Too hot, too cold, just right: Closeness, distance in lesbian relationships

African American lesbian coupleBY RUTH L. SCHWARTZ, PH.D.

In the first part of this article, “The Goldilocks Dilemma: Navigating Closeness and Distance in Lesbian/Queer Relationships,” 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 over-sized 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! They 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 my inner landscape. It felt like a place where something enormous had shattered, and I wanted to make sure I’d swept up all the glass. Yes, it felt pretty clear in there. Jana’s lateness was annoying, yet it also wasn’t that big a deal.

By the time Jana got to my house that night, I was genuinely calm. Not faking it, not stuffing my feelings, but calm. I had entered some new country within myself, and planted a flag.

Without knowing it, I had used the SCORE process for the very first time.

SCORE is the Conscious Girlfriend go-to method when we get triggered. Here’s what the letters stand for:

S – Step back into yourself
C – Connect to yourself with compassion
O – Open to observe your feelings (and their true origin)
R – Remember your responsibility for your feelings — and relinquish responsibility for anyone else’s
E – Experience empowerment

SCORE sounds simple, but often it’s not easy. One big reason for that is that when we get triggered, our “reptile brain,” the part of our neurology designed to protect us from life-threatening harm, goes into high alert. That’s why the “S” step is so important. Unless we deliberately step back into ourselves — through our conscious intention, and by reminding ourselves to take 5-10 long, deep, slow breaths — we will stay caught in the grip of a full-body reaction, feeling as if we’re fighting for our lives. And yes, the word “fight” is important there. Trying to communicate when we’re in this state definitely leads to fights with our girlfriends!

So the S step allows time for our cognitive, rational brains to come back online. But even once that happens, we can still stay stuck if we remain caught up in our inner movie-scripts about ourselves and other people. “I’m a victim.” “I never get what I need, want, deserve.” Those are stories. “I’m flawed, defective, unlovable. I don’t deserve any better than this.” Those are stories, too. And both sets of stories are equally painful in different ways — which is why it’s so important to connect with ourselves with compassion before going any further.

For many of us, it’s difficult to extend compassion toward ourselves. But it’s actually a crucial step in being able to have good relationships. If we’re not able to be self-loving, we often become what Buddhism calls “hungry ghosts,” who are depicted as beings with huge empty bellies and tiny little throats. In other words, we constantly seek love from other people, but we’re unable to really take it in.

Some people have a pattern of blaming ourselves or making ourselves wrong. Our inner monologue can be like a war zone in which we’re constantly aiming missiles at ourselves: “You idiot, you crybaby, you loser! How could you be so stupid?” The problem is that it’s very hard for people in war zones to trust, relax and receive, even if someone else actually wants to give to them. So this “C” step is important not just when we’re triggered, but actually all the time. The more we become able to be genuinely gentle and loving with ourselves, the more love we’ll be able to take in from others, too.

By the way, self-love and self-compassion are very different from self-pity or self-righteousness. When we are truly extending love and compassion toward ourselves, there’s actually no need for self-righteousness — we don’t need to feel “right” or feel sorry for ourselves because we’re getting what we actually need, i.e., love.

So, back to my revelation on the couch, that night when Jana was so late. My own pattern wasn’t one of self-blame, but rather of blaming others. I was very good at internally making my girlfriends wrong, rather than feeling all the feelings that came up when I got triggered. And of course, there were always things for me to find fault with. For instance, Jana’s change in plans was inconsiderate. Yet as I said above, holding onto a mental story in which I was continually victimized by inconsiderate girlfriends was an emotional dead-end for me — as were the fights in which I tried to forcibly “get more” from someone who didn’t want to give it.

So, when I opened to observe my feelings, I realized that I often felt let down by people close to me, and resentful about how much I gave, and they took. Yet I had known when I got involved with Jana that she would generally only have time to see me once a week. I had walked into the situation with my eyes wide open, so I had to take responsibility for that; Jana had never actually promised something that she couldn’t deliver.

The truth was, I could take what Jana was able to give me (and do my best to be content with it), or I could leave it (and leave her). Those were my two options — Doors #1 and 2. I’d been trying with all my might to create a Door #3, a change in Jana that just wasn’t in my power to make happen. And of course, trying to demand more from Jana always backfired, because it made her want to see me less, not more.

Still, the storms of emotion needed to pass through me, so I shook and wept. But at the same time, the observer in me began to detach from my story of victim-hood. I saw that I needed to deal with my feelings of deprivation myself, rather than trying to insist that Jana take them on. And this was actually an empowering realization: that I could deal with them myself!

As I continued looking within, I realized even more. For instance, my resentment at Jana’s lateness and general lack of availability was only one of a number of complaints I had been nursing. I also felt frustrated and angry that I both cooked dinner for Jana every week, and did all the clean-up.

But when I really thought about it, I realized that Jana had often offered to bring some take-out, and I always declined. Sometimes she had started washing dishes afterward, too, but I always made her to stop — both because she washed dishes so slowly that it bugged me, and because I didn’t want to waste our precious moments together on clean-up. I saw now that I had choices I hadn’t even realized I had. I could accept Jana’s offer to bring take-out some nights. I could let her do the dishes, even in her slow, methodical way. And/or, I could accept that it was my choice to do all the cooking and clean-up, rather than telling myself a story in which Jana was taking advantage of me.

As you can probably see, I was moving internally through the steps of SCORE: observing my feelings, taking responsibility for them and then feeling empowered!

I think Jana was probably primed for me to be angry, and was quite surprised when I was calm and pleasant with her that evening (despite her arriving 3 hours later than planned!) But the best surprise was how I felt inside. Shifting my attention from blaming Jana and feeling deprived, to recognizing the ways I had co-created the circumstances that frustrated me, was incredibly freeing.

So, back to Jerri and Lou, and Elise and Susan. When I explained the SCORE Process, Jerri was skeptical at first. Her first response was, “But most people spend the whole weekend with their girlfriends. I’m only asking for what’s reasonable.”

“But you’re not with ‘most people.’ You’re with Lou. She’s a very particular person, with particular needs,” I answered.

“But what about my needs?” Jerri persisted. “Am I supposed to just pretend they don’t exist?”

“No, of course not. But you do have some choices. You can explore the places inside you that get so upset about Lou’s needs, and see if there’s room for some flex and some healing inside of you. Maybe some part of you would actually enjoy spending part of the weekend on your own, too, if you made room for that to emerge.”

That got Jerri’s attention. “Hmmm. It is true that my friend Zoe invited me to go for a ski weekend, and I said No even though it sounded like fun. I just thought it wasn’t right for someone in a relationship to go off for the weekend with someone else. Don’t partners need to spend time with each other?”

“Of course, but they also need to spend time alone, and with other people. If you and Lou really love each other, time apart will just make you even happier to see each other.”

Jerri looked thoughtful — and a few weeks later, she emailed me to say she had spent some time with her own anxiety, and it had lessened. Then she’d gone skiing with her friend Zoe, and Lou had been thrilled to see her when she got back. “There is hope for this relationship after all,” Jerri wrote.

Elise and Susan’s process was similar. Elise was already aware that she’d been looking to Susan to convince her that she was loveable, and she understood that that wasn’t really Susan’s job. So she began, instead, to use a metta (loving kindness) prayer I gave her: May I be peaceful. May I be happy. May I know my truth worth. May I open to fully receiving and giving love.

“I feel so much more full inside,” she told me a week later. “I really can’t believe the change. You know, it’s okay for Susan to just call when she feels like calling, because I don’t feel that — that desperate hunger inside me any more.”

Not every PAP and PEP story has this same happy ending. Sometimes, two peoples’ needs really are incompatible, and the best solution is for them to part, rather than continuing to battle it out. But very often, working with the underlying issues can not only smooth things out, but even lead to surprises.

“You know, sometimes these days Susan wants to talk on the phone more often than I do!” Elise told me a few months later. “I still love her and feel connected to her, but I’ve gotten so much more involved with my book group and biking club. I feel like now when I want to talk to Susan, it’s about actually talking with her, rather than just filling a need of my own.”

Jerri reported something similar. “I never would have thought I’d be saying this, but I’ve actually come to appreciate the fact that Lou likes to spend some alone time on the weekends,” she told me five months after our first conversation. “It actually makes me feel so much more free. I love being able to make plans with my friends now, without feeling guilty about it. It’s like getting to ‘have my cake and eat it too!’ And then when I do spend time with Lou, we really enjoy each other so much more fully than we used to. She’s ready to come out of her shell and play, and I’m ready to calm down a bit so we meet in the middle, and it works out perfectly.”

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