Relationships Need Breathing Space…By: Debra Manchester MacMannis, LCSW

“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development.”                                                                            

One of the ongoing polarities in any relationship–whether between marriage partners, parents and children, or friends–is the balancing act of closeness and distance. This is the ongoing dance of intimacy, and the key is to learn to move towards and to move away without seeing either polarity as right or wrong, good or bad. To forge the bonds of relationship takes time together but also takes time apart lest the bonds begin to feel too tight or binding.

In my last blog about the tug-of-war in relationships, I described the predictable stages of closeness and distance as the bond of intimacy develops over time, working towards the goal of mutual interdependence. What happens when a family goes through times of increased stress due to loss, trauma, illness or rapid change?

Stress and the Tug of War

When anxiety goes up in a family or relationship due to times of rapid change, each of us has a preference for one side of the polarity. When stressed, young children cling more to one or both parents, whereas adolescents often do the opposite and pull away, locking themselves into their bedroom and refusing to talk. What do you do? What does your partner do? Is it more painful for you to be more distant from loved ones or do you feel panicked when a loved one is overly dependent on you?

It can help to become more familiar with the places that scare you. If you grew up in a family with poor boundaries– perhaps your parents wanted to know everything about you and would hover too close and be angry when you wanted to be left alone. When stressed out, you may long for the solitude you were never granted, pushing loved ones away when you are anxious. On the other hand, if you grew up in a family that highly valued independence and was more loosely connected or if you lost a parent prematurely due to death or divorce, then when stressed, you may cling to loved ones, fearing abandonment over anything else.

Once you are more aware of where you naturally fall on this polarity and how you try to compensate for the pain of your past, then you can make different choices in the present moment. The first step is to notice what happens when you are feeling anxious or stressed out. Do you try to sooth your anxiety by seeking out more closeness with your partner or do you want to be left alone even more than is typical for you?

Why is this a problem? So what if you want some extra attention or extra time away? The problem is that your partner may take this personally. She may think, “If he really loved me, he would want to talk to me when he is hurting.” The truth is that your partner (or parent or child) can love you and still be unable to meet your needs when you are stressed. The more unconscious one or both of you are about this pattern, the more intense the conflict can be.

When your partner is unable to give you what you need, it is easy to feel hurt and rejected or resentful. If neither or you understands about how this pattern was learned in childhood, then it is easy to project your needs on your loved ones and blame them for how badly you feel. Once you have identified your preference for one side of the polarity–closeness or distance–then you can use your insight to keep from getting stuck in the blame game.

With the tool of awareness, you can remind yourself that you learned this way of self-soothing as a child but that your partner may have learned the opposite way to cope. Just removing the negative judgment can soften your response to yourself or your loved one. Since we are powerless to stop the inevitable ebb and flow of intimacy, it helps simply to learn to notice how both closeness and distance come and go and then come back again.

I often remind people about a simple but sometimes painful truth: You are the only person that will always be there when you need someone. The sooner we learn to comfort ourselves, the less burden we put on our relationships to make us feel better. Paradoxically, when we can take comfort in our solitude, we are often more able to be truly close to others as well.

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