Perpetually single? A new book says fear may be your biggest obstacle.
We asked Dusty Miller, the author of the new book, Stop Running From Love: Three Steps to Overcoming Emotional Distancing and Fear, some tough questions. The good news: She didn't up and run. Scroll down to learn if you fit the profile of a classic "distancer."
You've written about addiction and trauma. What made you write a book about love?
I was thinking about how even when a lot of therapeutic work has been done and a lot of issues are resolved, people still often face big challenges to having real closeness and intimacy and satisfaction in relationships, and I thought it was time to write about that.
And I really wanted to take a somewhat different approach, rather than having people try the same old thing and get discouraged. You always hear, "You've got to be open and communicate honestly," but that's not a magic bullet. I knew that a lot of people—both men and women— have reasons they don't do that easily.
I think there's a kind of universal fear of being vulnerable or letting somebody in.
That's not so different from what other people write about, but I think the difference is understanding that there are different ways to approach changing that.
My approach has people determine what they need to work on, and practice that in whatever social community suits them. That's usually not something that happens in traditional couples therapy. That's where I'm really hoping this provides something different.
You use the word "distancer" to describe people who avoid keep themselves from engaging fully in relationships. What is a distancer?
There are certainly a lot of people who avoid committed relationships altogether.
And I think all of us have known people—and some of us are people—who will start to get close in a relationship, and then pull away when they feel threatened or feel too vulnerable or afraid they're going to be suffocated, or lose their autonomy.
It's more subtle when people distance within a relationship. They're married or with a boyfriend or girlfriend , but they're really not there— there's a way in which they're holding themselves back to the point that either they or their partner is unhappy.
What are common distancing behavior patterns?
Sometimes it's very obvious, someone who won't talk about the way he or she feels or won't open up sexually, but then there are a lot of other ways people do it.
There's that kind of busy, distracted lifestyle. The classic is the man (or, now, the woman) who's always at work, or the mother who devotes all her time and energy to the children and is always putting the relationship with her husband or partner on hold because they are afraid of being really open and vulnerable and intimate with their partners. One person may even seem like the "super partner," taking care of so much that they don't actually make the time to connect with their partner.
So there's the couple that looks really good on the surface but there's something really missing, then the other extreme is the person who wants a relationship, but can't let themselves get near to having one. They might find something wrong with everybody they date, or find ways to avoid meeting people, or avoid dating or exploring relationships.
Then there's the middle category. These are people who get into relationships and do great in the courtship stage. They're into it, they're very excited and may even be very apparently open sexually and emotionally, but when it starts to move into a more committed and vulnerable stage, they start to distance. That can look like simple fear of commitment, but if you look below the surface, it comes back to ways people learn to distrust closeness and vulnerability in an intimate relationship.
How can people recognize distancing behavior in themselves?
The first thing is deepening awareness. Most people know on some level that things are not working in the love department, but they don't know why. They don't know really how to make sense of it. So it's about looking at "Why do I feel the way I feel, why do I think the way I think?" It's going from, "I'm just a guy who won't commit," to going below the surface.
The other thing is awareness of the mind-body connection, how much our biology shapes and affects people in relationship, really people's bodies are holding a story that their minds not be very aware of, and that shows up and gets triggered as they start to get close, and get more involved and feel more vulnerable, some of the old fear kicks in and sets in kind of a biological reaction. Being aware of your physical reactions in different situations, and what they're indicating. So just as people are looking at the biology of love, I'm looking at the biology of the distancing from love.
Once you're aware of what you're doing, how do you begin to stop distancing—to "stop running from love?"
First is acknowledging the kinds of distancing patterns that you have.
Then, really moving into new ways of exploring the roots. Most of us can tell you in a couple sentences – "Well, my parents were unhappy and I never wanted to end up like my mother," something like that. We can go that far, but this is taking another step into looking at the roots of the distancing.
That might be talking to someone else, or going to therapy, or doing some journaling. Saying, where did I learn this, what happened to me that I keep coming to this place over and over?
So if you keep ending up in the same place, what do you recommend doing differently?
If people have had a lot of failure in trying to get closer, whether it's within a relationship or getting into a relationship, it's really a mistake for them to keep trying the same old thing.
I take a kind of radical approach. Probably what's most different from other couple models that I know of is that I suggest people try ways of being more vulnerable and practice opening up in a group before they take that into the couple.
By trying these things in a group first, you're setting up the option to have little successes, and if you have any little failures, it's not as crushing as if you try it out right away in the couple.
What kind of groups are you talking about?
Most people just need to look around at what they're doing, at whatever is a natural community for them, whether it's a group of friends that they do things regularly with, or work – work is one of the most common communities where people are interacting in an important way with other people. Then there are faith communities of all kinds, recreational groups, 12-step groups. I think it can be almost any situation.
The key is trying new ways of being more open or speaking up so you don't feel like if you get near anybody that they're going to roll right over you.
Let's say, people who distance with sarcasm in their couple relationships. They may think about it and realize that they do it with people at work, too. So, they might practice sitting through something at the office and noticing what they're about to say, and instead, choose to act in a different way. They might do something really unusual for them, like leave somebody a note saying "You did a great job on this" without saying anything sarcastic.
It could be anything that represents how they want to change, even just being more open about feelings.
It might seem counterintuitive to people to start with a group to solve a problem at home.
When people try these new behaviors with the beloved and it doesn't work out well, they give up—the more times you fail at something, the more you just kind of begin to wilt inside. That's very true of people who feel discouraged about relationships. So, it starts with trying it in the community and then taking it back into a new attempt at being intimate.
That way, if it's awkward and doesn't go well at first, then they're not as crushed.
And finally, this approach of trying out new ways of being more steady; if it's someone who's being approach-avoidant, saying, OK, this time, instead of starting something and running away, I'm going to get more involved in this community and stay, even when I want to run, and I'll find out how that feels, and take that into a couple relationship.
What if someone's problems aren't something that it would be appropriate to take to a work or social group?
Oddly enough, it still works. For example, a woman who is very fearful sexually and vulnerable and shut down, it may be that if she starts talking about other completely different areas of vulnerability in safer groups – let's say she tries telling friends something about herself that she has some embarrassment about. When it goes well, that's a way in which she may be able to get more comfortable being open with her partner.
I have a young woman who has become more comfortable sexually with her partner since they started meditating and doing yoga together. She's able to be more relaxed and more open with him in that setting, and then she's able to feel safer with him in bed. So that would be a way of trying out vulnerability in another kind of setting instead of just saying, "Ok, I know why I distance, let's go make love." That's a set up for failure.
What do you get when you stop distancing in relationships?
The feeling of really, really leaving loneliness behind. Noticing that you're enjoying moments of closeness with your current partner, or enjoying new potential partners more. Really being able to experience a feeling of connectedness that we all long for, and better feelings of self-esteem in general. People who are pretty content in their relationships just feel better in the world, and are able to enjoy everything more.