Tag Archives: connection

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 have been the Pursuer of my boyfriend. What is the best way to demonstrate the beauty of connection to a typical Distancer?”

"Rocket Man" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Rocket Man” by Mimi Stuart ©

The best way to approach your boyfriend as a Distancer so that he recognizes the beauty of the connection is to enjoy your time together without overwhelming or pressuring him for even greater connection. A Distancer prefers to keep physical or emotional distance because unconsciously he fears that he will be manipulated or obligated to give up his autonomy.

Distancers dislike setting boundaries

Strangely enough, Distancers are typically uncomfortable setting boundaries in a clear but compassionate way with people they feel close to. One way this inability to set boundaries develops is that the Distancer’s parent punished him or her with anger or cold withdrawal when the child did not want to accommodate and go along with the parent. Setting boundaries, therefore, became dangerous for the Distancer because of the risk of incurring a hostile reaction from someone he or she depended on for survival. Thus, the Distancer learned to protect him- or herself by staying emotionally distant and no longer needing to set boundaries in an intimate or personal situation.

Avoid pressure and manipulation

Thus, Distancers are particularly uncomfortable with people who are prone to want something from them, for example, people who are needy, controlling, or manipulative. Thus, it is important to avoid manipulating or pressuring your boyfriend into doing things he may not want to do, such as spending more time with you or opening up and talking more. So when he says or hints that he prefers to stay home instead of being with you, respond with easy kindness and without causing him to feel manipulated or guilty, “Too bad. I’ll miss you. Have a great evening.” Tone of voice is key—it should render no feelings of guilt. Over time, he may feel that it is not as threatening to resist accommodating you as it was for him as a child.

If the Distancer opens up and expresses emotion or something personal, be careful not to criticize or analyze him and don’t grill him for more information. It’s better to just listen, and then say something like, “I appreciate you’re telling me that.” Or “Is there anything I can do to help?” And then allow the subject to be changed if he starts to feel uncomfortable.

In these ways, the Distancer will learn over time that the earlier hazards of intrusion and control no longer threaten him. As a result, he will probably open up a bit more (especially if he is younger.) But don’t expect a big change. He will likely remain somewhat on his guard.

Focus on yourself

Part of the beauty of a relationship is learning from the person you are drawn to. Focus on why you are attracted to a Distancer and in what ways you could learn to become more like him. He probably has fine qualities typical of a Distancer, such as having discretion and being autonomous, that might benefit you. Learn to resist the desire for more connection, and simply appreciate the connection you do have as well as the time you spend apart or with others.

If he is significantly closed off and spends inordinate time alone, you can talk to him about your needs. Try to be specific, and make sure you do not manipulate him as that is sure to backfire. Ask him how he sees the ideal balance of separateness and togetherness in your relationship. If his desire for connection is very different from yours, be prepared for disappointment and perhaps for moving on from this relationship, because people only change when they themselves are motivated to do so.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

“I hate small talk. It’s such a waste of time.”

"Pizzicato Petite Sirah" R&B Cellars collection
by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire


Endless chitchat about mindless subjects can drive anybody crazy. When people carry on without allowing others to engage in the conversation, they are missing the point of small talk. Appropriate small talk should feel like a dance not like an assault.


Communication is not simply about passing on information. One of the primary goals of communicating with people is to make a connection with them.

Small talk is all about connection. The style of talk is playful, casual, and humorous, without being critical, overbearing, or a chatterbox. Appropriate small talk is vital in developing and sustaining relationships.

There are several reasons for connecting through small talk.

1. Emotional Closeness

The energy in a person’s body language, not the information behind the words, communicates warmth. You can even engage in small talk with someone who speaks a different language and convey friendliness and humor.

2. Effective Dialogue

When there is disagreement, small talk can help you develop connection by showing your common humanity, which allows for a more effective dialogue. Without establishing connection, disagreements become accusatory or controlling attacks and will cause defensiveness, anger, or hurt feelings.

3. Ritual Small Talk

Small talk shows our competence in normal communication. It reveals our ability to read other people. When people see that we know when to start talking, when to stop, and that we know what topics are appropriate given the circumstances, they see we have a basic understanding of how to relate to people.

Imagine that someone says, “What beautiful weather we’re having,” and the second person responds with a simple, “no” or “I guess” with no warmth or further comment showing confirmation of the first speaker’s attempt to make a connection. It leaves the first speaker wondering, “What’s wrong with him/her? How rude!” or “OK, I made the effort! But I won’t try anymore.”

When people start an intense debate when others are simply shooting the breeze, it signals that they are oblivious to what’s going on around them.

When people cannot adhere to the unspoken rules of appropriate small talk, others get frustrated and suspicious. Those who can’t or won’t engage in small talk in appropriate situations or who don’t allow others to talk are often rejected and avoided.

People who recognize when small talk is appropriate adapt easily to relationship expectations. Moreover, those who understand the bounds of appropriate communication are generally seen to be likable and trustworthy.

4. New Relationships

Small talk is like a dance in getting to know someone. Through talking casually while avoiding any commitment, you get a feel for what the other person is like—whether you click, whether there’s some commonality or a spark between you.

The subject of conversation matters less than the feeling behind the words. If there seems to be mutual understanding, you can gradually deepen the conversation by disclosing more personal values and thoughts. If you don’t sense reciprocity, no harm is done.

While we don’t have to spend a great deal of time engaging in small talk, we can use it to create better connection with other people. As long as we sense when other people have had enough, then small talk can be meaningful.

Whether a conversation with someone lasts a fleeting moment at the supermarket or develops into a lasting relationship, the purpose of small talk is to express the desire for a positive emotional connection between two human beings. While small talk seems to be about nothing at all, it’s really about being human, understanding subtle communication, and responding to people with a sense of connection.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Acknowledging loved ones: ‘We don’t really greet each other anymore.’”

Read “I never call my mom and dad because we have nothing to talk about.”

Read “Conversation and Active Listening: ‘It seems like I do all the talking.’”

Acknowledging loved ones:
“We don’t really greet each other anymore.”

"Fly By" — Blue Angels by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Saying “good morning,” “hello,” “good bye,” or “how are you?” every time you see a loved one or when you leave the house or come back home will make a great deal of difference in your relationship over the long term. It shows that you care and makes your partner feel that he or she is not simply taken for granted. While you don’t have to be melodramatic or sentimental, you don’t want to be perfunctory or hasty either.

An actress recently told me that the way she avoids looking fake when she smiles endlessly for the camera is to think happy or loving thoughts while smiling. If instead she thinks, “I hope I don’t look horrible” or “how long is this going to take?” those thoughts show up in her facial expression, despite the smile.

Similarly, when you greet loved ones, or almost anyone for that matter, they will sense it if you’re thinking, “But where are my keys and how long is this going to take?”

It makes a real difference to put your other thoughts on hold and actually look at your loved ones when you greet them or say “good bye.” Real connection occurs best with full presence of mind and body, giving you the ability to connect with real energy and to receive it as well. The long-term well-being of a relationship is built on all the small moments of acknowledgement, appreciation, kindness, and passion over the years.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Respect each other: ‘He’s always talking down to me.’”

Read “Overgeneralization: ‘You never show appreciation.’”

Read “Living together Part I: Manners and Boundaries — ‘What’s the matter with you? Look at this mess you made!’”