Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

“Sometimes our most intimate space is in the distance between us.”

This is a statement that came out of my mouth with clients not too long ago as we were starting to look at some of the inherent complications that arise when couples become too tightly fused to each other in their quest to build security, trust, comfort into their intimate attachment. I still encounter with terrifying frequency–as much inside the counselling office as outside in cultural mores and media messaging–that we require partnerships to somehow “complete” us. That the height of romantic entanglement is a state in which “I don’t know where I end and you begin”.

Personally, I used to love that enmeshment state of New Relationship Energy. If I’m being honest with myself, I still do. However, I now *ALSO* recognize it as the breeding ground for some exceptionally, enormously-unrealistic, and potentially destructive beliefs and entitlements around boundaries… and the inevitable boundary violations that occur when one is unconscious of, or inconsistent in defending, effective boundaries around their emotional and psychological well-being. Coincidentally, this statement came about a scant 24 hours before I started reading Esther Perel’s “Mating in Captivity” for the first time, a book I’ve been intending to read since it came out in 2006 (her second book, “State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity” has also been sitting on my To Be Read pile since *IT* debuted a year ago).

When the universe starts handing me these kinds of seemingly-disparate nuggets, it’s because it wants me to connect the dots on something. So as I am getting into the Esther Perel reading, and watching the ever-amazing Jada Pinkett-Smith discuss her marriage to actor Will Smith in a two-part installment of her web series, “Red Table Talks” (part one is here, part two is here), I’m coming to realize we’re on the brink of a potentially large shift about how we view and pursue intimacy.

Murray Bowen, the father of Family Systems Theory, discusses at length the value of healthy differentiation of Self when any individual within a system finds ways to create space and autonomy within the system by changing how they participate around new, more effective boundaries. In discussing his scale for differentiating Self, he writes,

“This scale is an effort to classify all levels of human functioning, from lowest possible levels to the highest potential level, on a single dimension… It has nothing to do with emotional health or illness or pathology. There are people low on the scale who keep their lives in equilibrium without…symptoms, and there are some higher on the scale who develop symptoms under severe stress… The scale has no correlation with intelligence or socioeconomic levels… The greater the degree of undifferentiation (no-self), the greater the emotional fusion into a common self with others (undifferentiated ego mass). Fusion in the context of a personal or shared relationship with others and it reaches its greatest intensity in the emotional interdependency of marriage.” Murray Bowen, “Family Therapy in Clinical Practice,” New Jersey, 1978, p. 472 [emphasis mine]

This fusion within a relational system takes many forms; looking through an attachment lens, one of the most common dynamics of fusion is the distancer-pursuer dynamic of an anxious-secure or anxious-anxious attachment pair. There is a sense of anxiety when an individual transfers from one system (such as a family of origin) to an intimate relational system. Even if the originating system is busted and dysfunctional, there is a familiarity in certain types of connections that provide comfort and security a la “the Devil we know”. Unsurprisingly, we’ll try to recreate the same sense of closeness and familiarity in our intimate relationships, sometimes employing the same kinds of bonding mechanisms learned in the family of origin. If our bonding attempts are uncomfortable to our partner, the partner withdraws or tries to set up new boundaries around engagement… setting the anxious partner into a spiral that can only be resolved by trying to clutch harder to the separating partner.

The upshot of this “dance of connection” (as per Harriet Lerner’s term for this dynamic) is that modern love seeks to equate intimacy with fusion, the inseparable, potentially insufferable closeness that allows for absolutely no distance between us. There is nothing allowed to be unknown, because in the unknown lies uncertainty, and that is intolerable. We substitute comfort and safety for passion and excitement, then wonder why our relationships over the long term start to feel as provocative and sexy as a pair of worn and comfortable socks. Where has the excitement gone? Where has the playful eroticism that made the early era of the relationship so delicious, gone? How do we get that back??

This is where the Esther Perel reading comes into play. Her contention through “Mating in Captivity” is that in generating these states of fusion, exchanging uncertainty and insecurity for a state of entitlement and absolute entanglement on every level, we destroy the very environment that passion and eroticism require in which to live and flourish:

“The mandate of intimacy, when taken too far, can resemble coercion. In my own work, I see couples who no longer wait for an invitation into their partner’s interiority, but instead demand admittance, as if they are entitled to unrestricted access into the private thoughts of their loved ones. Intimacy becomes intrusion rather than closeness–intimacy with an injunction. […]

“Some couples take this one step further, confusing intimacy with control. What passes for care is actually covert surveillance… This kind of interrogation feigns closeness and confuses insignificant details with a deeper sense of knowledge. I am often amazed at how couples can be up on the minute details of each other’s lives, but haven’t had a meaningful conversation in years. In fact, such transparency can often spell the end of curiosity. It’s as if this stream of questions replaces more thoughtful ans authentically interesting inquiry.
“When the impulse to share become obligatory, when personal boundaries are no longer respected, when only the shared space of togetherness is acknowledged and the private space is denied, fusion replaces intimacy and possession co-opts love. Deprived of enigma, intimacy becomes cruel when it excludes any possibility of discovery. Where there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek.” (Esther Perel, “Mating in Captivity”, New York 2006, p. 43-4)

“Yet in our efforts to establish intimacy we often seek to eliminate otherness, thereby precluding the space necessary for desire to flourish. We seek intimacy to protect ourselves from feeling alone; and yet, creating the distance essential to eroticism means stepping back from the comfort of our partner and feeling more alone.
“I suggest that our inability to tolerate our separateness–and the fundamental insecurity it engenders–is a precondition for maintaining interest and desire in a relationship. Instead of always striving for closeness, I argue that couples may be better off cultivating their separate selves…There is beauty in an image that highlights a connection to oneself , rather than a distance from one’s partner. In our mutual intimacy we make love, we have children, and we share physical space and interests. Indeed, we blend the essential parts of our lives. But “essential” does not mean “all.” Personal intimacy demarcates a private zone, one that requires tolerance and respect. It is a space–physical, emotional, intellectual–that belongs only to me. […]
“Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected. Love is about having; desire is about wanting… But too often, as couples settle into the comforts of love, they cease to fan the flame of desire. They forget that fire needs air.” (p. 36-7)

It’s interesting to watch couples react to the concept of INCREASING the distance between them at a time when their instincts (for at least ONE of them) are screaming, “NOOOOOOOOOOO, WE MUST BE EVEN CLOSER THEN EVER BEFORE TO FIX ALL OUR INTIMACY PROBLEMS! I MUST BE ALL UP IN YOUR BUSINESS AND HAVE YOU SHOW ME YOU WANT TO BE ALL UP IN MINE!!!”

And, of course, this never works.

Whether it’s the unrealistic expectation of a reciprocal desire to live inside each other’s heads 24/7, or the unrealistic expectation of a reciprocal definition of privacy boundaries (which, BTW, are PERFECTLY NORMAL and HEALTHY things to have in *healthy* relationships), or whether we have different expectations for how this eternal fusion actually looks on a day-to-day basis, or one partner breaks down and flees in the night with a desperate cry of, “JUST GIVE ME SOME FUCKING SPACE, WILL YOU??!?”— I really cannot begin to count all the ways in which the insatiable need for fusion as a substitute for legitimate intimacy fails us at each and every turn.

When we smother ourselves, our relationships, our partners out of a fear of the distance, we lose the distinct entities we were when we ignited the energy initially bringing us together. Perel’s stance is that in pursuing security and comfort, we sacrifice passion and eroticism by deny the space required to maintain a degree of mystery and uncertainty. Anxious attachments cannot settle and become secure without eradicating all uncertainties, without seizing the seams and trying to seal all perceived rifts by force of will… until “secure and comfortable” becomes “stabilized… and boring”.

(And before anyone asks, yes, this happens in poly relationships, too; it’s not a question of how MANY partners you have, but what your own attachment style in any of those relationships typically looks like, or how security/anxiety responses get activated.)

So, consider this: smothering a fire with a blanket puts the flames out. On the one hand, that keeps you safe, but on the other hand, you’ve lost a source of heat and light that might have been serving a valuable purpose to those enjoying it. The question is, did you put out the fire because you were afraid it would consume you and everything you love if you didn’t? Could you learn to tolerate the fear if it meant being able to sustainably (non-destructively) enjoy the heat and light that the fire brings? We can have distance, and space, and air, and fire, and heat, and passion… without burning the house down.

But it takes rethinking how we define and pursue intimacy to do it.

Relationships, Uncategorized

Dr Harriet Lerner, author of several wonderful books about relational dynamics, describes the intricate movements toward, and away from, the intensity of intimacy (especially in the sense of emotional vulnerability) as a dance. This dance is based in the idea that the closer we get to letting a partner in to seeing what we feel are our “true selves”, the more we inadvertently activate emotional defenses around our growing discomfort, potentially stalling out or actively driving away attempts at the very intimacy and connection most humans crave.

This push-me-pull-you dynamic is also sometimes illustrated by the hedgehog’s dilemma:

Both Arthur Schopenhauer and Sigmund Freud have used this situation to describe what they feel is the state of the individual in relation to others in society. The hedgehog’s dilemma suggests that despite goodwill, human intimacy cannot occur without substantial mutual harm, and what results is cautious behavior and weak relationships. With the hedgehog’s dilemma, one is recommended to use moderation in affairs with others both because of self-interest, as well as out of consideration for others.

The fundamental dynamic of the hedgehog’s dilemma is based in how we attract and repel people. Lerner terms this a “distancer-pursuer” dynamic in which we begin by pursuing connection through a courtship phase, then begin to seek some separation and space once we hit too much togetherness, or too-intimate a closeness–either way, it’s generally perceived as being “too much” for us, so we push off from our partners. Sometimes this happens simultaneously, but more often than not, one person’s tolerance for intimacy and closeness tops out before the other’s does, and only one partner starts to move towards more space.

When we look at this through attachment dynamics, the push-off of the distance-seeker can often trigger insecurity in the attachment structure, and the one who is insecure or anxious in the attachment will begin to grasp or cling in an attempt to draw the retreating partner back into connection. The grasping increases intensity for the one who is already potentially in retreat, so the retreating continues until the pursuer “gives up” and stops their efforts. Often this creates a turnabout in the relational dynamic: even if the distancer is feeling overwrought by the pursuit, there is some validation in that dynamic that proves the pursuing partner is still engaged, still focused, still available and desiring interaction (of ANY kind, not always the GOOD kind, in the sense of “bad engagement is better than NO engagement”). So when the pursuit simply STOPS, the distancer may suddenly become the anxious partner trying to re-engage a disengaged one. (This is where we will sometimes see Wexler’s broken mirror syndrome come into play as one partner “acts out” in attempts to entice or manipulate a no-longer-reflective surface back into alignment in their perspective).

This dynamic can repeat throughout the lifespan of relationships, and the roles can reverse many times.

“A partner with pursuing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving toward the other. They seek communication, discussion, togetherness, and expression. They are urgent in their efforts to fix what they think is wrong. They are anxious about the distance their partner has created and take it personally.

They criticize their partner for being emotionally unavailable. They believe they have superior values. If they fail to connect, they will collapse into a cold, detached state. They are labeled needy, demanding, and nagging.

A partner with distancing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving away from the other. They want physical and emotional distance. They have difficulty with vulnerability.

They respond to their anxiety by retreating into other activities to distract themselves. They see themselves as private and self-reliant. They are most approachable when they don’t feel pressured, pushed, or pursued. They are labeled unavailable, withholding, and shut down.”


“In her study of 1,400 divorced individuals over 30 years, E. Mavis Hetherington found that couples who were stuck in this mode were at the highest risk for divorce. Researcher Dr. John Gottman also noted that this destructive pattern is an extremely common cause of divorce. He claims that if left unresolved, the pursuer-distancer pattern will continue into a second marriage and subsequent intimate relationships.” — Steve Horsmon, for The Gottman Institute, March 6, 2017

Stepping outside of this dynamic can be difficult when we consider the underlying anxieties, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to let go of them. Distancers often maintain their status quo stance for long terms if the pressure of pursuit is persistent or constant, or once the pursuer’s anger becomes part of the equation; therefore the first order of business is generally finding ways to de-escalate and secure the pursuer. This effort comes with a warning to the pursuers, however: pursuers are likely to leave the relationship, seemingly abruptly, after exhausting efforts to maintain the pursuit against defensive distancing. Lerner writes extensively about working with distancers to find ways of relearning how to “turn toward” their partners, rather than turning away, while training pursuers to relax and trust that there is something true in the old adage that, “If you love something, set it free.” Attachment theory frames this in the context of working around the anxieties and intensity tolerances present in the relationship. Gottman addresses the way in which this dynamic opens the door to the Four Horsemen: Contempt, Criticism, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling (Distancing). Emotionally-focused Therapy would consider this from the angle of articulating and exploring these underlying fears with as much nonjudgmental curiosity and receptivity as possible.

Changes must be driven by a desire to be a better partner, not to get some instant result or reciprocation. Pursuers are known for being outcome dependent and have a hard time making changes without expectations. Distancers are known for being stubborn and have difficulty making the first move when under pressure.” — [ibid.]

Rebuilding trust and security in the face of long-term distancer-pursuer dynamics requires commitment to understanding and trusting the potential for intimacy, and practicing vulnerability in the face of our own discomfort with intensity tolerance. When I ask couples on intake whether they’re in my office for “relationship counselling or relationship cancelling”, this is often the work that we as therapists are asking them to undertake. It’s not an easy thing to (re-)establish that trust and build security into the attachments, but oh-so-wonderful when we see clients expanding their tolerances and shifting those comfort boundaries to let their partners (back) into those intimate connections.