To understand Joe’s response, we have to recognize that when some people feel anxious, tired of conflict or pressure, or too much of the sticky family “togetherness” called fusion, their response is to distance themselves, be it emotionally, physically or both. When a person distances from others, they feel a sense of relief because the distance seemingly brings the conflict to an end. Of course, nothing is actually resolved; instead, more stress is generated.
On the outside, it looks as though Joe and his parents are disconnected. But on the inside, they are actually thinking about each other all the time and remain overly focused on one another. They are, in fact, still extremely involved with one another: they are emotionally bound up together, even though all communication has ceased. Neither is free from the original problem; nor are they free from each other.
Extreme Distancing: Cutting Off
Distancing, at its extreme, turns to cutting off. It can occur after long periods of conflict or as a sudden reaction to a difficult encounter. Whatever the issue, the person doing the cutting off has difficulty addressing and resolving the problem directly and maturely. Instead, like Joe, they stop communicating. Continuing the relationship seems unmanageable to them.
When a parent and child are enmeshed (too emotionally bound up with each other), they are more susceptible to cutting off when anxiety is high. Joe and his parents, for instance, were overly involved and entangled with each other. He was not taking responsibility for himself, nor were his parents taking responsibility for themselves. His parents did not stand up and let him know what they would and wouldn’t accept. Instead they nagged, begged and hoped he would change. He dug his heels in deeper, did less when pushed, and refused to address his part of the problem. They were living in reaction to one another, rather than each taking responsibility for their part of the family “dance.” The only way that Joe could see to get out of this tight tangle was to distance and cut-off from his parents; he didn’t have the skills necessary to untie the knots, to grow up and face himself.