Have you ever struggled with wanting more closeness - or more space? Here's how to handle it!
In the first part of this series, we explored the reason why so many lesbians and queer women struggle with difficult feelings when our partner seems to get too far away – or when she seems to get too close. Because these feelings (which we call “primal abandonment panic,” or PAP, and “primal engulfment panic,” or PEP) have such deep roots in our brains and psyches, they can wreak havoc in our intimate relationships.
Infants – which all of us once were – are wired to respond with outrage and desperation if the person who is taking care of them becomes unavailable. Their lives literally depend on it! And even as adults, our intimate relationships (and breakups) can trigger this same response. Because we get emotionally attached to our girlfriends, having them seem distant can feel unbearable.
Yet two-year-olds – which all of us also were! –are wired to individuate from their mothers. This need, too, is pivotal to our human development. So even decades later, if a girlfriend seems too clingy or demanding, our response may also have an oversized force.
Part I of this article profiled two couples: Jerri and Lou, and Elise and Susan. Jerri and Lou struggled because Jerri wanted to spend entire weekends at Lou’s place, and Lou, an introvert who was used to more time alone, felt suffocated. Elise and Susan fought because Elise, who had grown up with an abusive mother, wanted frequent phone calls from Susan; these calls helped reassure Elise that she was lovable. But Susan, an entrepreneur, wanted more time to focus on her business without “demands” from Elise.
None of these women are wrong, and none are right. There is no “correct” amount of time for couples to spend together in person or on the phone; these kinds of choices are always a negotiation between two people with different needs, patterns and priorities. And coming up against these differences doesn’t have to become a huge problem – when neither person is triggered.
Often, however, one or both peoples’ PAP or PEP gets set off, so rather than remaining a simple negotiation (like, “I’d like Chinese food tonight,” “Well, I’m more in the mood for Italian,”) differences in the arena of closeness and distance can start to feel like a life-or-death battle.
Many lesbian couples break up over these issues – not necessarily because they truly can’t work out how much or what kinds of time to spend together, but because the feelings that get brought up for one or both women can feel like too much to handle.
If the fury, despair and panic that comes up around issues of closeness and distance actually stems from times and places much earlier in our lives, it makes sense that it can’t be effectively addressed by usual “adult” means, like rational conversation and compromise. Yet of course, irrational adult conversations and fights don’t help, either – so what’s a lesbian to do?
When we are in a primal state of panic, having a “PAP” or “PEP” attack, we need to attend to ourselves. Although our feelings can feel huge and terrifying, we are larger than they are. No matter how strong they get, feelings are always temporary. The truth is, we couldn’t hold onto them forever even if we tried!
Feelings have their own life-cycle, and they will move and shift. Yet trying to suppress them or talk ourselves out of them actually gets them stuck inside us, and makes them last longer. Instead, we must summon our emotional courage and resources so that we can be with the feelings, rather than being them.
Deciding to be with the feelings is like “steering into the skid.” As people who live in snowy climates know, “steering into the skid” is the only way to stay safe if you’re driving on an icy road. When your wheel starts sliding to the right, it seems natural to want to jerk it to the left – yet doing that will actually worsen your car’s drift to the right! Strangely enough, actually turning the wheel in the same direction as the skid is the only way to straighten out your car’s path.
As someone who has experienced a lot of both PAP and PEP, I can speak to this firsthand. I still remember one night about 12 years ago that proved to be a turning point for me.
My girlfriend Jana was spending the day helping some friends paint their house, and at 6:00, just when she was supposed to get to my place, she called to say she’d be late. “How late?” I asked, my voice tight. (Jana’s schedule had already been an issue between us; I felt as if I always had to fight for time with her.) Jana sounded reluctant to answer. “Um, maybe 7:30?” At 8:00 she called again, and again at 9:00. She didn’t get to my house until 9:30.
From 6:00 to 8:00 that night, between Jana’s first and second phone calls, I cried and raged in a way that was very familiar to me. My head was filled with imaginary arguments with Jana in which I proved to her once and for all that she was wrong and I was right.
But I’d been living with this pattern for enough years already that I recognized it as a dead end.
So, after Jana’s second phone call, I did something I’d never done before: I lay down on my couch determined to let the storms of feeling move through my body without believing their “stories.” I pulled an old blanket over my head, cried, wailed and shook. Deliberately shifting myself beyond the “I’m right, she’s wrong” story, I turned into the skid.
Feelings are very different from the stories we tell ourselves (and other people) about those feelings. Stories have no natural end-point, but feelings do. So it didn’t actually take a full hour; it was more like 15 or 20 minutes of crying and shaking.
Eventually, I began to feel more calm. I got up, blew my nose, and then lay down again, feeling cautiously around