Understanding Distancing

One of the most common complaints we get during our intake calls is the following: “My partner doesn’t communicate with me.”

Which is interesting, for one, because we’re always communicating. I could be silently sitting in the corner of the room with my back turned to you, and I’m communicating that I’m upset, or that I don’t want to talk to you.

More importantly, this sentiment gives us an early clue to a pattern that might be happening in your relationship, involving one partner distancing from the other over the course of an interaction. “What might this be about?” you wonder, often very loudly, as you attempt to put a halt to the distancing of your partner, usually leading, ironically, to more distancing.

Many have adapted John Bowlby’s attachment theory, describing the ways that children connect and create security with loved ones, to adult relationships. An adult with an insecure attachment will either anxiously pursue and cling to their partner or avoid intimacy altogether, often by appearing independent and self-sufficient or critical, either of themselves, their partner, or the world at large. Distancing, it turns out, is a survival strategy.

Distancing also seldom happens in isolation. Distancing is often a response to a perceived (or actualized) criticism, judgment, or form of overfunctioning.

John Gottman, an expert on couples therapy, writes about four negative couple interactions, what he calls “The Four Horsemen”. Gottman first describes criticism and defensiveness, an interactional pairing where one partner blames or judges the other for something, leaving the other with only one response: Defense.

Let’s say that you’re trying to wash the dishes and you’re upset that your partner didn’t help. You lash out to your partner, “You never help me with the dishes.” Just for good measure, you tack on the phrase, “I can’t trust you for anything.”

These are criticisms, attacks of your partner’s character. Your partner’s response isn’t going to be about the dishes; it’s a defense of his/her character and criticism’s claim of his/her apparent untrustworthiness. Your partner reminds you, with a moderate hint of frustration in his/her voice, of the things they do around the home, or perhaps of times when you’re less than reliable. You defend your position.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Most couples have occasional interactions like this, but some couples slip into criticism/defend with quite a bit of ease. The back-and-forths become more intense, more caustic, more habitual. Partners tend to adapt to these interactions in certain ways. You may begin to assume and say hurtful things about your partner and become quicker to anger when your partner doesn’t reciprocate.

Or perhaps you may begin to avoid intimacy and verbal communication with your partner, which leads to comments like “My partner doesn’t communicate with me.”

John Gottman uses the term stonewalling to capture patterns of avoidance, withdrawal, and shutting down.

If you see this pattern in your relationship, take a step back and observe how criticism and defensiveness happen in your relationship. Criticism and defensiveness are failed attempts to get a need met–ask yourself what that need is, and try and find a more productive, safer way to share that with your partner.

It may be useful to have a third party help your relationship. Our licensed couples therapists will facilitate a safe space for you to work criticism and defensiveness out of your process and incorporate practices of positivity, vulnerability, and intimacy.

Call us at 617-750-0183 or schedule an appointment online.