Daniella got married when she was 22. She and her husband met in college, and they entered med school together. Fast forward ten years, and the combination of busyness, emotional distance, and alcohol dependence set the stage for Daniella to have an affair with the husband of her best friend. The secret eventually surfaced, and she and her husband separated. After couples counseling and a lot of thinking, she and her husband reunited. The Daniella who came into my office was calm, sober, happily married, and ready to keep thinking about herself so that her anxiety and immaturity didn’t run the show in her relationships.
I don’t have to tell you how much shame society puts on affairs, or how much it can affect other relationships. Daniella had spent a lot of time working on her relationships with her family and her husband’s family. She found that strengthening family relationships helped her be more a “self” in her own marriage. But Daniella was still cutoff from many of her med school friends who knew both her and her best friend. She wanted to reconnect with them, but didn’t know whether it was worth the effort.
“What’s the goal in reconnecting with these friends?” I asked her.
“Honestly? To make them understand that I’m doing great.”
“How does that end up being your focus?”
“It’s about pride. I spend a lot of time wondering what they’re saying about me to each other, and what my friend has said to them. I know my husband shared a lot with them when we were separated. It drives me crazy not to know.”
Daniella also admitted that her “pride” kept her from reaching out to them. She was worried about being rejected. I asked her if she thought she could handle their reactions maturely, and she said that she wasn’t. “Even the slightest hint of anger or disapproval is going to make me pretty pissed,” she admitted.
As a counselor, it’s very easy for me to be too eager to help clients bridge cutoff in their families or friendships. But if people can’t be objective, and see how their anxiety is directing them, then attempts to reconnect are unlikely to be effective. What Daniella labeled pride, I saw as her pseudoself at work. She would be bringing a pretend or fake maturity when attempting to reconnect with these old friends, and she knew it would crumble the second someone was upset with her. My job was to be patient and help her think before she charged into reconciliation mode.
Reconciliation is about changing yourself. It’s not changing the relationship or the other person. So if the goal is to make someone like you, or achieve forgiveness, or change someone’s behavior, you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to manage other people. A person who dives in to “fix” a relationship is no more differentiated than someone who avoids the interaction all together.
Dr. Bowen wrote, “An effort toward more differentiation does not insist others change and it is not contingent on anyone’s cooperation.”
Seriously, I need to hang that one on my closet door.
By trying to convince her friends she was doing fine, Daniella would be allowing her friends to control how she thought about herself. By avoiding her friends’ opinions, Daniella still gave them power to affect her thinking. They were influencing her whether she was talking to them or not. Reconnecting wasn’t the total solution.
In order to be more emotionally separate from her friend’s responses, Daniella needed to think about how she was evaluating herself. By defining her principles for being a mature spouse, Daniella gained a more objective understanding of how she had changed. By determining what she wanted and did not want to share with her friends, she began to develop clearer boundaries and decrease the possibility of triangling her friends into her marriage.
Daniella also began to think about how her friend’s reactions were also influenced by their own anxieties, their experiences, and their relationship to other people involved in the drama. So it made sense that she shouldn’t expect outsiders to have the same understanding of her marriage as she might have. She could be in relationship with them and not interpret their judgements as reality. It was inevitable that she wouldn’t be thrilled if her friends reacted poorly, but after this thinking, she had a much better chance of responding maturely.
My continuing challenge is to not put the cart before the horse when I’m helping clients think about bridging cutoff. It’s also my challenge to do some thinking before I charge forward and reconnect with people in my own life. Objectivity is essential for emotional neutrality. And as Dr. Bowen said, neutrality in action is differentiation. But you can’t have differentiation without a lot of thinking, and a lot of patience.
Questions for Continued Thinking:
- When have you cut off from people to avoid negative reactions?
- When have you quickly attempted to reconcile relationships, and did this urgency ever backfire?
- When do you contact difficult people in order to change them or win them over?
- What kind of mature changes in your behavior would require no cooperation from others?
- How can you stay focused on your part in relationships rather than trying to control others?
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