Paradox of Closeness and Distance
Sometimes closeness and distance feel like opposites, but they are really two sides of the same coin! We do not experience closeness without some distance and we do not allow for distance without some closeness. If you can grasp this concept, then you are well on your way to having a more stable relationship.
This idea is based upon my knowledge of attachment theory, emotionally focused couples therapy, and the patterns I have observed while working with a variety of couples. Attachment theory basically says that we are a social species and, from the time we are born, we need care from other people in order to survive. In other words, connection is a need. When someone reaches for connection and is unable to receive it, then they may resort to all types of destructive behaviors, much like a child crying/screaming, in order to get some form of care. However, as an adult, these destructive behaviors tend to push people further away and can result in the relationship feeling/becoming volatile, chaotic, manipulative, or abusive.
Closeness Seeking or Distance Seeking
When classifying behaviors as “closeness seeking” or “distance seeking” we should ask ourselves what the person is needing or wanting most. As you read this list, you may notice that some of these behaviors stand out as preferable. This might lead you to think that we could just decide to respond in a better way and all our relationship problems would be solved. However, the preferable behaviors, such as talking about your feelings of being overwhelmed or aloneness, leave you the most vulnerable to your partner’s response. We use the lesser preferred behaviors when those are the behaviors that worked to get us care growing up, those are the behaviors that work to get us care in our present relationship, and/or it would be too risky or painful to be more vulnerable.
Asking for closeness/connection directly
Talking about feelings of aloneness/pain
Complaining about unmet closeness needs
Criticizing the way their partner distances
Acts of jealousy (asking lots of questions, going through your phone, etc.)
Throwing a fit
Asking for distance/space directly
Talking about feeling overwhelmed or being unable to support their partner
Complaining about unmet distance needs
Criticizing the way their partner reaches out/responds
Acts of intimidation (slamming their hand on the counter, yelling, etc.)
Storming out or stonewalling
Naturally, people move toward a balanced state of closeness and distance. We cannot have one without the other. For example, let’s say your partner is going out of town. If you feel connected or close to your partner, then their leaving or distancing will present as a smooth transition. You know that, even while your partner is away, they are somehow still with you.
If you feel disconnected from your partner and they are going on a trip, then you will likely make bids for connection. Perhaps you tell them you are feeling disconnected/concerned, and they respond by telling you that they will miss you and will call you every evening. If you can accept this type of care, then you experience a greater level of closeness/connection and things transition smoothly.
However, there are many ways this same situation could go dreadfully wrong. For example, your prior experience may tell you that being vulnerable is unsafe and, when your partner says they are leaving for a trip, you express your needs for connection in a destructive/unpreferable way. Your partner likely will respond with greater distance, and this confirms your original fears and aloneness.
These same concepts are true in reverse order where a person reaches out for care in a preferable way, but the other person experiences this a threatening, is too overwhelmed to hear it, or responds in a destructive/unpreferable way. If the person asking for care is unable to see this in their partner, then they naturally will be drawn to making further, perhaps destructive, bids for connection.
Historically, most of us would have survived by living in a group where multiple people could meet our needs if one person became temporarily unavailable. However, in today’s world, we tend to live in greater isolation with our spouse serving as our primary attachment figure. It can be incredibly painful if this significant person distances from the relationship or is unavailable. It can be equally painful if we need space for ourselves and our partner experiences that as threatening.
The most enduring, painful relationship problems, also known as attachment injuries, occur when one partner reaches out for care and the other partner responds with distance or confirms their pain. This is part of the negative interaction cycle that I am working on with a majority of my relational clients. It takes time, practice, and new experiences to see when your partner needs care, to reach for your partner when you need care in a way that they can hear, and to accept care or repair attempts when they are offered.