The Benefit of a Power Struggle: Dr. Bonnie's Tactics for Getting Space in a Relationship

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An article in the Wall Street Journal contends that the key to a happy relationship is for couples to give each other enough space (June 18th, Wall Street Journal: But couples therapist Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil acknowledges this can be a delicate dance because of issues men and women face, stemming from their childhood. She explains how couples can put the ensuing power struggle to work for their benefit.

The Wall Street Journal suggests that happier relationships are those in which the couples each get the space they need (June 18th, Wall Street Journal: Relationship expert Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil say this is easier said than done since 80 percent of men are distancers, while 80 percent of women are pursuers. This theory was worked out by Dr. Bonnie's mentor Dr. Thomas Fogarty, and is outlined in her book Make Up Don't Break Up and accompanying DVD, Falling in Love and Staying in Love.

Dr. Bonnie explains: "Men who are distancers need more space than women who are pursuers - they are afraid of getting smothered or suffocated perhaps in a similar way to the kind of attachment they had when they were younger. Since women are frequently the pursuers, it's common that these distancers had a mother who was a pursuer." The other possibility is that they had a family structure in which they felt rejected, so they distance themselves rather than risk rejection.

And HOW they distance themselves can present problems as well: Frequently distancers feel guilty about needing their space so rather than address the issue, they provoke a fight which forces distance, and they don't feel as guilty.

Pursuers often have abandonment issues in their past and will start to panic when they feel their loved one pushing them away. "They keep pursuing when they sense rejection which of course, only gives the distancer more reason to run. Then the pursuer continues the cycle!" says Dr. Bonnie. Then, because many women take responsibility for the home - often working 30 hours per week in the home in addition to their career - it becomes difficult for women to take space for themselves even if they want it. "A women's work is never done," Dr. Bonnie sympathizes, and discusses further in her book Financial Infidelity.

Because women often don't take space even when they need it, it becomes imperative for them not to wait for the "right" time - "There is no right time!" points out Dr. Bonnie. "Men may be more comfortable taking space then women, but women need it just as much otherwise they risk resenting their husband and children."

The scenario that works both for and against couples in this situation is that distancers commonly pick pursuers for mates, and vice versa. They pick each other to balance each other, to grow, and to work on the childhood wounds they have. But this "opposites attract" scenario can bring about a power struggle as well.

To pre-empt this, Dr. Bonnie suggests giving each other space before the other person asks. "Women, encourage your husband to go on that hunting trip, to catch a ball game with the guys. And men, make sure your wives take a girls' night on a regular basis, or have time to work on a hobby they enjoy." These "mini brushes with death" are useful for both parties. They rejuvenate the person who's taking the break, and they make the other partner appreciate them and look forward to the time when they'll be together again instead of being frightened by the time apart. "In my practice people say they don't always NEED the space their partner gives them, but it's important to know it's there for when they do need it," points out Dr. Bonnie.

Dr. Bonnie also encourages "mini-connections" throughout the day and week - a combination of non-verbal actions like kissing, hugging, eating dinner together - and verbal interactions - like her Smart Heart Skills and Dialogue. To do this, she suggests couples check in with each other on this issue once a week for ten minutes or so. "Share any needs about connection, disconnection, and feelings that arise around these needs," instructs Dr. Bonnie. It's important that the distancer gives the pursuer enough warning about when they intend to disconnect. Because the pursuer will often have abandonment issues, the subject needs to be handled carefully.

Dr. Bonnie says the distancer should "announce" their disconnection and reconnection so it isn't abrupt or rejecting. And when in doubt, think of the Porcupine Theory: Two porcupines in an igloo need to be close enough so they stay warm, but not so close that they prick each other!

Pursuers and distancers are destined to find each other, and to drive eachother crazy. But if they manage things correctly they will reach real life love as they work through this power struggle.

To see Dr. Bonnie talk more about giving each other the space you need, click here:

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