Tag Archives: distancing

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 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!’”