Category Archives: Relationship Skills

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

Handling Criticism:
“Don’t criticize me. This is the way I’ve always done it!”

"Why Not?" — Einstein by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

If you do anything interesting in life, you are bound to be criticized. It is best to handle criticism without becoming defensive or taking it personally.

Consider the Critic’s Underlying Motivation

When you understand the motivation behind the criticism, it is easier to respond appropriately without becoming defensive. People criticize for various reasons, positive and negative:

1. To help you avoid making a mistake.
2. To connect with you.
3. To share a good idea that may improve on what you are doing.
4. To feel worthwhile.
5. To feel superior because they are jealous or feel inadequate.
6. To find fault because they feel threatened.
7. To vent irritability.

Depending on the motivation, you can handle the criticism differently. For example, if someone wants to share a good idea, it might be worthwhile to engage in a conversation with that person about his or her ideas.

For those who want to connect with you or to feel worthwhile, you don’t need a long discussion on why their criticism is not helpful. A simple “Thanks for your idea” may be adequate, and then change the subject to something of more interest to you.

If someone feels jealous or threatened by you, you can thank the critic and disengage.

You might respond to someone who is simply irritable by asking, “You seem upset. Is there something going one in your life?”

Consider the Criticism

Regardless of the critic’s motivation, the criticism itself might carry some validity. So ask yourself if there is something to be learned by it. Focus only on what is helpful. Disregard the rest. You show confidence when you consider other people’s ideas.

Surprise the critic by thanking him or her for the criticism. If you agree with the criticism, let the critic know how helpful he or she has been. If not, respond honestly with your reasoning. Critical people are often grateful that they are listened to. They may be accustomed to people becoming defensive and ignoring their ideas.

The man who is anybody and who does anything is surely going to be criticized, vilified, and misunderstood. This is part of the penalty for greatness, and every man understands, too, that it is no proof of greatness.

~Elbert Hubbard

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Defensiveness: “What do you mean by that? You’re always attacking me!””

“Stop nagging me about watching the game!”

“Sweetness” Walter Payton by Mimi Stuart ©

While some sacrifices need to be made in any relationship, giving up what you truly enjoy will only lead to resentment. It won’t enhance the passion and vitality between the two of you.

Make sure you find a balance between spending quality time together and pursuing your own passions. Your relationship will flourish if each person supports the other in pursuing their interests, while also making an effort to come together to enjoy each other on a regular basis.

Yet don’t expect you or your partner to behave perfectly. If your partner becomes controlling, be civil while expressing how important your own interests are to you. For example,

“Please don’t ask me to give up something that I truly enjoy. I’d like to watch the game without feeling guilty about it. But I really want to do something with you later when the game’s over.”

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Related article: “Were you out on the golf course again? I’ve been here alone all afternoon.”

Screen Time
From the Headmaster—Guest Author Jon Maksik

“Think” – Einstein by Mimi Stuart ©

GUEST AUTHOR Jon Maksik writes:

I sometimes joke that in a few millennia humans will have evolved into stooped beasts able only to look down at whatever glowing device they hold in one hand. But, how naïve; of course, Apple will trump Darwin and implants will preserve our posture. What though of our ability to distinguish between virtual reality and…well, reality? What of our ability to pay attention to one another and to the world around us?

Alarmist hyperbole? Walk into any restaurant, any sporting event, any school, any place at all where people are gathered, and look around. How many people do you see looking at a screen—or two? How often do you see a family of four eating together when each of them is looking at a phone? How often do you see people sitting next to one another, each on a device and never exchanging a word or a look? Exactly.

This is old news by now, so old that we barely remember the quaint days of yore when we scoffed at people bellowing pressing news into their cellphones: “I’m in the vegetable aisle at the market. Where are you?” As we’ve become increasingly inured to the beeping, pinging, quacking, barking, and ringing that intrude on our lives, we veer from grudging acknowledgement of a problem to celebrating the cleverness of the marketing geniuses who sell us so much of what we so rarely need. What we don’t do is address the problem for what it is: an addiction.

More alarmist hyperbole? Ok. How often do you check your email, texts, and social media? How often without justifying it, without thinking that you might better spend your time in other ways? Do you dare to calculate the number of hours in a day, week, or year that you spend on your devices, “connecting” with other people or, more accurately, their avatars? What is the first thing you do in the morning and the last before you go to sleep? Can you cut back? Can you stop? No, you can’t, but, really, so what? How harmful is this so-called addiction?

We’re beginning to find out, to go beyond the anecdotal and actually find out. Two recent studies provide some answers: We risk brain function; we risk our ability to engage with other people; we risk the ability to pay attention to one thing for very long. We risk our cognitive ability; our emotional equilibrium, and we risk depression. We risk altering or destroying relationships with the people we love because we don’t pay attention them. We risk friendships and, yes, we risk that vague notion of “happiness.”

Have a look at some specific findings.

“Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

“Your Smartphone Reduces Your Brainpower, Even If It’s Just Sitting There”

When I showed these articles to a friend of mine, she asked me how I thought parents might best talk to their children about the problem. I think a better question is how adults and children can talk with each other about it. Two parents wielding cellphones and warning children about the dangers of too much screen time is akin to two parents wielding martinis and warning children about drinking. Besides, it is axiomatic that children have robust powers of observation. Even very young children miss little that occurs in their families; adolescents miss next to nothing. We adults aren’t fooling anyone. If it’s true that young people stand to lose the most from “screen addiction,” it’s also true that adult addiction can have an equally profound impact.

So, how do we talk with our children about all of this? We can save time and avoid the, “When I was your age” trope; and we can skip the Luddite vs. techno-savvy argument because we share the same addiction. Given those time-savers, we might consider discussing what’s important in our lives, what’s wonderful about what we share as families, what’s cool and useful about our devices and what isn’t, about what we gain and what we risk losing. Certainly, we might share some persuasive evidence, like that noted in the articles above, but hold the pontificating. This is one of those times when we are enmeshed in the same fast-moving phenomenon and we are no less vulnerable than our children. That’s an advantage, as it turns out, because it allows us to begin a collaborative conversation

And, perhaps vulnerable is a good word to consider. We are, demonstrably, every bit as vulnerable as our children and it’s good for them to see that vulnerability, to understand that this is not about “responsibility” or taking out the trash. We have no other motive than to help one another to live in the world—the real one, the off-screen world, the world of our friends and loved ones. Those are the people with whom we need to connect.

by Jon Maksik, Ph.D., who served as headmaster of the Community School in Sun Valley, Idaho, from 1987 until his retirement in 2006.

Read Jon Maksik’s “The Truth About Success” and other articles.

Why saying “no” can be good.

"Gandhi" by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

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

Why do some people agonize over saying no?

Personality Development

Often people cannot say no because they dread disappointing others. As you grow up, you develop different parts of the personality to help you survive and thrive in your given circumstances. To win the love or acceptance you desire or to avoid negative criticism or worse, you end up emphasizing certain traits, such as being responsible, smart, or accommodating. Your “personality” then becomes formed by your primary personality traits.*

Accommodating Personality

Accommodating people learn early on that they thrive best by being agreeable and compliant. Their desire to please others dates back to not wanting to disappoint the people they were dependent on for security and love. When this desire to accommodate becomes excessive, the thought of saying no becomes tinged with a feeling of dread.

As an adult, the fear of saying no is not always reasonable or helpful. But the neural-circuitry developed in your brain in childhood still says, “Don’t disappoint or you’ll have to pay for it.” “If you say no, arguments will ensue, affection will be withdrawn, etc.” Or “If you don’t make her happy, she will be sad and she is too fragile to handle sadness.” That brain circuitry lingers on until you change and replace it.

How to say no, and become more whole

To avoid resentment and depleting your energy, you have to be able to say no to things you don’t have the time or desire to do. When you can be candid about your needs and desires without feeling dread, you will feel more whole and confident. Others will respect and enjoy you more because they will know that no means no, and yes means yes.

1. The first step is to realize that some emotions are habits that are no longer in your best interest.

2. The second step is to practice saying no peacefully, firmly, and confidently, that is, in a neutral, kind way, but without fear or weakness. Tone of voice is more important than the actual words.

3. The third step is to give an honest reason without being overly-apologetic. Don’t sound guilty or embarrassed to say no. And don’t give a litany of excuses. Simple and short is best.

Example:

You just got home from work, exhausted, and your partner asks you to clean the garage.

I might have time this weekend. Right now I’m exhausted and would like to relax and enjoy being home.

Or

I’ve been working a lot. I really don’t like that kind of work. We need to hire someone to do that, or let’s do it together.

Example:

Your boyfriend/girlfriend asks you to drive him/her to the airport when you have other plans.

I’d love to, but I already made plans to play soccer/finish a work project. Sorry.

Example:

Your friend wants you to go out tonight, but you don’t feel like it.

I’d love to see you but I am just not in the mood to go out tonight. Let’s do it another time. Have fun without me.

Example:

An acquaintance wants you to volunteer for some good cause or to donate money.

Sorry I can’t. I have too many other obligations.

Or

That sounds like a great cause, but we have already donated to other organizations and can’t extend ourselves anymore.

Note that there are circumstances where a clear, emphatic No without any explanation is appropriate, as for example, when there is a threat to you or those close to you, such as in dangerous or peer-pressure situations.

Once people who have trouble saying no realize how easy it is, they will no longer agonize about it. Moreover, people have more respect for those whose desire to please is reasonable and moderate, rather than extreme and self-defeating. When people know that you can say no, they will truly appreciate it when you say yes.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

*See Dr. Hal Stone and Dr. Sidra Stone’s Theory of Selves.

Read “Overfunctioning and underfunctioning: ‘If I don’t take care of things, nothing will ever get done.’”

Read “Setting Boundaries.”

Read “Too Responsible to Enjoy.”

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