We talk a lot these days about attachment, but there is a more pervasive and powerful influence on everyday behavior. Attachment is what counteracts the threat of existential aloneness. But in our daily lives, and in therapeutic relationships, the interplay between cozy closeness and the threat of icy distance is constantly at work shaping our decisions and behavior.
“Detach with love”
Just as alcoholism gives us a window on the operations of the "nonconscious problem solver," it also provides a good way to observe the powerful influence of closeness and distance. "Detach with love" is the phrase that Al-Anon, the 12 step group for those in relationship with an alcoholic, uses to describe a successful stance for dealing with an active alcoholic. One quintessential example of this strategy in action was portrayed in an educational film. Joe, the alcoholic executive, stumbles into the kitchen with a terrible hangover, while his wife has cheerfully prepared breakfast. The phone rings. The wife picks up and we hear the boss’s voice. Joe whispers, “tell him I’m sick!” She holds out the phone to Joe, “It’s for you.”
Joe had taken for granted that his bullying and excuses would keep his wife comfortably in his camp, continuing to do her part in the downhill dance. Instinctively, he counted on the human tendency to value cozy closeness over the icy feeling when two wills diverge. In contrast, his wife had, at last, learned that avoiding a breach could only lead to worsening of his out-of-control drinking, and that their only hope for the future was to “detach with love.”
This isn’t about loss of the attachment bond, it is about the difference between a warm and comfortable state of mind in which two wills are bound together versus a far different one where the two exist as independent agents with separate points of view. So we are not talking here about attachment, but have entered the world of Margaret Mahler’s separation and individuation. And the point is that for both Joe and his wife, the instinctive need to hold onto a sense of being together can be a powerful force for good and for harm.
The coziness of nagging
Alcoholism is also an area where we can observe how chronic conflict can also be a source of predictability and comfort. Nagging amounts to trying to change the other person by repeating a demand when defenses are set and it is clear that no change will happen. When the admonishment or request is repeated, it takes on a different quality. The recipient is now braced to resist and the one doing the nagging is starting to feel chronically angry and hopeless that the request will be heeded. As the dance is repeated, it takes on the familiarity of a pattern. The coziness of two wills bound together is now reinforced, not threatened. How? The one doing the nagging holds onto the false hope that repeating the request or even raging, will eventually lead to change, while the one being nagged clings to the hope that the other will not really insist on change. In fact, the two are colluding in maintaining the status quo. They both know it is a fruitless dance but it is more comfortable for them to keep fighting than to face the iciness of reality, the cold truth that only a split of wills can lead to a healthy outcome.
The force of closeness-distance is what underlies “codependency,” whether it is of the "nagging, fighting" kind or the "looking the other way" kind. In either case, the essence is wishful thinking, a joint dishonesty aimed at avoiding the dreaded coldness that nothing will change without full honesty. That is what Joe's wife came to accept, unilaterally when she handed him the phone.
Is this just about addicts?
How many every-day human interactions involve one person chronically trying to change the other, knowing on some level, that their efforts are futile? That is a form of collusion. It is also fulfills the classic definition of insanity. “Doing the same thing over and over, while expecting a different outcome.” How many marriages, family conflicts, and relationships of business partners are dysfunctional in the same way?
Relevance to psychotherapy
What is a “break” in the therapeutic relationship? It’s when the coziness we work so hard to establish gets broken. Suddenly we feel a cold wind and work to re-establish a feeling of two wills bound together. The same shows up in research on common factors. One of the factors best correlated with therapeutic success is when the will of the client and the will of the therapist are in alignment. It is not the alignment of goals, per se, but the feeling of being together that counts.
Is this saying that a positive therapeutic relationship, or any healthy relationship for that matter, is a collusion to maintain the status quo? The answer lies in the middle, between the extremes of codependency and cold rejection. People differ in their tolerance of emotional tension, but that tension is one of the most important sources of motivation for healthy change.
The development of in between
As Margaret Mahler described it, the bliss of the one-year-old comes from the wonderful illusion that my will and my caregiver’s wills are one and the same. There can be no conflict because the cognitive apparatus required to experience conflict is not yet available. Nonverbal schemas are shaped by rewards and discomfort in a Pavlovian way, but the conceptual awareness of a conflict of wills has not yet taken on meaning.
Soon, however, the innocent bliss is shattered. As cognitive abilities advance into the third year of life, clashes between the cozy warmth of wills in unison and the new harshness of conflict become part of life. From here on the threat of conflict becomes a powerful influence for all of us, leading sometimes to growth and sometimes to retreat from growth. The outcome depends largely on whether conflict comes to be experienced as leading to something positive or not. As battles of will are won and lost, children hopefully learn they are still lovable and connected, even when wills diverge. Through this growth, children's concepts of themselves and others becomes three dimensional, instead of two dimensional or binary.
Clinical manifestations of retreat
Those who never "learn to lose battles gracefully" are left to deploy primitive and problematic measures to preserve their 2D world. Dictators surround themselves with yes-men because they can’t tolerate conflict. The rigidity of personality disorders, in general, is due to an inability to appreciate the positive in conflict. Those whose perception of the other changes abruptly from best friend to rejected enemy, do so because they can’t tolerate conflicting wills. Those who need to control others similarly lack an appreciation of differentness. This developmental challenge continues throughout emotional maturation, leading to a spectrum of problem patterns. In a less severe, but perhaps more prevalent version, chronic marital squabbling and interpersonal conflicts are often the result of attempts to force wills or opinions closer together, driven by an eternal need to avoid the cold wind of conflict.
Learning to value conflict and diversity
Under good conditions, the third year of life can be a time when children begin to experience the pain of conflict as part of a repeated experience of happy resolution. When conflict is predictably paired with return to bliss, then the anticipation no longer carries the same dread. For a two-year-old, it might be having to settle for the color of ice cream that is available when the desired one is not. A bit later, it might be accepting the cold unfamiliarity of the teacher instead of the warmth of Mom. That transition can be hard, but when the experience is supported in advance and leads to a world of interesting activities and relationships, maybe it is worth it after all.
For teens, the experience is rewarded when feeling safe enough to have one’s own will and ideas brings new freedom and choices. At each age, coming to accept a new level of independence and the associated aloneness can act as a source of excitement and growth or of dread and retreat. An indication of how long this issue remains a challenge is how young adults complain about losing the close and cozy bonds of their teen friends and accepting the more limited and distant relationships of adulthood.
For therapists and their clients
As therapists, a large part of our work is helping our clients not to retreat but to value exposure to new points of view, even when they threaten the comfort of what is familiar. We work to make exposure to the relative cold of an outside perspective less threatening and more clearly associated with a positive outcome. When we ask our clients to stretch too far, they retreat and the relationship comes under a cloud. That’s what happens with a premature interpretation, failure to tune in accurately, or expectations too great for the client to meet.
In spite of the potential threat, one of the most important motivations for clients to grow is the desire to blend wills with the therapist. Paradoxically, the implied threat of breaking the alliance is a major factor in the motivation to take emotional risks. Clients know what we want, even if we think we are succeeding in hiding it. They know, instinctively and nonverbally, that to lag behind our expectations is to threaten the alliance they and we have built. The implied breach of closeness is a legitimate part of how one person can help the other grow, whether it is between friends, spouses, workers, or in therapy. Tim Ferris, the guru of The Four Hour Work Week said, “A person's success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” The uncomfortableness he is talking about is what happens in a real exchange with someone whose will is not necessarily aligned with our own.
The point is that an important aspect of resilience is lifelong, incremental development of the willingness to tolerate divergence, experiencing it as leading to a positive outcome.
In the end, like parents, we have no choice but to work the ambiguous territory between joining wills with our client and being ready to stand our ground in supporting growth. A formula I coined long ago is, “maximum empathy, optimal expectancy," where expectancy is the introduction of truths, goals, and aims that may differ from what is most comfortable for our client.
Jeffery Smith MD
Photo: Anna Samoylova, Unsplash
Please contribute! The best posts are often responses to questions and problem cases contributed by readers. Email me now!
For new readers:
Free Gift Infographic
The Common Infrastructure of Psychotherapy
How lucid clinical understanding of change processes will free you from the limitations of "branded" therapies and transform your practice.
Join our mailing list to receive the biweekly TIFTs as well as news and updates. Unsubscribe at any time
We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.