Tag Archives: avoid conflict

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

“I dread facing this problem.”

“Tournament of Champions, Kapalua” Steve Stricker
by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.”

~Voltaire

Once in while you will luck out and a problem will resolve itself on its own. Usually, however, running from a problem causes it to mutiply into a large number of troubles.

Why run from problems?

Why do people dread handling problems? They may want to avoid disappointing others; they may shudder at the idea of changing their lives; they may recoil from admitting that past choices have not turned out as expected. Ultimately, it is anxiety and fear that prevent us from confronting our problems.

Tension intensifies

It is not easy to face problems head on. Yet, the longer we wait, the greater the anxiety and fear of confronting the problem becomes. It is astonishing how the angst of avoiding difficulties will intensify with inaction, becoming worse than the difficulty of actually dealing with the problem itself.

How we confront difficulties defines us

Heartache, hurt, and hurdles are part of life. No one handles all challenges with ease and grace. Yet, it is our struggle with those very challenges that chisels our character. In grappling with dilemmas, we discover what is meaningful to us. Through difficult discussions and decisions we fashion our own identity.

Facing our problem does not equal making snap decisions

Facing problems does not always require rushing to action or making quick decisions. Some dilemmas need time to resolve appropriately. There is a key difference between black-and-white problem solving—either making a snap decision or avoiding the problem—and making a wise and thoughtful decision. When we avoid black-and-white thinking, we learn to view the world in its many shades and colors. Sometimes we need to take time to consider the various complexities of a particular circumstance to figure out what to do.

When we face problems with seriousness, openness and courage, we are no longer a slave to the dread that debilitates us. By acknowledging the past but not dwelling on it, we become capable of changing ourselves and our lives. By facing difficulties, we open up the realm of new possibilities. By completing unfinished business, accepting and forgiving ourselves and others, we become free to move on.

“No man is free who is not master of himself.”

~Epictetus

by Alison Poulsen, PhD


“I’m always walking on eggshells. I don’t want to upset my partner.”

Walking on Diamonds" Astronaut Eugene Cernan
In the Permanent Collection of the Smithsonian

by Mimi Stuart ©

If you are walking on eggshells to avoid upsetting your partner, that means you are allowing yourself to be controlled by your partner’s reactivity. Of course, it’s nice to be considerate of your partner’s feelings, but not at the expense of your own.

The best relationships are between people who are “differentiated,” that is, able to be emotionally objective and separate, while at the same time being intimate and caring. Differentiation allows intense involvement without becoming infected with your partner’s anxiety, and without one person needing to withdraw or interfere with the partner.

The great psychologist Murray Bowen was the first to discuss differentiation, describing it as “living according to your own values and beliefs in the face of opposition… while also having the ability to change your values, beliefs, and behavior when your well-considered judgment or concern for others dictates it.”

Undifferentiated, or fused, couples tend to modify their behavior out of fear of their partner’s reactions. Eventually they come to feel as though they have lost who they are.

Being true to yourself when you relate to others is what makes a relationship interesting, passionate and sustainable.

So when you feel that you have to walk on eggshells, take a moment to figure out what you feel and believe. Central to differentiation is facing your discomfort with your partner’s anger, cold shoulder, or other reactivity. Learn how to be diplomatic and kind to your partner, while standing firm in being true to yourself.

When you expect a negative reaction, be prepared to accept it. If your partner becomes angry, don’t take it personally. State calmly, “You may not like my position, but this is how I feel/what I think/what I’d like to do.” Leave the room if necessary, but with a faith that you are walking on diamonds, not eggshells.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Emotional Intimacy.”

Recommended: 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.