Hold On Loosely (But Don’t Let Go!)


In every close relationship there are emotional “pursuers” and “distancers.” For example, if a husband perceives his wife becoming emotionally distant, he may begin to press her with questions regarding her whereabouts. Or, if a parent perceives a teenager becoming too independent (which you can count on), s/he may initiate regular confrontations. In both cases, an emotional “pursuer-distancer” pattern emerges. The culprit? Anxiety! Threat!

“Pursuers” are threatened that “distancers” are moving too far away, while “distancers” are threatened that “pursuers” are moving too close. The result is an emotional-relational imbalance. The equilibrium between togetherness (“WE”) and separateness (“I”) has been disturbed. While some people are more We-oriented and other people more I-oriented, it is generally believed that healthy relationships–and personality–strike some kind of balance between togetherness and separateness. Problems tend to surface at the extreme.

On the continuum below, locate your emotional-relational “comfort zone.” Then, locate what you think is the “comfort zone” of your partner, or teen. Notice the “degrees” of togetherness and separateness indicated by the large and small capitalizations. What might this tell you about the “pursuer-distancer” pattern(s) in your relationship(s)?

I            I/we            I/We            i/We            We

The subtlety of these patterns is that we don’t always know how reactive and automatic our responses are relationally. We mindlessly let other people define us versus a more mindful self-definition.

Psychologists have borrowed a biological term to prescribe what’s helpful in such situations. It is the word “differentiation.” Biologically (as I understand it), differentiation describes  how healthy cells separate, but stay in close proximity. Psychologically, differentiation describes an emotional-relational closeness without sacrificing separateness. When separateness is sacrificed psychologically, we call that enmeshment, or fusion. When separateness is sacrificed biologically (on the cellular level), malignancy is implied.

I struggled for some time, as a therapist, to communicate the “differentiation” concept to my clients. One day I was exercising at a local fitness center and had my iPod tuned in to the Southern rock group “38-Special” – when I heard these words:  “Hold on loosely, but don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re going to lose control. Your baby needs someone to believe in, and a whole lot of space to breathe in.” That day I found my way of communicating with clients a powerful secret to healthy relationships: HOLD ON LOOSELY (BUT DON’T LET GO!)

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