Monday, May 21, 2007

A Distancer-Pursuer Relationship in Early Recovery

D and J came to see me when D had been clean and sober for six months. D had tried to quit drinking and drugging a number of times, but he had never gone without alcohol or drugs for more than a month until he finally surrendered and began attending AA regularly. D and J had been on the proverbial pink cloud for the first three months of his sobriety, believing they were well on the road to healing their relationship. But after that pink cloud dissipated, as it inevitably does, D and J found themselves falling back into the old unhappy pattern of their relationship. D began to spend more and more time either away from the house or holed up with his computer, while J angrily demanded that D be more involved with her and the household. By the time they got to my office, both of them were feeling hopeless about their relationship.
At first J had been thrilled about D's involvement in AA. She was happy he was attending meetings regularly and going out for coffee after the meeting with his new sober friends. She had not gotten involved in Alanon because she saw D as the one who had problems that needed fixing. She believed it was her job to make sure that D went to meetings regularly and stayed clean and sober.
J also expected D to be much more emotionally available and involved with her after he stopped getting drunk and loaded. When that didn't happen, her protest took the form of angry tears and statements that D was selfish and uncaring about her needs for love and support. Even when D brought her flowers to show he cared, she interpreted his effort as an effort to appease her, to "get me off his back."
D responded to J's distress and need for closeness with either pity or disdain. He had bought flowers for her when he was feeling sorry for her and wanting to show her he did love her, but that feeling changed to disdain when she failed to thank him properly. He self-righteously claimed he was doing all he could do just to stay clean and sober. Indeed, "her whining about how I don't pay attention to her gets me upset and just makes it necessary for me to go to more meetings!"
D and J were embroiled in a classic distancer-pursuer relationship. The more D was unavailable, the more J angrily pursued him. The more J pursued D, the more he made himself unavailable. So round and round they went, each blaming the other for all the problems in the relationship.
The foundation for this kind of relationship had been laid long before D and J met and got involved with each other. D had grown up in a family with a distant, alcoholic father and an angry unavailable mother. Early on he had learned to isolate as a way of coping and comforting himself. By the time he was a teenager he saw himself as a strong, self-reliant guy who didn't depend on others and didn't need close emotional ties. His use of alcohol and drugs only enhanced his denial of a need for closeness.
J had grown up in a family with an angry, verbally abusive addicted father and an unhappy mother, who alternated between intrusive involvement with J and bouts of depression when she was completely unavailable. J took on the role of being a compulsive caregiver in the family trying to keep her father from blowing up and her mother from falling into depression. J grew up believing that she could only find acceptance by gaining the romantic approval of others whom she valued more highly than she valued herself.
It was no surprise, then, when D and J fell back into their old pattern after several months of D's sobriety. My primary job as a marital counselor was to encourage J to get involved with Alanon, where she would learn how to detach from her pursuer role, and to support D getting a sponsor and working the steps as a way of learning how to be more dependent on others for help. My office became a safe holding environment for them to work through basic issues such as clearing up their financial chaos and working together as co-parents. Developing a more intimate emotional and sexual relationship would come later.

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