. When one disagrees or neglects the other, the other takes it personally and becomes reactive by withdrawing coldly or picking a fight. Alternatively, partners may quickly accommodate each other, repressing their own feelings and thoughts, which eventually leads to resentment or a diminished sense of self.

2. Needing emotional validation

Most relationship difficulties result from attempting to avoid anxiety. Often, when we’re anxious, we seek validation from others. Others then feel obliged to give us validation, because they feel uncomfortable with our anxiety. Validation is an attempt to soothe the other’s anxiety in order to soothe our own. Such validation differs from compassion and appreciation, which are freely-given expressions of kindness, enjoyment and gratitude toward the other, rather than attempts to mitigate distress.

3. Diminishing boundaries

With increased fusion, boundaries between people dissolve, and anxiety becomes increasingly infectious. “As boundaries dissolve, there is increased pressure on people to think, feel, and act in ways that will enhance one another’s emotional well-being” (Kerr and Bowen, p. 77). Well-being cannot be provided by another person without diminishing that person’s selfhood and independence. So, the expectation of providing for someone’s well-being ironically increases pressure, anxiety, and disappointment.

4. Controlling behavior

If your sense of identity or well-being depends on what your partner thinks, it’s natural to try to control your partner. Above all, it becomes critical to minimize anxiety and to continue securely in the emotional attachment. Controlling behavior, however, stifles all spontaneity and freshness in a relationship.

For example, people who complain of sexual boredom often feel threatened by the display of new sexual behavior by their partners and therefore ridicule or reject such attempts, which are ways of trying to control a person. Or they may hesitate to try something new themselves for fear of their partners’ disapproval.

Differentiation

To resolve the anguish of emotional fusion, individuals need to become more highly-differentiated, that is, emotionally separate, and therefore, less reactive. Differentiation will (a) permit a person to get intensely involved without becoming infected with the other person’s anxiety, and (b) eliminate the need to withdraw or control the partner to modulate a person’s own emotional well-being. Even if only one person becomes less reactive, the relationship will improve.

Ironically, emotional objectivity and separateness allow us to be more intimate and passionate. Someone who is differentiated doesn’t fear intimacy or solitude. While we want to be considerate of others in our interactions, we don’t want to negate ourselves by endowing others with too much power. When we are not excessively worried about another’s reactions, we can be truly intimate, that is, we can express ourselves, our thoughts, and our emotions more freely and deeply. When we are more confident in ourselves and less hindered by our partner’s anxiety, we can grow emotionally, sexually, and intellectually, often enticing our partners to do the same. When someone is confident with a positive attitude, rather than cautious, fearful of rejection, or controlling, that person becomes more attractive and is able to ignite passion more easily.

When we take care of and are responsible for our own emotions, we can be intimate without pressuring others to validate or soothe us or to do what we want. By not allowing other people’s anxiety to infect us, we remain emotionally separate and objective, which paradoxically allows for greater connection and intense intimacy. Relationships are desired for enjoyment, not to be controlled to fulfill a need.

Existential aloneness

Underlying emotional fusion is caused by a fear of being separate and alone in the world. As we face and accept our own existential separateness, our tolerance for being alone increases. Our disappointment in others diminishes, because we relinquish unattainable expectations that our partners will save us from our basic separateness and mortality. Paradoxically, our oneness with others, not just our partners, increases as we accept our separateness.

Solution

We need to recognize how our reactivity toward others is driven by our own anxiety and sense of aloneness. Part of this process is realizing that we can never be fully united in thought and feeling with another person. Once we genuinely accept our existential separation from others, we can more fully enjoy the fleeting connection with others, without grasping to get more of it, and without resisting it to avoid the pain of its eventual loss.

Passion requires being in the moment and letting go of fear and control. While there is a place in long-term relationships for planning and thinking about the future, there is also a place for being free of those thoughts and letting spontaneity and desire reign. Passion is a feeling of being alive, alert and excited in the midst of the unknown. By breaking away from predictable routine and control over your partner or over yourself , you can allow a little unpredictability back into the relationship. Embracing the unknown—or anxiety—with a positive attitude, you can turn it into excitement, desire, and passion.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “I never get to go skiing anymore because of my partner.”

Recommended References:

Kerr, M. & Bowen, M. (1988). Family Evaluation: The role of the family as an emotional unit that governs individual behavior and development. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York.

Schnarch, D. (1991). Constructing the sexual crucible: Paradigm-shift in sexual and marital therapy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Embracing Each Other, by Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone

Pursuing passions or partnership?
““You should spend more time with me instead of going fishing!””

"Long Drive" — Jim Furyk by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Long Drive” — Jim Furyk by Mimi Stuart ©

Should you push your partner to stop pursuing their passions?

People often push their partner to stop pursuing their interests in favor of spending more time together as a couple. The pursuing partner may genuinely want to spend more time together or he or she may be reacting to feelings of jealousy or insecurity. Feelings of insecurity in particular will cause someone to try to control the other person and become possessive.

Some partners find it uncomfortable to deal with their partner’s insecurities. So they prefer to accommodate them. Often it is their own anxiety in face of a partner who is upset that they cannot tolerate. As a result, when their partner pressures them to give up their interests, they give in quickly in order to avoid conflict.

Long-term problems of appeasement

When your partner appeases you, you may feel temporary relief. However, ongoing appeasement will create long-term problems. The result of repressing one’s own desires can result in a gradual deadening of the soul, growing resentment, boredom, and a loss of passion within the relationship.

When your partner continuously appeases you at the expense of their own interests, they will lose some of their passion for life and for you. Moreover, as appeasement becomes the norm, you will both feel increasingly burdened by an obligation to appease each other. As a result, one or both of you will become more and more vulnerable to the other person’s manipulation.

Long-term intimacy and accommodation

True intimacy evolves when you don’t manipulate your partner to accommodate your needs and desires. Long-term passionate intimacy requires that two people have a strong enough sense of self that each can spend time separately pursuing their own individual interests.

To sustain a long-term passionate relationship, you need to balance two primary drives — the desire for togetherness and the desire for autonomy. While everyone has a different ideal balance point, it is clear that the extremes of too much togetherness or too much independence each generate their own problems.

If you really love someone, you do not want that person to stop pursuing their passions and interests. Nor should you want to make that person feel guilty for pursuing them. It’s not much fun spending time with someone who feels stifled and held back. The very reason you love a person has a lot to do with their vitality and individual interests. So it is both wise and loving to encourage them to continue to pursue their interests.

Empower yourself

When you feel threatened by your partner spending time apart from you, rather than controlling your partner, find a way to empower yourself and the relationship.

1. Desire the best for your partner.

You will have a better relationship if your partner is happy. It reflects well on you and you will be more attracted to your partner if your partner is passionate about life rather than unhappy about it.

2. Be curious about your partner’s interests.

You don’t want to become a couple that has nothing to talk about. Don’t feel resentment about your partner’s fishing, golfing, or reading. Instead, ask about their interests, their progress, and other details. Find genuine joy in what they appreciate about their pursuits and passions.

3. Pursue something you enjoy.

Start pursuing your own passions. If you don’t have any, try out different activities, sports, or hobbies, or take some classes. The experience of trying new things will make your life richer. When you keep your life engaged, you enhance your life, which also makes you more interesting to be with. Taking on challenges builds a healthy confidence and joie de vivre. Even failed pursuits make for great stories. All of this will lead you to a more interesting and passionate relationship.

4. Make your time together more enjoyable.

Plan activities together that your partner will want to participate in. Spending some time together is important. Rather than spending that time complaining about your partner’s passions, think about pursuits that you can do together that may be interesting or pleasant for both of you. Talk to your partner about what your interests and passions are.

While it is important to spend some time together, couples keep their relationships alive when they do not spend all their time together. When you encourage your partner to pursue their passions, they will be grateful to be with someone who is truly loving.

Loving someone means respecting their autonomy and wanting them to be truly happy.

Alison Poulsen, PhD

New Book Announcement:
“Desire & Desirability: Transform the Pursuer/Distancer Dynamic into a Mutual Loving Relationship”

Desire & Desirability
Transform the Pursuer/Distancer Dynamic into a Mutual Loving Relationship

Over the past seven years, I have had the pleasure of responding to many questions and comments from readers of my blog “So what I really meant….” I have been struck by how frequently readers express the value of understanding the Pursuer/Distancer dynamic and the benefit of learning how to overcome it. This inspired me to write this book called “Desire & Desirability.”

Often in a relationship one partner seeks more intimacy than the other. When the Pursuer seeks too much connection or attachment, the Distancer can feel trapped and anxious about losing his or her independence, which may ultimately lead to withdrawal from the relationship leaving the Pursuer heartbroken.

Perfect balance in a relationship is impossible to achieve, yet we can learn to modify our behavior to move toward better symmetry. Real-life examples described in this book illustrate ways to transform your desire based on need into desirability based on fullness. The examples focus primarily on couples in romantic relationships but the principles discussed hold true for all types of relationships including those between friends, co-workers, and parents and children.

It is my hope that understanding the strategies laid out in “Desire & Desirability” will give you the tools to empower you to sustain a more balanced, reciprocal, and fulfilling relationship.

I want to thank my readers for the many thoughtful comments and questions sent over the years that have inspired me to think about relationship and psychological challenges in new and deeper ways.

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