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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 she gets angry, I feel overwhelmed and have to withdraw.”

"Take Off" — Blue Angels by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Take Off” — Blue Angels by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

People react to conflict, anxiety and disapproval in different ways. Some people become bossy and directive, some get angry and attack others, and some become defensive. Others feel overwhelmed and either freeze or withdraw emotionally or physically.

People who withdraw may do so because they do not know how to respond or they get flooded with emotion. People who feel overwhelmed when they seem to be attacked are unable to think rationally and to express themselves in an articulate way. Often withdrawing is a response to the feeling of helplessness and fear – it is a defense mechanism developed to protect a person.

However, withdrawal often triggers feelings of abandonment and hostility in the other person. The more outspoken or argumentative person may view the withdrawal as a passive-aggressive punishment directed at him or her.

Explain your behavior

If someone is raging, repetitive, mean, or unreasonable, it may be best to withdraw. If you need to withdraw from conflict simply because you feel overwhelmed, it is best to say something to the other person before walking away. For example,

“I can’t discuss this clearly right now. I need to take a break.”

“Please let’s stop for a while.”

“Give me a moment. I’ll be back.”

“I’m feeling overwhelmed.”

At a moment when there is no conflict, it’s very helpful to explain to the other person how you are feeling when you withdraw. Let him or her know that you are not trying to be hurtful by walking away. Rather, you feel overwhelmed and unable to think or discuss anything rationally and clearly. “I need a moment to clear my head.”


Some people choose to step away from discussions to avoid a difficult issue. Sometimes it’s best to buy yourself time to think about an issue. Yet when you consistently avoid difficult discussions, the issues will often become more problematic, and people with whom you’re in relationship will become increasingly frustrated with you.


When you become aware of your anxiety-management systems, you have the opportunity to gradually become stronger and more capable of handling difficult situations. If someone is angry, but not out of control, practice remaining calm without leaving immediately. See if you can withstand a little more discomfort without becoming overwhelmed. Have some responses readily available to state in a calm manner, such as,

“I’d like to hear what you’re saying. Can you explain that again in a more positive way.”

“I feel criticized. Could you rephrase that?”

“I feel defensive. Let’s start over again and remember I’m on your side.”

“I need a moment. Please be quiet for a moment and listen to me.”

“I think we could have a more productive conversation if we kept our voices down.”

With an awareness of what triggers you, you can gradually control the withdrawal process. Instead, you can thoughtfully choose whether to comply, withdraw, or assert yourself, among other possible responses. Sometimes it is best to withdraw, but it’s nice to feel as though you have a choice and can control your behavior in any situation. You will feel more powerful and others will sense it as well.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “The courage to say ‘No’: ‘I wish I hadn’t said ‘Yes,’ I just don’t have the time!’”

Read “To fight or not to fight: ‘After a fight, we barely talk to each other for days.’”

“Oh you’re just going to walk away like you always do!”

"Genius Unleashed" -- Robin Williams by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Genius Unleashed” — Robin Williams by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

So… what I really meant was…

“I see your point. Please don’t withdraw. Should we take a break?”


“I don’t want you to feel attacked. When I feel passionate about something, I might sound angry. But I’m not angry at you.”


“My reaction was too extreme. Sorry. Let me start again and stay cool and collected.”


As Robin Williams said, “I’m sorry. If you were right, I’d agree with you.”

People who withdraw suddenly often do so because they feel attacked and overwhelmed. They leave because they can’t handle any more what they feel as an assault. If you persist in passionately clarifying your position, that will probably be perceived by them as too much.

In order to have an effective discussion, it’s important to back off until both people can calm down. Nothing can be achieved when someone is on the defensive. There must be some compassion and openness to have a fruitful conversation.

One of the best ways to keep the spirit of humanity and compassion in a discussion is to keep a sense of perspective about your frustrations and your life. Keeping things in perspective allows us to laugh at ourselves while also having compassion for ourselves and others.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “I become emotionally volatile when I get close to someone. How can I develop a stronger sense of self?”

Read “My parent was controlling.” How we develop Defense Mechanisms (Part I)