Growing Apart: A Case of Not Enough, or Too Much?

Shayna is 32 years old and attending her first therapy appointment.  She’s decided to enter therapy because she’s been feeling depressed and lethargic.  She reports that she’s avoiding her friends and not participating in the activities she used to enjoy.  She’s also gained about 25 pounds which has her really upset.  She knows it would help to exercise but she just can’t get motivated.

During the intake process Shayna shares she she’s been divorced for two years.  When the therapist asks about the reasons for the divorce, Shayna says, “I guess we just grew apart.  We didn’t share the same interests or friends anymore, if we ever did.  We had nothing in common.  We both agreed we might as well split up. It wasn’t too intense or anything, I suppose because we were only married for three years and didn’t have kids. You know, I thought I’d be happier out of the marriage but clearly I’m not.  I don’t get it.  There must be something really wrong with me”.

Shayna’s description of the problem in her marriage gives her therapist some powerful clues about what’s going on behind her depression.  The therapist understands that while spouses may have the subjective sense of passively growing apart from one another, the process that leads to estrangement and divorce is actually very active-more like two repelling magnets than two dud batteries.

Human beings are anxious creatures.  Back when we lived as hunter-gatherers, our anxiety kept us on guard for danger and helped us stay alert on the hunt.  Now our anxiety helps us to avoid traffic accidents, jump out of the way when a knife drops off the countertop, and stay alert in a tennis match.   Being social animals with the need to be accepted by the group, our anxiety also makes us very sensitive to the moods of others, especially the moods and feelings of loved ones.  The more emotionally close the person, the greater the sensitivity.  When we start dating, we are generally very open and easy with one another, despite new relationship nervousness.  As we get closer, the inevitable stresses of living creep in and increase.  We begin to sense each other’s sensitivities; she doesn’t want to be reminded of her weight issue and he doesn’t like to feel “controlled”.  In the evening, she likes to process the events of the day while he wants to put it behind him and relax.  She wants the bills paid the day they arrive in the mail. He’s happy waiting until second notices.  There might also be issues around dealing with each other’s families or friends.  The list of possible anxiety-provoking topics is literally infinite.  But the ways of coping with the anxiety that builds up in a relationship are not infinite.  Essentially, the coping strategies used by anxious people in anxious relationships-that’s all of us to some degree- involve one or more of the following patterns:

1. Conflict. This relationship pattern is characterized by periods of intense closeness followed by conflict, followed by making up. During the conflict phase, neither partner wants to give in. People who engage in conflict tend to become critical when anxiety or stress is high. Blaming self or others, projecting of problems onto the other, a negative focus, and sometimes verbal or physical abuse are common in relationships characterized by conflict.

2. Emotional Distance. Distance can look like two people living parallel lives. Sometimes the distance takes the form of the “pursuer-distancer” relationship. (Because in fact both partners have difficulty with intimacy, the pursuer will likely begin to distance if the distancer comes in closer.) Distancing can be seen in periods of being “not on speaking terms”, workaholism or any other “ism” including drug use, excessive time spent on hobbies, withdrawing into silence when upset, superficial communication with significant others, and difficulty relating to family members.

3. Cut off. Surprisingly, cut off is not the result of a lack of feeling between family members. Cut off results from too much unresolved emotional intensity. When family members go months or years without contact, they have cut off. Often, people cut off because they feel they cannot “be themselves” around certain family members. Many young people believe that cutting off by moving far from the family is the road to independence. But one cannot be dependent on distance to achieve true independence, which only comes from being oneself while simultaneously staying emotionally close to important others.

4. Overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocity. Signs of overfunctioning include: Advice-giving, doing things for others that they could be doing for themselves (co-dependence), worrying excessively about others, knowing what is best for others, feeling responsible for others, talking more than listening, having goals for others they don’t have for themselves. Overfunctioning causes people to feel burnt-out or as though they’ve “lost themselves” in the relationship.Signs of underfunctioning include: Asking for advice rather than thinking for oneself, asking many people for advice and not taking it, getting others to do things for oneself, acting irresponsibly, listening more than talking, being without personal goals, not following through with goals, often becoming physically or mentally ill, tending to become addicted.Sometimes people flip from one position to the other depending on circumstances, for example being an overfunctioning hero at work while being an underfunctioning spouse at home. Therefore, it is a mistake to think of the overfunctioning partner as healthier, more independent, or more together than the underfunctioning partner; it takes one to have the other and both are driven by anxiety.  This is a common way couples manage the stress between them.5. Triangles. A relationship triangle is formed anytime a relationship between two people becomes unstable. Triangles only become problems when they get “stuck” or they prohibit the participants from being able to resolve their issues. Triangles are evident when two people are gossiping or complaining about a third person. Relationship triangles are also in effect when people have affairs. Other indications of triangles include jealousy, arguing with the spouse about someone or something outside of the relationship, and more time spent thinking about someone beside oneself or one’s own marriage. Children are commonly triangled into emotionally reactive marriages. This can be seen when couples routinely argue about or worry about one particular child. Triangles are universal, with all emotional systems made up of interlocking triangles, but they are more evident when anxiety is high and less evident when anxiety is low or being managed. The best way to manage triangles is to work to develop a one-to-one relationship with each person in the emotional system and to avoid unnecessary gossip or complaining, which never solves problems anyway.

Over her next few sessions the therapist helps Shayna to see how emotional distance and cut off, the primary coping strategies she and her husband had used to manage the anxiety in their marriage, eventually led to the conviction that they’d “grown apart.”  Rather than splitting because of a lack of feeling, or because they’d fallen out of love, the break up was the predictable result of too much feeling going unrecognized and unaddressed for too long.  Shayna sees how she and her ex had habitually avoided controversial topics and saying or doing anything to upset each other, to the point that they had nothing left to share.

What’s more, Shayna learns she uses emotional distance and cut off in her other significant relationships.  Her mother can be moody and sensitive which makes Shayna feel guilty and frustrated.  Shayna and her sister often argue, so Shayna avoids talking to both women as much as possible.  It becomes apparent that Shayna’s father, a quiet man, also uses emotional distance to cope with his relationships.  As a result, Shayna has held the belief that he’s not very interested in her, so she rarely bothers him with any issues of importance in her life.  Shayna comes to understand that her behavior is being controlled by too much sensitivity and reactivity to others, and less by her own values and desires.  She learns to recognize when she has the anxious urge to distance from and avoid people, and begins to stay connected, even when it is uncomfortable.  At first it’s very difficult to fight the urge to distance and cut off, but over time she finds her relationships are getting closer and her mood is improving.  She goes back to the gym, starts hanging out with girlfriends again, and discovers she has more in common with her family than she had thought.  Shayna has regrets about a divorce that might not have happened if she’d known then what she knows now, but she feels more optimistic about the future and is even thinking about getting back out there and dating again.

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