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Going the distance” is an expression used for going all the way, the whole time, to the very end of our lives. We often use this term when talking about running marathons, boxing matches, and marriages.  Distance is an interesting term, because sometimes we need to create some distance in the process of going the distance.

Harriet Lerner writes about distancing in her’s “guide to courageous acts of change in key relationships,” titled, The Dance of Intimacy. In her chapter “Distance and More Distance,” she writes:

Most us rely on some form of distancing as a primary way to manage intensity in key relationships, including those in our first family… emotional distancing can be an essential first move to ensure our emotional well-being and even our survival. We all know from personal experience that a relationship can become so emotionally charged that the most productive action we can take is to seek space.

Distancing removes us from the immediate situation of “high reactivity and allows us to get calm enough to reflect, plan, and generate new options for our behaviour.”  However, Lerner notes, “often we rely on distance and a cutoff to exit permanently from a significant relationship without really addressing the issues and problems.” They will inevitably follow us into other relationships.

Couples sometimes fear that when one or both partners gets some distance, it is to run away rather than find an emotionally safe space to reflect in order to eventually return and close the distance. When my wife and I meet with couples, we find ourselves advocating “time outs” so they can calm down, reflect, try to understand the other person and what’s going on in themselves.

Therefore I offer Terry Real’s helpful piece on taking a Time Out:

10 Commandments for Taking a Time Out

1. Use time outs as a circuit breaker:
A time out is a rip stop; it is the cord you pull to stop a runaway train, a brake, the thing you use to HALT an interaction that either has crossed over into, or is quickly crossing over into, haywire. Time outs have one job and one job only – to stop abruptly a psychologically violent or unconstructive interaction between you and your partner.

2. Take your time out from the “I”:
Calling for a time out has everything to do with me and NOTHING to do with you. Calling for a time out means that I don’t like how I am feeling, what I am doing or about to do. Whether or not you think you have a problem with how you’re behaving or how “it’s” going between us is strictly your business.

3. Take distance responsibly:
Time outs are obviously a form of distance taking, and like all forms of distance taking there are two ways to do it – provocatively or responsibly. Responsible distance taking has two pieces to it: 1) An explanation and 2) A promise of return. “This is why I am seeking distance and this is when I intend on coming back.” Provocative distance taking tends to get you chased.

4. Use the phrase “time out” or the gesture (the “T” sign) as an abbreviations for the following phrase: “Honey, no matter how you may be feeling or assessing things, I don’t like how I’m doing and I don’t trust what I am about to do. So, I’m taking some time to regain my composure and I will be back to you when I do.”

5. Don’t let yourself get stopped:
Time outs are unilateral. They are your last ditch effort to avoid immature words or actions. Unlike virtually every other Couple’s tool, time outs a non-negotiable declaration – “I’m leaving.” You’re not asking permission and you cannot allow yourself to be stopped. Don’t call a time out and stand there to keep talking! Leave. Leave the room and go into another – a bedroom for example – and close the door.

6. Use check-ins at prescribed interval:
Since you’re Not using a time out to punish your partner but rather to calm things down, it is critical that you check in with your partner from time to time in order to take the emotional temperature between you.

7. Remember your goal:
Time outs are about one thing – stopping in its tracks emotionally violent, immature, destructive behavior. Stopping such behavior in your relationship is a goal that supersedes all other goals. You may need to work on better communication, more sharing or negotiation, but none of that will happen until you succeed in wrestling the beast of nasty transactions to the ground. Whatever point you want to make, whatever the content of the issue, nothing matters more than ending these sorts of transactions – so keep your priorities straight – nothing takes precedence over a time out.

8. Return in good faith:
When are you ready to end a time out? When you and your partner are both reseated enough in your adult selves to have a positive interaction again. That means you too. Don’t return with a grudge or a chip on your shoulder – you’ll just start up again. Come back when you are truly ready to make peace.

9. Use a twenty four hour moratorium on triggering topics:
A mistake a lot of couples make when they re-engage is to try to “process” what just happened. Bad idea. When you come back from a time out, just make nice to each other. Give your partner a hug and a cup of tea. Do NOT try to sort through whatever the topic was that triggered the time out for twenty four hours.

10) Know when to get help and use it:
If you find that a certain topic – kids, sex, money – ALWAYS triggers a nasty transaction, take that as a signal that you need some outside support in order to have that conversation constructively. Go to a minister or a mental health professional for help. If you find that heated, unhelpful transactions occur with enough regularity that you are frequently resorting to time outs, take that as a signal that you and your partner need some ongoing Couple’s work.

A few years ago, I listened to Dr. Rod J. Wilson talk about the biblical phrase “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Early in my marriage, this instruction would have been taken more legalistically than wisely. I admit that my insistence to deal with an issue before nightfall merely added heat to the problem. Wilson encouraged “do not let many sunsets go down” on unresolved issues. May we be so dedicated and wise to recognize the times for a short & temporary distance on the way to going the distance.

What is your experience of creating distance in the process of going the distance?

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