06: Distancers and the Silent Treatment (Part 1)

Trying to apply what your therapist said.

What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls the butterfly


Over the last five years, a vital relationship lesson has been a growing awareness of my unconscious and habitual reaction to pursue a particular personality—a personality charging my emotional, mental, or sexual batteries.

Of course, it is a package deal.

The same person, when emotionally charged, distances themselves from me and the relationship to avoid discomfort. Distancers seek to prevent vulnerability and accountability. Often they will blame shift or leverage the silent treatment to emotionally, physically, or mentally manipulate a situation to avoid responsibility, pursue safety, maintain their image, or sell a narrative to themselves or others. When asked to show up, they rebel at vulnerability and accountability and distance themselves from their discomfort. 

After much reflection and work, I recognize this is the type of partner I habitually seek. I use them to soothe my unconscious discomforts and wounds.

In these relationship patterns, I will excuse this unskillful and, at times, abusive behavior in avoidant, fearful, and anxiously impacted relationships with a Hero’s idiot compassion and pursue their discomfort.

I recognize I am the type of partner they habitually use as they seek to avoid their pains. My unskillfulness and wounds compliment theirs.

As a youth, I internalized the belief that regardless of the impact on my well-being, accepting these unskillful acts and taking responsibility for the actions of friends, family, and loved ones demonstrates my love and commitment to them. I will habitually pick up and carry someone else’s emotional water; I will treat their responsibilities and burdens as mine.

In this dynamic I have often unconsciously played the Rescuer only to find myself cast as the Villain when it gets complicated and the carefully curated masks falls off. 

As in my relationship with Painter, I discovered she was also curating herself to manipulate for outcomes and appearances. Being seen as the “golden couple of YoYo Town,” as Traveler described us, has consequences when the frailities of humanity leak out into the world. 

I realize that genuinely being sovereign of my life requires an uncomfortable contentment at being cast as the Villain. Contentment is discovered by witnessing another’s discomfort without internalizing their choices, without picking up the bucket of boiling water and pouring it over oneself to prove fidelity. 

Without judgment.

In these moments, I live as the audience de jour.

Amid these experiences, I will often excuse unskillful, manipulative, and vindictive behaviors as somehow my fault. In the emotional tug-of-war, I throw myself on the sword to earn forgiveness or reconciliation. I choose relationships where I perceive my surrender must be unconditional to maintain the connection. Historically, these dynamics and patterns have combined to create enormous feelings of anxiety and insecurity around the relationship. Shame stories and panic will take root and fill in the silent gulf between us as I ineptly flounder.

In reaction to my discomfort, I would surrender my truth, needs, wants and desires for approval, acceptance, and love. I would abandon my life and identity to soothe their wounds–the real impacts and the ones they manufacture to justify their behaviors. The silence creates a loss of relationship safety and security, and I pursue insight into their needs and wants to regain a sense of place. I would often do this with a neurotic, panicky and impulsive, “what have I done, and how can I make it right?” 

I want to fix whatever “it” is, even when it is not mine—anything to avoid the anguish of living with risk and uncertainty. 

Surrendering to another person’s discomfort became a self-defeating and dishonest coping mechanism. The lack of skill to recognize my discomfort in their discomfort and call out the entitlement and behaviors undermining the relationship spared them the gift of accountability.

In my marriages to Beatrix and Harley, my responses to their silence, sulking, anger, and entitlement were often disorganized.

Sometimes this made me want them more. 

I traded my identity for forgiveness and imagined this was a loving act. I took emotional and mental possession of their discomforts and reactions. I carried responsibility for their choices.

In reaction, I would leap into action and pursue as I tried to recapture my value to them. I recognize now that I didn’t feel like I existed without being of value to them. I allowed relationships to define my identity, a survival habit we are all groomed to some extent from birth to live. I internalized and habituated these approaches to life. It made me incredibly adaptable but not consistent.

Many of my relationships are defined by cycles of Distancing and Pursuing and patterns of emotional booms and busts. All intermingled with unskillful acts of sulks, pouts, and silences–theirs and mine.

For example, Beatrix’s revolving threat of divorce or separation began months into our marriage when she was emotionally, mentally, sexually, or physically uncomfortable. Offloading her discomfort was how she distanced from her experience. In the ensuing chaos, my unskillfulness and ignorance trumped my intentions, and I often made the experience harder by pursuing connection as my attempts at soothing became patronizing.

Looking back, I recognize I eventually began to adopt Breatrix’s fearfulness and anxiety as my responsibility to manage. Will she walk out of the restaurant? Will she rage? Will she sulk? Will she blame me for not caring about her? Will she threaten to end the relationship or throw me out? Will she expect me to surrender another friendship? Will she punish me again for going to Al-Anon and AA meetings? Will there be an angry silence when she doesn’t get what she wants? Will she avoid sex and play the victim to avoid responsibility? Will she kick me out of bed because she was sleeping poorly?

All my choices were limited by Beatrix’s distancing and my unconscious wounds and limited understanding of her experience at that moment. I didn’t always listen. She couldn’t always explain.

As such, I made choices defined by my understanding of my role in intimate relationships. In the end I lived exhausted and hyper-vigilant. I was constantly charged as I waited for Beatrix’s next mood swing. Whatever ailed Beatrix inevitably became my burden. 

By the time I chose to have the first of several affairs, I constantly dreaded doing or saying something to charge Beatrix, afraid I was solely responsible for ruining date night, dinner at home, a walk in the park, or sex. 

Beatrix would leverage blaming, shaming, or silent stewing to place emotional distance between us. As a man, I thought love meant taking responsibility for the chaos she created. Beatrix took pride in never being wrong, and I followed her outbursts with an apology for upsetting or hurting her feelings. The goal was to manage her and act her soothe her discomforts.

One of many examples where my lack of emotional agility negated my intentions. 

Under all my apologies, my wounds raged, resentments grew, and my heart hardened as I failed to recognize fixing her discomfort was an impossible ask. 

I recognize my passive-aggressive and unskillful emotional fumbling did as much damage to Beatrix and our relationship as hers. Lying, fawning, and keeping secrets, trying to manipulate and control Beatrix’s reactions, wounding her and further damaging the relationship. I justified using lies and secrets as a caring act to protect her from my shame. The intentions were consistently befuddled by unskillfulness and anxieties.

I was lying and keeping secrets as I attempted to avoid confronting my loneliness and unhappiness. Beatrix witnessed my drama as I witnessed hers. Through my actions, I externalized my internal dialogues. We took the other’s unskillfulness as an act of maliciousness. In the end, there was no generosity, but only recriminations. 

We lived this pattern from vacation to vacation, conversation to conversation, dinner to dinner, and fight to fight: one of us would get charged, and we would pass the heat back and forth in a game of emotional hot potato.

Our marriage died by a thousand cuts. The emotional woodchipper of infidelity turned yesterday’s marriage into tomorrow’s fertilizer. Today I recognize infidelity is a poor coping mechanism allowing me to suffer my discomfort without living with the emotional and mental weights of remorse, regret, shame, and blame of ending the relationship. As Susan David discusses in her TEDx talk on emotional agility, I had all the relationship goals of a dead person: to live without suffering.

Despite the impression, Beatrix is caring, loving, and passionate. Like me, just disorganized. I didn’t know that before. She is incredibly successful, intelligent, and talented. One of my favorite memories with Beatrix is walking in the forest as she crawled on the forest floor, photographing flora and fauna.

It was hot.

However, Beatrix also carried with her wounding akin to mine with many adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and a family that cast a long shadow over her identity. We each brought similar wounds to the marriage. 

To be the man for Beatrix, I unconsciously traded integrity for duty. I imagined my role was to protect Beatrix from the discomfort of her wounds, even if I had to lie and take responsibility for what was hers. As a result, she never had to confront her unskillfulness. Beatrix never had the opportunity to be accountable for her choices.  My unskillful and default coping mechanisms made it worse for us all.

In the end, I was demoralized, depressed, and exhausted living in and on the edge of a constant charge guessing to give her what she wanted emotionally even as we both lacked the skills to discuss it.

In the end, it was either leave or die. I wanted our marriage to work. Unfortunately, knowing something is not the same as knowing what to do about something. As Stan Tatkin writes, “Love isn’t enough.”

Being conscious of the pattern and choosing a more aware angle of approach to the Distancer is the practice. The practice today is to select conscience responses to reconnect skillfully. Historically, I would thoughtlessly react to the discomfort of others running between emotional fires. Today I am choosing approaches to distress at odds with my impulsive need to prove my value in relationships.

Today I recognize some people need to be pursued to feel wanted, valuable and loved. Banking a relationship rescuer and pursuer that shows up regardless of the disorganized and unskillful impacts of their behaviors is how they manifest their love language.

It is how they maintain control and a sense of power. A power that allows them to imagine safety and security by shifting accountability onto others for their behaviors.

Frankly, this was my type.

I understand their confusion. I was groomed into accepting abuse, silence, and manipulation as loving. Accepting the unskillful behaviors of someone I am attached to and carrying the burden is how I was taught to love.

It’s a deeply lonely approach to connection.

Infidelity annihilated my life, and its’ fire threw light into the shadows of my life. My annihilation allowed me to witness how I chose relationships and lived in habituated, unconscious, disorganized, and avoidant relationship patterns.

I have no desire to live that way again. I don’t want to invest resources into a relationship where my partner doesn’t show up for the discomfort and unskillfulness. I don’t want a relationship build on avoidance and entitlement. I don’t want a relationship where distancing from their discomfort means using blame and entitlement to distance from the relationship and from our connection.

Today I know if a partner runs, I let her run. I am no one’s hero except my own.

It’s a practice.

As I recently was reminded, we sometimes have to re-experience the pattern to know we’re outgrowing it…

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