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Therapy Lingo

Emotional Distancing

"When moving closer, means running for the exit!"

"Emotional distancing" is an all-too-common behavioral pattern which propels many people into counseling. If you or your partner often withdraw from each other emotionally, it helps to understand that this reaction isn't always intentional.

When we get overwhelmed from the demands of a relationship or other stressors we sometimes isolate emotionally. We might be physically present, but we remain emotionally absent. Other people may not notice, but those close to us can often sense when we're somewhere else.

In other words, the lights are on, but no one's home!

Unfortunately, one partner will ordinarily get defensive when his or her emotional absence is pointed out by the other.

When there is a lack of self-awareness, he or she will likely respond with frustration, perhaps tinged with sarcasm by referring to their "physical" presence: "Well the last time I looked, I was right here."

What's confusing for this couple is that emotional distancing doesn't occur only when there's conflict in the relationship. It can also emerge when partners move closer together. That is, as the relationship moves towards greater intimacy it can feel threatening or alarming for some people. (As Harriet Lerner1 might suggest, the "dance of intimacy" has begun!)

Emotional distancing arises after moments of intimacy.

Partners may not have memories to associate with their responses, but at some point they learned that emotional closeness with another is hypercoupled with enduring pain and/or loss. (See the Dance of Attunement to learn more.)

Emotional distancing was once an optimal coping strategy.

It might help to understand that emotional distancing is a coping strategy that is usually learned early in life; it's an implicit procedure that at one time served a purpose. It often happens without conscious awareness and occurs automatically. It's a way the nervous system copes when it becomes flooded with too much activation.

Let me explain.

First, you need to understand that our behaviours are not driven solely by our conscious intentions. You may already be aware that our emotional brain directs us in ways we are not always concious of. And, as I have tried to illustrate on this site, most people underestimate the power of our reptilian brain's influence over our motivations.

Our nervous system is energy efficient. As such, it tends to avoid, or compels us to move away from activities, behaviours, and even emotions that appear too stimulating to manage. When emotions are too difficult to experience, an individual reflexively withdraws in order to calm their inner psyche before they are ready to re-engage.

While emotional withdrawal provides temporary relief and time for the nervous system to regain balance or homeostasis, if used chronically, this response will ultimately negatively impact how we feel about ourselves not to mention the health of our relations with others.

Each of us has a different capacity to experience our emotions.

Let me give you some examples.

Some people only experience rare instances when they get embarrassed. But these same people may become quite agitated when feeling angry because they don't know how to express this particular emotion in a healthy way.

Other people may feel easily embarrassed and avoid social gatherings unless they are fairly certain about the situational expectations. Yet, these same individuals may have no difficulty in expressing anger appropriately with their significant other.

These patterns are procedural. Sometimes, in their midst, we can feel stuck and helpless. The good news is that this is not the end of the story. With self-awareness and connection with a caring, attuned other (i.e. partner, therapist, friend) these patterns shift and change...but not without effort.

By the way, this might be the time to consider ...

online therapy

How to change a procedure.

The most difficult, and unlikely thing, for most people to do when they are in the midst of feeling overwhelmed by the possibility of closeness, is to actually move closer. Everything in their being tells them not to. Yikes! Yikes!

But, this is exactly what it takes to undo a procedure...doing something differently when your gut screams at you to do the opposite. Yet, by doing so, new connections in the brain are being created. And, each successive attempt makes it that much easier.

It doesn't necessarily mean jumping wholeheartedly into the arms of your partner (unless of course you want to!). You can take baby steps.

Everything in its own time...

Of course, there's much more to say on this subject (e.g. how being emotionally distant shows up in the work with your therapist). Maybe you have some thoughts of your own... I'd be interested to hear.

And, let me know if you run into instances of emotional distancing in any movies. I recognized it in one movie:

Check for emotional distancing in the movie 'In Her Shoes' in the Screening Room.

Reviewed by: Coquitlam Counsellor Dr. Carole Gaato

References

Lerner, Harriet G. (1989). The Dance of Intimacy. New York: Harper & Row.

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Reader Comments

Natalie (UK)

Hi Shrinklady, I have been seeing a councillor for about a month in an attempt to work through some of the issue that I have but I still feel a need for some answers. My husband and I have been together for over ten years and married for nearly two, our relationship has always been good.

If ever I felt insecure or vulnerable I would always go to him and just him putting his arms around me and me knowing he was there made me feel better. Lately however this hasnít been the case. Our getting married wasnít the smoothest of affairs; my husband is in the armed forces and was being posted, this coupled with my desire to go back into education meant we had to make a swift decision.

Between falling out with my sister (we have always had a turbulent relationship) and my mum a) dealing with her own mother dying (they didnít have a particularly good relationship) and b) her feeling stuck in the middle of my sister and myself c) she also felt like I had cut out of my wedding arrangements. Perhaps I did but that wasnít my intention, throughout all of the organising she never once expressed any interest or a desire to be involved. I donít recall her congratulating us either. Throughout all the emotional trauma of feeling completely abandoned and misunderstood my husband was my rock, I never once doubted that we shouldnít be getting married or my love for him.

Despite that I was very aware that he didnít understand why I was so upset with my family, nor could he see the importance of their support to me. Nearly two years on and everyone but me seems to have put it all behind them and just moved on, but I donít seem to be able. It all still hurts and I feel very confused.

I have always been there for my family regardless and never once offered them my opinion or judgement on something they have done even if I have disagreed with it. I was the only one still at home when my mum ended a relationship and it turned violent, so I was the one who was there to support her and to just be there for her. I was the one who made her press charges and report it. When she asked me not to tell my sisters I didnít.

My wedding or peopleís behaviour isnít something that has been discussed and knowing our personalities I doubt it will ever be, not without people falling out all over again. My husband and I live a fair distance away from my family and his have immigrated abroad. The problem is since moving away I have begun to distance myself from him and the members of my family. I feel very nervous about spending any amount of time with family and have no idea what to expect in terms of treatment. To all outward appearances I seem myself but it is all a show on my part, I donít feel any amusement or happiness or joy. I just pretend that I do.

My main concern is that I distance myself from my husband, something I have never done before and donít understand why I am doing now. Sometimes I want desperately to be held for those old feelings of security and confidence to be felt again, but because when he does hold me I donít feel those things I wonít allow him to. Iím afraid that this means that I have fallen out of love with him, which greatly distresses me. I no longer talk about my feelings to my husband as the last time I tried he sounded angry told me everything with me was negative and he thought I liked to wallow in these feelings.

I want for things to be the way they were before with us, I want to understand why I am distancing myself from him and to stop doing it but I donít know how. I have never found it easy to talk about my feelings and have always tended to take care of things by myself and have been doing this since my parents split at 9. It was a bad split and I havenít seen or spoke to my father in over fifteen years.

Natalie

Well Natalie, if you've always found it hard to express your feelings, you've certainly taken a good stab at it here with your post. You've bared your soul - something not everyone can do. I want to thank-you as I know others who will read this may find comfort in the knowledge that they too are not alone.

It seems the discord in your family has uprooted your safe place. It seems this is a time of transition for you. Is it possible that now is the time to start to care for you?

I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that you are no longer in love with your husband. It does sound that you are numb and possibly are suffering from depression. This means you won't feel much of anything. You might notice for instance, that you don't feel positive about things that used to bring you joy.

Your avoidance of intimacy is what you're naturally needing at this time and this is why you are pulling away. Pulling away needn't be about your love for your husband.

You see, intimacy requires quite a bit of energy and tends to make us feel flooded when the nervous system is compromised - hence the numbing feeling. Pulling back is the way the nervous system copes when it is "full".

What is required at this point, are calming experiences. Activities that calm the body, also calm the emotions. It can't be any other way as they are one and the same.

This doesn't mean you can't have some intimacy. In small doses, it is exactly what you need. In fact, it's the kind of healing that can propel you forward.

However, it's best that you explain where you're at to your husband and why you need to go slow with him. Otherwise, he'll won't understand this new behaviour on your part and he could easily take it personally.

This situation - if not corrected soon - could have ramifications to the future of your relationship.

I would caution you against making too many decisions or drawing hardfast conclusions about your family or your current circumstances. When the nervous system is dysregulated, our emotions tend to be less manageable and heighten our responses. It's like you don't have the usual buffer to move through emotions in a timely fashion.

I'm glad to hear you've started to see a counselor. In time, with his or her help, there is every reason to believe, your old way of being will return. In fact, if you keep up with your work, you may find yourself coping even better than before.

All the best,

Shrinklady


ellen (canada)

I have been in a relationship for a year and a half with a wonderful man. We share a tremendous amount in common and generally have a lot of fun together. Unfortunately, he engages in emotional distancing which was caused from a mother who was never there for her children due to mental illness and a father who was absent quite frequently.

My partner is now seeking therapy for this problem. I didn't always know about this problem and neither did he. For the first half of the relationship I blamed myself for his emotional distancing. Every time he emotionally distanced, I thought I was doing something wrong and would try to change things to bring him closer again. Over time, I started to feel resentment. I was giving, changing, enduring, contorting doing whatever I could to bring him closer and when he would again push me away, I would get very hurt.

When I started to realize that he had this problem, I would still have expectations that he could be strong enough to change the behaviour and when he couldn't give or couldn't try, I would react badly. Now we are at the crossroads where I recognize that my reaction doesn't help him, it does the opposite so I cannot react to his emotional distancing and emotional absence. Unfortunately for me as the partner, I start to draw back, I start to emotionally distance, I start to give less.

What I am expressing, is that it is very, very hard to constantly be the giver of emotions without reciprocation and even harder when the response is a push back. The worst of all, is having the person draw you close for a short period of time (heaven) and then be far, far away and cold, shortly thereafter (hell).

I really agree that therapy is the best place for change to happen...meanwhile I am losing myself in this relationship while the problem still exists and wondered what would be the best role for me to play? Do I leave the relationship, end contact and let him 'get fixed' as he puts it? Do I become a friend and stop the relationship part? I'd like to stay in the relationship but I just don't think I can take the push and pull effect anymore, every time it happens now, I lose a bit of myself. Yet I don't want to abandon a person who wants me to stay and whom i care about deeply. What do i do? We are not spring chickens...he is 48 and i am 42.

Ellen

Thank-you so much Ellen for your detailed post. Your situation describes precisely the kind of 'to-ing and fro-ing' that gets couples into trouble and precarious positions. Nonetheless, I feel quite hopeful. That your partner has begun therapy is an obvious good sign. I truly believe there is a way to overcome this dynamic and create a relationship that has the potential for even more joyfulness.

The two of you have already taken the first step - making the problem known. It is important that the conversation continues and that the two of you create a non-judging, compassionate space for how you both navigate these times. Keep yourselves curious of your own and each others' behaviours and emotional reactions. Take time to reflect back on recent periods when you're both able to talk about it and connect at the same time.

You might ask him for instance, "was there anything that I could have said to make it easier for you to communicate with me?". Perhaps discuss the idea of having a symbolic gesture that lets him communicate to you that he still cares about you but he needs space (oftentimes words are too hard to form when we're in the middle of being triggered). Maybe you have a symbol from an anniversary that you both share and that he could leave out in an obvious place. This might help you to move through this period with less discomfort.

In time, with his own work and these conversations, he will hopefully become more aware of his triggers and be better able to verbalize what he needs more openly.

It is important that he eventually learns to initiate intimacy with you as he comes out of his withdrawal state. Don't allow the situation to evolve that you're the one who is constantly initiating opportunities for intimacy. Your partner needs to learn to do his part.

It is important to understand that when he withdraws, it is likely he is being flooded by emotions related to his early life. If his caretaking was intrusive, your efforts to pull him back to you will only add to his angst. In these states, the brain - ever the conservation organ - will compel him to avoid intimacy as it will only increase his activation. Giving him space, allows his nervous system to settle enough so that he can approach you.

And by the way, giving him space doesn't necessarily mean no communication. It means conversing at a friendly albeit less intimate way. Continue the practicalities of your life. Don't take offense if he decides not to attend events you've planned together. But expect the same as you would of anyone close to you. That is, that he is accountable and respects you and your time.

It's wonderful that you have learned that his actions are less about you and more about his story. However, I can appreciate that knowing this doesn't take the pain away.

I wonder if a part of you cannot "hold" his love while he is emotionally disconnected. Moreover, is it possible that his actions trigger some abandonment fears of your own?

As you may anticipate, doing your own therapy might prove beneficial for you too. At the very least, it would help you feel less shaky when you're feeling the "push and pull".

I hope it works out for the both of you,

Shrinklady


Chad (Saskatchewan, Canada)

I have been in a relationship with a wonderful woman for the past few months. Things started out great and then, as we became closer, I noticed a "barrier". That is the only way to describe it. It has affected us in many ways including any kind of intimacy.

We have discussed how we feel alot. And I have noticed a pattern from what she has said and also from her actions. She has said that she has the same problem in each relationship she has had. Where her partner feels like she can not show any emotion. Or she loses all interest in the relationship and ends it. She has said that she has always ended the relationships.

She has told me about her past life to a certain point. Father has left when she was young. No long term relationships. And the idea that no matter what she does it will inevitably end anyways so why try. She struggles with the idea that no one really listens to her. And admitted that she has stayed in "bad" relationships to just feel wanted.

I am a very patient man. So I have been told. I don't pry into how she feels without her consent. I don't pressure for intimacy when I know she is not there. I try to reassure her that I am going no where. Although I do feel like ending it I realize that I would be missing someone very special in my life.

My concern is for what I should do. I want to help in every way. Not just listening, which I make a point of doing, but trying to understand how she is feeling. Other then patience, is there anything else I can do? I am happy to report that she is seeking therapy as i write this.

Thank you for this wonderful website. I have found it to be very beneficial in understanding what I might be up against.

Chad

Thanks Chad and I'm very sorry for the delay in responding to your question. I have no excuse - I'm clearly not as organized as I want to be and I missed this one. Feel free to let us know how you're making out and I will respond more quickly.

It was good to hear that your partner has entered therapy. One of the benefits of good therapy is that it helps folks to disclose their feelings more easily. I certainly hope that this is occurring in your relationships now.

It's great to hear that the problem has been talked about. I would encourage both of you† to keep the conversation going - discuss previous times of disconnections and withdrawals. Find better ways of understanding and connecting with each other. For example, after a period of withdrawal, open the conversation to explore ways that some of your needs might have been met while she was emotionally "away".

Initially, these may be small gestures on her part that she is able to do. She may for instance, be able to commit to a dinner out in a week's time. These special dinners at a favourite restaurant are just for the two of you. She knows you're giving her space until then and you have hopefully an assurance of her being emotionally present at that time.

Check in with her to see if there is anything you could have said to make it easier for her to return. Sometimes in hindsight, there are little discoveries that you could use the next time. For instance, leaving her at home while you went out with friends for the evening might have given her space. It's sometimes nice to have the whole place to yourself when you're feeling out of sorts (alone time is good for all relationships).

It's important for you to get your needs met as well. What do you need now that she is back and available emotionally? Is there something special that you would need of her?

Might I also suggest that there's some emotional work to be done on both sides. It think it's no accident that we find ourselves drawn to those who can help us heal (Harville Hendrix has done an amazing job of explaining this). And, if your partner starts to benefit from her therapy, it's almost a certainty you will need to change as well in ways you might not have anticipated.

You mentioned that folks have described you as a "patient" man. It's this "patience" that has helped your partner to see that the current problem originates in her. Because you didn't take on the problem (i.e. blaming her, arguing about it) she was able to clearly see the pattern. Other partners may have gotten into tussels about it, thereby confusing the situation for her (in essence, they become the problem).

Be careful that this "patience" doesn't get translated to never expressing your needs. As your partner grows you most certainly will be called upon to express your desire for emotional connection.

The growth of a relationship is not a linear process. There will be miss fires and reunions. There will be times when you need her and she overcomes her fears to be there and other times she cannot. Similarly, she may need you sometimes and you won't be there for her. The challenge is to navigate these times being respectful of both your needs.

Eventually, with effort both of you will be emotionally available to each other on an ongoing basis.

All the best,

Shrinklady


Kay (San Diego)

I am quickly realizing that I emotionally distance myself in my relationships when I feel I have been emotionally abandoned. I understand that in order to reconnect with the person I have to trust them, which is the hard part.

Finding a way to trust someone who has hurt me never seemed like a difficult thing to do until I started to take a hard look at how I responded to growing up with an abusive step-father and absent biological father. In distancing myself, I thought I was shielding myself from the pain. Where as I now know I was still feeling the sting, I am having a hard time figuring out how to reconnect with my husband.

We were married for 2 months before I moved away 6 months for a career opportunity. Granted before we married, I realized he was more shut off and quieter than most men. Some of this seemed safer to me. He rarely told me he loved me until recently when we discussed what it is that I need in order to feel loved. He is working hard on his half of things and I am trying to work hard on mine but I feel a bit at a loss.

Much of my career will be spent on the road and time apart will occur again and again. In this case, when I felt emotionally abandoned by my husband during our time apart, I was also spending time with a friend whom was very much the opposite of my husband. He was very gregarious, warm, affectionate. Now I realize that not only did I distance myself from my husband as a way to shield myself from getting hurt anymore, but I distanced myself because I fell in love with my friend. I understand that I have compounded an already difficult problem.

Now while my husband and I are living in the same house, is there any way to re-connect with and fall back in love with my husband. I understand that I also have a lot of work to do with a therapist in figuring out how to avoid reacting to pain by distancing myself from the person.

Kay

Thank-you Kay for sharing so honestly. I certainly believe it's possible to fall back in love with your husband, particularly as you both seem motivated to work on your own issues. I believe some of the best marriages are ones where both partners persevere and challenge themselves to grow.

Yes, learning to trust another takes time and it certainly will require some risk on both your parts. It's okay by the way to take baby steps, in fact, we ultimately do.

When we shut ourselves off from our pain, it inevitably prevents true connections with others. And, if our emotional patterning is not addressed, the deeper our feelings run, the more likely we are to blunt them. Sadly, we may end up not feeling anything for our partner and assume he or she wasn't the right person.

It's no accident how we choose our marriage partners. For example, it's very interesting that you chose each other. Each of you would likely understand the need for emotional distance. I could imagine for instance, there might have been a time when there was an unspoken collusion between you: "I won't challenge you to be close to me, if you don't mind me being distanced with you." But as you learned, this can only last so long...the need for true connection is a strong human desire.

I would guess that the feelings that surfaced for your friend were, in part, a function of the relationship being "safe" i.e. he was unavailable as you were already partnered.

These types of relationships can often give rise to intense feelings that you might find hard to develop in a committed relationship unless of course, you worked through the emotional issues holding you back. Be careful though, the feelings you have for your friend can easily get confused with the giddy experience of finally having some feelings for someone.

It's probably already crossed your mind that there might be a connection between the career you chose (i.e. that necessitated so much travel) and the difficulties you face in being emotional present in your relationships. You may discover that as your healing continues you have less tolerance for spending so much time away from your husband.

I hope your therapy goes well and I wish you and your husband all the best,

Shrinklady


Brittani (USA)

I'm a 24 year old single mother of one with, as I'm coming to find out, has abandonment issues as well as emotional distancing. Here is my background...

My parents were divorced when I was a young toddler approx around the age of 2. My father was never really around, my older brother and I were treated more as conveniences for him than as his children. My mother had several men in and out of her life most of which she terminated the relationship for reasons unknown to me. I was molested at the age of 8 and then again later in my life by my grandfather who is now in prison. Ok, so that sums up my childhood etc.

I am currently in a relationship and starting to realize that I have some things that are controlling the outcome of my relationship. My boyfriend is very caring, independent, passionate, loving, trustworthy, a man's man really.

I have a tendency to try and control a relationship from the inside out and have always been the one to end them. He is the first person I have been with who does not allow me to do this. He stands on his own two feet and I have fallen dearly for him. With that said I still have this demon on my shoulder who seems to come peeking out every once in a while. I begin to get insecure and needy and feel as though he's going to suddenly not want to be with me. I get upset about something and bottle it up in fear that telling him Im upset will send him packing. I see definite potential for the long term with this person and am needing to know how to stop the cycle.

As well, as I have a son who I do not want to inflict this type of behavior on as well. I am looking into seeing a counselor so that I can work on these issues, but any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Brittani

Thank-you Brittani for sharing your story. I must apologize for my delayed response. I don't think it was just that "I forgot" about your post. (In fact, I've been pondering on it for some time.) As I sit down to respond to you, I'm feeling some of my own stuff. I think something in your post is churning up some personal things for me. So, doubly thanks for being patient even if you're weren't consciously aware of being so.

Right off--and I'm sure you already know this--I want to emphasize how your early attachment patterns are going to reveal themselves in your relationships with significant others. These are powerful survival-related patterns so they don't easily get changed through our intellect. In other words, my comments can only provide a little comfort. The real change must come from you in your personal work.

I do hope you decide to find a counselor. We can certainly heal through our relationships but the therapeutic relationship with a counselor usually has less "fallout" and it's a safer place to rub up against our own (messy and otherwise) issues.
 
It's a wonderful feeling to love and feel loved by another person and I hope things work out with this man. It sounds like he catches you on your stuff. That's good. It'll be really hard at times though. It's scary as anything for someone in your position.

It's a given you will inevitably bump up against his stuff too. It's how the two of you navigate these junctures that foretells the potential for really strengthening the connection between the two of you.

One thing that jumped out for me is how hard it is for you to express your own needs and concerns. I could imagine, given your history, that it would be difficult. I suspect too much was going on for your Mom for you to get the kind of emotional care you needed. And, certainly in your case, your father's departure would have had an impact on you not to mention his inconsistent parenting after he left.

(This is not about judging your parents. Moms--and Dads--do what they can with what they have. They also need a heck of a lot more support than what they get these days. The kids that parents raise will grow up and support future generations. If we were really smart we'd see that families are a huge resource for everyone…but I digress.)

It's attuned care that teaches us to feel safe about expressing our needs without fear of being abandoned. This fear seems to be arising in your relationship. As you feel a need to express a concern or need, it triggers a fear of losing connection. The build up of feelings makes it harder and harder for you to make a move.

Brittani, it's pretty hard for us to open our hearts to feel love for one person, as you undoubtedly feel for your son, and then keep it closed somewhere else. As you become closer to your new partner, it's bound to trigger some powerful feelings of unmet needs and fears around loss of connection. They can wreak havoc on your relationships unless wrestled to the ground.

I won't beat around the bush. It will take effort for you to remain in a relationship. Your mother's pattern of leaving partners (she undoubtedly had her own history) and your fears will render you vulnerable to sabotaging successes with your partner. At times, you will probably have a strong urge to leave. As long as you love this man--and he in turn cares and loves you--I'd encourage you to keep working at it. You owe it to your son, your partner and most of all, yourself.

You also mentioned being sexually abused. Abuse can be devastating on our relationships and not just in the bedroom. Boundary violations deeply impact the development of character. They blur the lines of where our stuff meets with another's. In other words, communications can disintegrate as two people try to figure out whose feelings belong to whom? 

You know, our capacity to love is on a continuum. Not everyone benefits from what an open heart can give us. You see, an open heart allows us to truly appreciate beauty in all its forms. And, subsequently, the love for your son will expand to the degree that you face your fears in your relationship with this partner.

Strive to be a relational hero…someone who through great effort changes a historical family pattern. And, get the support you will need for this journey. It's so hard otherwise. We're often blinded to our own stuff and it takes the care of another person for us to finally get through it.

No one person is an expert on another. Keep this in mind as I may have brought my own stuff to bear on this post. As a woman in her fifties who has never married, I can say our stuff certainly impacts our lives.

All the best,

Shrinklady


Salty (Toronto, Canada)

I found your article most useful in addressing some of my own issues. I have severe abandonment issues that often result in emotional distancing. As a baby, my parents left me in the care of my grandparents and I didn't actually meet my parents until I was 4. At that time, they were physically there, but not emotionally and so it began ... I wasn't truly able to recognize the results of being left feeling 'unwanted' until my adulthood when I began forming or trying to form intimate relationships.

I noticed similar patterns of disinterest at the beginning and then gradually learning to let go as I began to trust more. Unfortunately, learning to trust leaves one in a very vulnerable state and I've never managed to get past the vulnerability and turning it into a successful healthy relationship. If I feel that I can no longer control my emotions and I find it overwhelming to deal with if loss occurs, I buy the first ticket out of the relationship train.

If that doesn't happen, I usually get broken-up with so I've learned to associate relationships, whether friendship or intimate, as relationships that will eventually end. I've adapted the attitude that nothing is permanent and while I appreciate change and long for it at certain moments of my life, a healthy relationship is something I'd like to experience more permanency in.

I've been in and out of relationships for over a decade now and despite recognizing the negative cycle I tend to immerse myself in when dealing with a new relationship, I still continue to do what I typically know how to do. It doesn't help that I've managed to trust all the wrong people, but having said that, is it progress that I even allowed myself to trust people, even if they aren't worthy of it?

It's a constant battle, trying to figure out who you can and can't trust. I think I'm getting better at it which makes it all the harder to find a partner. I just hope I don't end up emotionally distancing myself from someone who's truly genuine. At the end of the day, I have to live with my decisions, whether they are a step in the right direction, or whether they pull me back a few steps. I just wanted to know if there were some emotional excercises one can do to help prevent these negative cycles from happening (other than therapy).

Is it possible to not let fear of abandonment wreak its havoc on a potentially good thing? What baby steps can be taken to consciously remove myself from that mentality as it appears to be a subconscious action that I'm not always aware of happening?

Or, is my fate in recovering from this soley dependent upon engaging in a healthy, trusting relationship? I'm hoping it's a combination of my being able to help myself and being able to find a trusting partner as I'd like to be able to deal with this issue on my own and not have to soley rely on someone else to determine my capability. I'd appreciate any feedback.

Salty

Thanks Salty for your comments. They so clearly describe the impact of early learning on our later relationships. Kudos for takng the risk here.

I got the impression that you want to figure out how to deal with relationship trauma all by yourself. In my experience, solitary emotional exercises do not heal a long standing abandonment pattern.

In other words, we learn in relationship and so we must unlearn in relationship. Or, as my friend, Dr. Carole says, "wounded in relationship, heal in relationship". I don't think the brain can do it in any other way.

I think reading self-help books and articles (like this one) can be helpful...they can assist us in getting us to a place of readiness for change and help us derive meaning from our experiences. This is an essential left brain approach and a good beginning.

But more is needed. The brain requires a right brain "emotional" approach to underwrite old attachment patterns. This means we need another nervous system (aka another person) in order to learn new relational patterns.

As I see it, we have two options. We can learn in relationship with others especially with a caring partner or, we can learn in relationship with a therapist. The problem with the former is that there is a greater risk for more harm as we are more vulnerable to reenacting familiar patterns and as such, it may take many, many years to learn to create a healthy relationship.

I think it's asking too much of anyone to try to undue these early patterns on their own. Leaving it up to fate to find a partner who won't leave or create more hardship is also pretty tough because we tend to choose partners who are inevitably much more of the same.

One thing about good therapists...they are consistently there. You can count on that. It's through being able to count on someone that your brain finally begins to learn when it's safe to let go.

That said, a good relationship is also helpful. And, as I have described briefly above in my article, taking small risks promotes healing. The connundrum you face in a relationship is that as you become closer and more emotionally invested, your brain will be pulling you away from it. The deeper the feelings, the more they trigger our earliest relationships. This "pulling you away" may show up in ways you have no conscious awareness of.

For instance, you may over time start to avoid eye contact. Or, you may suddenly shift the topic of discussion. There are hundreds of different ways we emotionally distance from each other. Only a small percentage of these behaviours would even break though your awareness...they are seamlessly introduced into the relationship with minimal conscious notice. Then one day, it is very apparent...but alas, it may be too late to save the relationship.

But you had asked what emotional exercises. The more body-based awareness you have the more you will recognize these relational patterns. Changing them requires awareness in the present moment and in knowing how to bring them to rest. This is a phenomenal feat even for an accomplished guru.

In the end, we can risk the hit and miss of life (most people take this route), or we can seek counseling (or other healers) for a more consistent approach and to get at these patterns where they are rooted.

Thanks again for your post Salty.

All the best,

Shrinklady

 


Brittni

I need some advice on somthing that I've never been able to ask anyone before...for some reason I just cant ever make myself ask the question.

I am depressed, so I understand that that is probably most of the cause for about 90% of my distancing from others. But I want to know about relationships. I can, like a boy, but have somehow over the years acquired the skill to be able to completely hide my feelings to the point where noone would ever know unless I tell them. Which is how I like it.

I dont like for my crush to know I feel that way about them. [Which I think was attributed to the fact that when I was younger, my best friend would tease me every single day about liking a boy, and literally every day. Its a secret until I tell her. The next day the entire school knew about it. I could never live it down....]

And when I find out someone likes me, I freak out and can't remember how to act normal around them anymore. [Same with when I like someone, minus the freaking out.]

But my question is about what happens when it gets to that point. Its like I'm not me anymore. When put in one of those situations, my body becomes its own and my mind shuts down, like I'm just running on instinct. I get nervous and franticly try to remove myself from the situation, and after the initial happening, avoid it at all costs in the future.

The relationship part comes in play here. I cant seem to get past having a crush on someone. Like I cant seem to be okay with people loving me in another way other than friendship. Its so hard to explain, but its so frustrating to live with..... It happens when people touch me too. Not all the time, there's certain things that dont bother me, but alot more that do. And its the same, my body moves itsself away without me thinking about it....I just need some possible enlightenment if you can give me any.....

Brittni

Hello Brittni, it sounds like relationships are like navigating an emotional minefield. It must be very confusing for you at times.

I'm so glad you raised this subject. Your post gives me a chance to talk about something I feel is so important and a topic that folks have little awareness of.

It helps to understand that our brain and nervous system are survival-fear-based. Most people don't realize this. It's because in our culture there are fewer things to be fearful about compared to centuries ago. For the most part survival is more predictable. (i.e. A woolly bear will not be attacking us any time soon!)

What's important to know for our discussion is that these fears can often get rooted in our relationships with others. They can show up in our friendships and with our partners...which makes what happened between you and your friend all the more agonizing.

That is, when we're born, like other mammals, we look to our mothers (or fathers) for safety and security. During this period of time we are biologically vulnerable and totally dependent. If this early relationship is fraught with insecurity, then this is what we learn...relationships are scary. Later as adults, when we try to feel close to someone, these old memories get triggered.

Now here's the important part.

Anytime our fears are aroused, whether they are relationally based or triggered by something in our environment, the old reptilian brain kicks in. The reptilian brain, you may recall, is like that protective part of the brain that tries to keep us out of danger. If your head suddenly ducks when a ball goes flying by, it was the reptilian brain that took over.

The reptilian brain manages the fight, flight and freeze responses.

When in danger human beings will fight or flight. Fleeing is the optimal choice but if that's not possible we will fight. If we can do neither, the body will choose the freeze response.

As you find yourself having strong feelings those early fears will get triggered. When they are literally too much for you to bear, the reptilian brain will take over...and you'll start running (i.e. the flight response). In fact, you'll be running even before your mind knows what's happening!

Here's how therapy fits in.

In therapy, you can learn to feel your feelings in the company of another and in little bits at a time. Your body will slowly learn to change how you manage different emotional states and subsequently, how you respond to friends and partners.

The one thing that's important to understand and that is you can't directly--very easily in any case--communicate with the reptilian brain. It does not register words. It can however recognize body-based signals...like a soothing tone of voice. The safety of a therapy relationship provides an excellent learning environment for your reptilian brain.

You see, we need attunement with another human being to create change in the brain. Attunement as you may recall, is that feeling we have when someone really "gets" us. He or she is in tune with us and our needs in the moment. It's that kind of connection that lights up centers in the brain and makes change possible. This is what good therapy offers.

Without attunement the nervous system doesn't have enough new experiences to learn from. In terms of your question, it can't disentangle excitement from danger. And so you might experience the frustration of having a positive feeling towards someone and becoming terrified.

Suddenly, in the moment, you are not you anymore. You are in survival mode and literally running "out of the park".

There's lots to be said about depression but here are a few words. Unless your nervous system learns to better regulate these distressing emotional states, you will be prone to depression.

The good news is, in relationship with a caring therapist, your body can learn to regulate both positive and negative emotions.

I hopes this helps and I wish you well on your journey, Brittni,

Shrinklady


Robyn

That was actually a very illuminating article. I always find myself emotionally distancing myself at the beginning of relationships to the point where I feel like I don't have feelings for that person anymore. Of course, this eventually subsides.

Is that still emotional distancing? And is there a reason why some people experience that sort of reaction to emotional closeness and others don't? As in, is it just people feeling things differently, or are there historical and personality traits/habits of those who are emotional distancers?

Robyn

Thanks for your comment Robyn. Yes, being distant at the beginning of relationships is emotional distancing. It's a way for you to keep your emotions in check until you feel safe to feel them. (In other words, your brain is constantly assessing the situation by asking, can I trust this person?)

As I mentioned above we replay our history in our present relationships unless we've resolved those issues. And people will respond in relationships differently based on their attachment history (with a strong emphasis on their infancy where these patterns are learned) and their level of activation.

If our level of activation is high we have less resiliency against our issues. Our level of activation arises from the reptilian brain. We develop our capacity to manage activation in infancy but it is also influenced by others around us and our history of trauma (including physical traumas that most people wouldn't even think of as a trauma e.g. painful dental treatments, surgeries, falls etc).

I have moved away from thinking of personality traits (i.e. something that's permanent) as I have learned as a therapist that many aspects of ourselves that we feel are "that's just who I am" are actually early learned coping mechanisms that haven't been unlearned. This isn't to say there aren't personality traits but what you've been describing sounds much more about how people cope in order to stay safe and connected.

Thanks for coming to the site,
Shrinklady


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Ahh...you guys are full of beans. Therapy can't make a difference.