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Pulling at Your Distant Partner

Your partner seems to have a wall up to keep you out.  You miss him or her so you knock gently and ask to be let in.  You get a "no".  You explain why it's okay to let you in and still you get a "no".  Then you tell your partner how wrong s/he is for not letting you in and the wall gets thicker or your partner attacks back.  You back off for a while and then start the same cycle again.

I have seen this tragic cycle play out with numerous couples.  For the person behind the wall, your attempts to connect often get interpreted as criticism.  Thus, making it seem more necessary to keep a distance.  Then, in your frustration, you actually do begin to criticize.

Your pain of loneliness, imagined rejection, hurt, and a longing for intimacy, left unattended, turns to resentment and anger and fuels the cycle.  You can intervene in this cycle by first attending to your own feelings and needs.  Your willingness to feel what's true for you allows you to begin to accept what's happening rather than fight it by pulling at your partner.

Naming your feelings and needs without a story about how your partner should or shouldn't be and receiving empathy (not collusion) from others can create some spaciousness.  In this space, you can start to see your partner as someone struggling to meet needs rather than someone who is "suppose to" be intimate with you.

Seeing your partner in this way you can get curious about her or his world.   You might ask yourself what needs your partner is trying to meet by keeping a distance.  Of course, you are only guessing (unless your partner is willing to hear your guesses and confirm which are true).  Guessing allows you to begin to align with your partner rather than pull at her or him.  Even this shift of focus in you can begin to create more intimacy.

My guess is that keeping a distance is often a strategy meant to meet needs for safety.  Your partner may be unsure that his or her authenticity is wanted.  S/he is perhaps fearful that coming closer will lead to more pain by being used or betrayed.  These perceptions may or may not have much to do with you and your behavior, but rather may come from past hurts.  Either way your partner's feelings and needs are valid simply because this is his or her experience.

Whether these guesses or others are true or not, you now have some choices.  You can leave the relationship deciding that meeting your partner in his or her indirect expression of needs is more than you are up for.  Having this clarity is an important gift to you both.  If you stay because you think you should, you both will be in for a long road of anger and resentment.

On the other hand, you may have the willingness and energy to attempt to meet your partner in the situation as it is.  You might start by getting curious about what you could do to meet the needs the distancing is attempting to meet.  If your partner is unwilling to dialogue with you, you may decide to experiment.

Here are some examples of experiments based on the guesses I made above.

  • Stay with your partner when you perceive her or him as distant or just wanting to talk about superficial things.  Even though you are experiencing the pain of disconnect, work to stay present to your partner by internally naming your own feelings and needs.  Watch the impulses to leave, criticize, or get angry come and go.  This helps you to become a bigger container for your own expereience.
  • Experiment with holding the belief that your partner is doing the best s/he can to take care of himself or herself.  For a week, affirm every choice your partner makes.  When s/he says, "I am going out with my friends Friday," you say "If that's what's right for you, I support you." Genuinely express support for your partner's choices from the perspective of tending to his or her well-being.
  • Turn your attention to the needs that are met in your relationship and express an appreciation to your partner each day for a week.
  • Notice one quality you love about your partner and find some way to express or celebrate that every day.

Practices like these are not easy to do in the midst of your own loneliness and longing.  They require you to change what you trust.  Unconsciously you likely trust that somehow if you fight your partner, criticize, or hold back as well, something will shift. To move out of this reactive habit is difficult.  If you decide to take on a challenge like this, it's important to consistently meet your own needs outside the relationship.  I am talking mostly about the basic needs for nourishing food, thorough exercise, self-connection, meaningful contribution, creative expression, friendship and love.

Take a moment now and notice where you are pushing or pulling at your partner.  Reflect on whether this is creating connection or not.  Check in with the feelings and needs alive in you.  Let yourself get curious about what feelings and needs might be alive for your partner.  Notice what possible actions arise from this place of connection and expansiveness.

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12 Responses

  1. Dec 02, 2010

    For me, looking at the origin of the intense pain of rejection was important. This core wounding stuff (from my early childhood) was making the distancing so unbearable that I had this urgency to change things. By working with that core piece, I no longer feel that urge to push--so I can align more with the needs my partner has (understand and accept them) and meet her where she is at. The core material was getting in the way of approaching the situation clearly. Now I feel sadness sometimes, but not urgency, which is much easier for everyone. And I recognize that the clearer I can be, the more my partner can show up with as much closeness as she can handle, and that she is doing her best to heal her own wounds and that is a process that happens in its own time. And her seeing that I am not bringing urgency and pressure is helping her relax.

    I want to caution though that one can't will oneself into feeling relaxed and not pressuring because you understand it is a more enlightened response. I tried this for a long time and when it backfires (the resentment comes up), it feels like it was manipulation to the other person--acting relaxed to try to get the other person to be close. If there is unconscious material at play, it has to be brought to consciousness or it will always be influencing you.

  2. Dec 02, 2010

    I agree for the most part. But there is something missing that completes the picture, and which to me leaves the distant partner forming an unhealthy habit as well. When the distant partner for whatever reason (some crisis, stressor, emotion) has these needs in the most and is needing support, there can be the tendency in my experience for it to be used to do a number of things. One the distant partner may dwell on the stressor or emotions to the point that, instead of feeling them and letting them flow through so as not to become drained of energy, that person may be overcomed by the stressor or emotion. Then they grow bigger, lose energy, are not resourced, and therefore in some manner or another are not in a position to provide mutuality and a total/complete connection in a relationship with the 'lonely' partner (who is more than willing to be supportive). And that complete connection is spirituality...which is missing when a part/ or parts of the connection is missing. And the lonely partner is expected to be resourced, yet the full connection that helps provide that resourcing for both is not there...hence the tendency to push/pull.

    There is a balance. I have experienced both.... what the article is saying in of itself and what the article is saying with 'the rest of the story'. The latter has worked and has been rewarding for both. To me the latter is in that middle or dare I say 'grey' area, because it is not black and white/ all or nothing in my opinion.

  3. Dec 02, 2010

    How can I use this in trying to connect with my daughter who has shut me out of her life? She is 60 and I am 81 and this has gone on for many years. Each time I try to connect, she becomes very disrespectful and accuses me of psychobabble. She wants nothing to do with NVC even tho she is a social worker and would benefit from it greatly.

  4. Dec 06, 2010

    I am glad to see you all sharing around this difficult and complex subject.

    Sounds very painful Jean. It's hard for me to answer not knowing your situation specifically. I usually start with safety as my first guess when I find myself in a similar situation. I get curious and observe what actually seems to create safety for the person. Sometimes it is doing things that I wouldn't do on my own or expect, like going to Wal-Mart with my mom or talking about sports or the weather.

  5. Aug 16, 2011
    Jessica Garrett

    Wonderful! When I read this earlier today, I felt a weight lift off of me and my relationship. Lately I've been focusing on the negatives in our relationship, feeling frustrated about the wall my partner puts up and wondering how long we could last with such a wall. It's easy to throw in the towel and give an ultimatum, but through a little understanding I may be able to resolve some of that frustration and learn to be a better partner.

    Thank you!

  6. Aug 17, 2011

    Very glad to hear it. I would love to hear how your practice with this evolves. Wishing you well.

  7. Aug 18, 2011

    Every time I come to your website I receive amazing insight, healing, and transformation. It's always EXACTLY what I need to hear. I've been pulling on my distant partner (and he's usually very available) for days now. I just got off the phone feeling like I wanted to freak out because of my own abandonment issues. "How dare he 'leave' me during such a hard time?" I wonder. "Ok, well, I am going to be distant then," I vow.

    But I wanted to feel differently so I headed right over here. And after reading this gem, I feel my heart opening. I feel compassion. He's being distant not because he's trying to leave or hurt me...but because he's hurt. Ahhh. And he even told me this already. And you're right--it's so hard to be loving and affirming when I feel like he's being cold and withholding. But this is exactly what I will do. Thank you.

  8. Aug 18, 2011

    Wow, I love hearing this. I love hearing that I contributed and I also love how you made a decision to examine your reaction and find a way to ground. Thanks for your good work.

  9. Aug 19, 2011

    "Naming your feelings and needs without a story about how your partner should or shouldn’t be and receiving empathy (not collusion) from others can create some spaciousness."

    This bit I find especially interesting. The idea that one's friends are offering not empathy but collusion in helping to strengthen an unhelpful story answers why I feel there are certain friends I can't discuss any of my relationship difficulties with. I know they will likely reply with damning judgements of my partner - and of me for staying with him. I feel quite alone as a result, not knowing many people skilled in a helpful kind of empathy.

    My need is to be listened to non-judgmentally, in order to find a perspective for myself in answering my partner's needs without diminishing my own. I don't want encouragement to feel more self-pitying and blaming.

    Your Gems are so helpful in dropping a little bit of wisdom into my email box every week!

  10. Jun 24, 2012

    I got a really important insight around this recently--the distinction between distance/closeness and connection/disconnection.

    Distance/closeness is about how much time we spend together, how much we talk and share our thoughts, ideas, and feelings with each other, etc.

    Connection/disconnection is about how safe things feel between us, whether there is positivity and good feelings or negativity and bad feelings.

    Problems arise when one person thinks, "I can only get distance through disconnection". That leads to creating disconnect just to have distance.

    Or when the other person thinks, "I can only maintain connection (safety) through closeness". This needs to pulling at the other person, which actually creates disconnection because it doesn't honor their needs.

    I can affirm my partner's need for distance by saying, "OK, take all the time you need. I'm going to focus on my own needs and let you do your thing". This validates and meets their needs, and maintains connection (safety).

    It was a relief to realize that there is nothing inherently disconnecting (unsafe) about distance, and I can create a lot more safety (maintaining connection) by letting someone go than by trying to keep them close.

    It's kind of subtle because the word "connected" sounds a lot like it would mean "close". But it's not really about being close, or even warm and fuzzy--it's about feeling safe, and basically OK rather than fearful.

    I also have changed my mind about whether distance is a strategy or need. I think if we look at intimacy and closeness as needs, we should also consider that distance and solitude are needs. I think disconnection is a strategy, but it seems to me that distance is actually a need. Seeing it that way, and remembering times when I have needed to just think my own thoughts or do my own thing has helped me affirm that in my partner.

  11. Jun 26, 2012

    Nice, Emma, a subtle and important distinction, a gem :)

  12. May 08, 2014
    Kim Braun

    I also find distance is a loving strategy when the interactions have not been able to come from a heartfelt centered space. Vika and Fred from Rose City NVC gave me that insight. Distance can be a way of not making things worse, until both people can be better resourced and taking responsibility for their feelings and choices. Sometimes the person pulling is reactive one and the person distancing themselves for a time is holding the boundary and commitment not to interact in a way that doesn't meet their need for integrity and harmony in the relationship. I see the coming from a true place of curiosity as a foot hold, because there can be a lot of assuming about why the other is distance.

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