Distance Is The Next Best Thing

A hand brandishing a middle finger sticking out a cornfield - distance is the next best thing.

The other day my wife said something to me in front of a friend who was staying with us that triggered the whole shit outta me. Some of my deepest childhood hurt is about not feeling seen, heard, or respected, feeling like what I have to say doesn’t matter, and feeling like a burden to those around me.

The details of what she said aren’t important, but it felt like she spun a twenty-pound bowling ball straight down the center lane of my psyche, and BOOM! — exploded all the bowling pins for a clean strike.

I was fuckin hot!

The thing I tend to do in these moments is withdraw. Shut down. Go silent. I mean, I’ll often fire off some kinda passive-aggressive “Oh, no one wants to hear what I have to say? Ok. I got you. Say no more.” But afterward, you can expect curt cordiality to thinly veil my seething resentment.

I usually need time to both simmer down and process what happened.

Don’t Let It Simmer Too Long

After having a heated debate with my wife in the shower, all by myself, I knew that we needed to actually talk — sooner rather than later. I still felt pretty charged up about it though, so I took my demons out onto the porch to sit still and listen to the breeze blow through the palm trees.

Just breathe, Adam. Be here now. How many different birds can you hear? Feel the sunshine on your skin. What’s happening in your body?

The stillness held my stormy emotions like a crying baby, tentatively considering the possibility that it might be safe.

Just then, my wife came out to talk about dinner plans (she had no idea I was having a nuclear meltdown) and immediately noticed how shook I was.

“Are you ok, love?”

“No. I’m super triggered right now and I think I need to tell you about it. Can we talk?”

She obliged.

Have The Conversation You Don’t Wanna Have

I started by identifying some of my big triggers from childhood — feeling like a burden, like I don’t matter, etc. She knows these things about me, but it was important for me to set the stage and let her know I was under no illusion that my emotional reaction was somehow her fault.

When it’s hysterical, it’s historical.

Then I told her what she said that set off all my fire alarms. I assured her, “I am one hundred percent certain it wasn’t your intention to press those buttons, but when you said that shit, I instantly felt like a pesky child that no one wants around. Every cell in my body is screaming fuck you right now, and I want nothing more than to run away and be alone.”

Obviously, this isn’t the winning solution. What I really want is to feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure. But distance is the next best thing.

I continue, “Either I need to process this thing and come out on the other side, or ya’ll can have a girls’ night and I’ll go grab a pizza or something.”

My wife holds my hand and tells me that I’m never a burden to her and what I have to say is definitely important. I say I know and I believe that, but it literally just doesn’t feel that way in my body. She understands.

By this point, we had established a pretty healthy conversation with no defensiveness, contempt, blaming, shaming, or fecal projectiles, so I proceeded, “Do you wanna share your side of the story?” All I had was my triggered-ass docudrama rerun to go off of, so I figured I could probably use some more accurate and up-to-date information from an outside source.

She told me what was going on for her at the time — what she was thinking and feeling that prompted her comment. I could see where she was coming from. It made sense, and she clearly had nothing but good intentions.

I make a proposal, “Maybe we can come up with a discreet signal or gesture that you can use if I’m fired up about something and perhaps speaking too loudly or too much about a certain thing. Or even if I’m totally fine but you just feel overstimulated and need a little quiet time. How about you grab my hand and squeeze it gently three times?”

She likes the idea and tells me she was, in fact, trying to do something like that before she resorted to words. I can neither confirm nor deny these allegations, but it certainly seems plausible.

We had a good laugh.

“Ok, let’s make it official! Three squeezes will pump the brakes. It means I love you dearly… AND… I need less noise in the air right now. How about that?”

All parties agreed and we hugged it out.

Elements of Successful Emotional Discourse

First, I had enough self-awareness to know that I was triggered, what triggered me, and why. Thankfully, I had enough skills in my toolbox (grounding techniques, nonviolent communication, self-compassion, etc.) to keep this from becoming a full-blown, petulant man-tantrum.

I got to share my hurt-ass feelings out loud without making it her fault. She didn’t assume responsibility and subsequently get defensive about it. I got to feel seen, heard, respected, and valued. She got to experience my authentic, vulnerable self — something that cannot exist in the absence of deep trust, love, and honesty.

We shared both sides of the story and actually fucking listened to each other. Next, we looked for an actionable win/win solution that felt safe and respectful for both of us. And eventually, I felt like what I had to say did matter. That I wasn’t a burden to her. Not because she said so, but because she showed me with her actions. With her presence. Her sincerity, time, and attention.

Then we made some bomb-ass enchiladas with a downright heavenly cilantro-lime-avocado sauce and enjoyed a splendid evening with our dear friend, Becky.

When You Choose Distance

Distance often feels like the safest option for traumatized people. Trust me, I fully understand that shit. Physical distance. Emotional distance. Substance and process addictions. Escapism, self-medicating, workaholism, self-sabotage, perfectionism, chronic discontentment, rage. There are countless vulnerability avoidance tactics and distancing techniques to choose from.

But I want you to know that every time you choose distance, you’re usually settling for the next best thing.

Many people never got a complete template for healthy human connection because of trauma, abuse, abandonment, neglect, enmeshment, or whatev. That’s not your fault, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But that shit is definitely your responsibility now.

I’m a far cry from perfect and I don’t do this stuff flawlessly on most days. But I never would’ve made it this far without a lotta help from a lotta people. If conflict in relationships turns into a flaming shit tornado for you every time, please find yourself a trauma-informed coach or therapist to help you heal.

The healthy and loving relationship you always wanted is on the other side of some real uncomfortable conversations.

Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

13 thoughts on “Distance Is The Next Best Thing

  1. Wow. I just read the best single thing this far on my ACA path. Thank you so much. I am loving a few people from a distance right now. Not to punish them for triggering me, but to not be triggered at all. I am hiding from the first best thing.

    1. I had to detox from a lot of friends and family in early recovery. Just couldn’t be around them. Then, I slowly introduced them back into my life on my terms. I found it best to have one on one conversations with them about the new expectations for the new me in our new relationship. And know that not everyone needs to get access to you going forward. You get to decide.

      What you will find as you become emotionally healthier than many of those people is that THEY are the bottleneck in the relationship. I.e., the depth and quality of that relationship will depend entirely on what they are capable of having. Which means some of the relationships can only be cordial and superficial, because anything more would not be safe for you. And you’re not required to do unsafe shit anymore.

      Sounds like you’re on the right path. Keep up the good recovery work, my friend.

  2. Every time I finish reading your posts I think ‘Man, I have so much work to do on myself’ … haha. And also, ‘my previous partners have so much work to do on themselves’ … sigh.

    I cannot afford a therapist but I am reading a lot about these things so I hope with each book finished and each article read I’m closer to being a great partner to someone in my near future.

    Also love description of feelings – flaming shit tornado. Yup, been there and done that.

    1. Haha, always room to grow, my friend. Have you checked out any 12 step fellowships? CoDA? ACA? SLAA? Who knows which one will resonate with you. There are many. But they’re essentially free therapy! And furthermore, you get access to a healing community – a tribe of fellow travelers on this journey of self-discovery. In that regard, it’s actually BETTER than therapy. Yes, you can do some important healing work solo. But relational trauma MUST be healed in relation to others. That’s why I strongly recommend it. Also, because toxic shame thrives in isolation. And if 12 step doesn’t tickle your fancy, at least find a book club or a full moon circle of tree huggers or something. We all need a tribe, Zita.

      Thanks for reading – for your kind words, support, and encouragement. I appreciate you 🙂

  3. I love your articles! I always walk away learning something new. I also end up crying, which can be cathartic. So thank you? Lol 😂

  4. You’re sooooo living my life in this situation! I’m totally there right now.
    My stepdad died in January. It’s one of those traumatic situations that bring out the very worst in people, including me. Death, mourning, money, parents, siblings, moving, inheritance, etc.
    Within days I felt like I was the same 7-year-old stupid, baby sister that everyone told to shut up all the time. None of my input is allowed. I found EVERY DAMN FEELING I thought I had dealt with come back to the surface in an instant. I wanted to run soooooooooooo much! But I found a way to tell my sister how I was feeling, to set boundaries, and to not be guilted into doing something I am not comfortable doing.
    My sweet husband listened to me lose my shit day after day for a week. Then he looked at me, took my hand, and very gently said, “I’ve run out of compassion and patience for your situation. I need you to stop talking to me about this.”
    I was kind of floored for a few seconds, then I said, “Oh man, I’m sorry for bitching so much! I hear you.”
    He hugged me and thanked me. He apologized for not being able to take anymore. I thanked him for telling me he was full and not to be sorry. It was nearly fucking magical! No hurt feelings, communication, love, kindness, patience. Really beautiful stuff.
    Your post was perfect for me right now. Perfect! Please, keep writing. You’re doing magical shit here Adam. 🙂

    1. Yasssss! I mean, bummer to hear you’re going through all that turbulence – but so happy to know that you’re getting through it with significant measures of dignity, grace, and healthy communication.
      I felt like a turd during my entire exchange with Rebecca (in my story), but when I made it to the other side and looked back on it, I thought, “Holy fuck! That worked!” Like you said, pure magic.
      Thanks for your support, encouragement, and kindness, Sash. Always. You are a wonderful soul ❤️.

  5. I remember when Mom died on a xmas night after a very cruel illness. I have 6 sisters and many went bonkers in front of her corpse. Talk about a shitstorm. We had 6 months ahead of us to really talk to her (well, I thought I emptied the bucket, but more shit came after … ).
    I fell in a dark path of bad luck 5 years after her departure, I asked for help from my siblings and got a huge slap, and another… and another. Despair took in. I had friends, fortunately. They saved me from a wreck. 5 other years have passed.
    My mom put me on a pedestal, good grades were on top of the list. I am guessing this was the origin of a tribe grudge and I was incapable of seeing it coming. Being an empath has many downsides. Some were more than happy to kick me down, even though I was already on the ground, abused and panicked. So, I severed the links.
    I resent more and more my departed mother for the way she treated us, conditional love and all. She asked a lot of me, I gave without limits. She did not ask the same of the others, acting like an equalizer in the tribe. I can tell you the “less” intelligent became the meanest (not my chart, by the way…).
    I stopped talking about it with my friends, many ask about it though… They know it makes me sad.
    My point ? Good intentions are something I have trouble with. I tend to distinguish explanations and justifications.
    Distance, well, I have trouble with this, I call this white mourning. My life with my sis is not what I hoped for. My responsibility and my choice, I avoided them and I feel it deeply. The toxicity or the sadness… quite a choice.

    1. Oof. Sounds tough. I’m committed to minimizing toxicity in my life, which provides the space to cultivate joy as best I can. Sure, there is always sadness and grief – part of the human experience. But my life is so much better without toxic people, places, and things 🙂

  6. “By this point, we had established a pretty healthy conversation with no defensiveness, contempt, blaming, shaming, or fecal projectiles, so I proceeded, “Do you wanna share your side of the story?” All I had was my triggered-ass docudrama rerun to go off of, so I figured I could probably use some more accurate and up-to-date information from an outside source.”

    this is so beautiful, if I start to date again, this kind of dialogue/love, is what I desire

    1. Thanks! It really takes two self-aware people who are willing to work toward a win/win solution. So many people get obstinately set on being right or having shit their way, which results in a lose/lose situation. Yuck. So yes, keep that in mind as you date. Is this person willing to own their baggage and work on themselves? If the answer is no, the relationship has an expiration date on it.

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