Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Approach-Avoidance Cycle in Relationships

The Approach-Avoidance Cycle (AAC) - also known as the Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic, Push-Pull Relationship, or Engulfment vs. Abandonment - is a pattern that emerges in relationships where one individual wants more of something (or wants the other person to change in some way) – this is the pursuer - and the other individual resists or withdraws – this is the distancer.  It has been often described as two people “attached by a 10 foot pole”.  When the pursuer moves forward, the distancer is pushed back.  When the distancer withdraws, the pursuer is pulled forward.

While everyone needs a balance of attachment and autonomy in their lives, the ideal formula varies from person to person.  When one person in a relationship wants more attachment and the other wants more autonomy, this is often the perfect storm for an AAC to develop.  At its extremes, the AAC can be quite damaging to a relationship because it becomes a self-perpetuating “war” that is exhausting and builds resentment over time in both individuals.

The AAC can be an overarching pattern in a relationship or it might occur only within certain hot-button issues.  In marriages, these issues often include sex, money or parenting.  For example, one partner might want more frequent sexual intercourse with the other partner or may want them to spend more time with the children, manage the money better, engage in more house work or go out on more dates.  In families or friendships, it can include how much personal contact people engage in or the level of involvement in each other’s personal lives.  For example, how often an adult child visits their parents or the degree to which friends confide in each other.  It is tempting for each person to think they are in the right and the other is wrong, but its really often a matter of personal preference and both people are responsible for their part in perpetuating the pattern.

In the AAC, the pursuer wants more “we” focus and the distancer wants more “I” focus.  The pursuer typically appears to over-function in the relationship and the distancer appears to under-function.  The pursuer’s efforts to get the distancer “on board” feels like manipulation, pressure, control, or smothering to the distancer.  The distancer’s resistance feels like rejection, abandonment or a lack of love/caring to the pursuer.  Each becomes more and more entrenched in their stance and they make increasing assumptions and judgments about the other’s motivations and intentions.  Each tries harder to “win”, thus it becomes a battle with the potential for serious casualties along the way.  Unchecked over time, the damage can become irreversible.

The good news is, if at least one of the partners recognizes and disrupts the pattern early enough, the relationship may be salvageable.  Interrupting the pattern means that the pursuer stops pursuing and/or the distancer stops distancing.  In other words, the pursuer has to decrease the “we” focus and become more “I” focused.  They have to stop expecting the other to change and focus more on what is actually under their control (one’s own thoughts, feelings and behavior).  Or, the distancer has to stop withdrawing/resisting and begin to reach out to the pursuer or make some observable efforts toward change.  Because both individuals are attached by a “10 foot pole”, when one person stops pushing or pulling, often the other will follow suit.   

This is not as simple as it sounds as the behavior can be so ingrained, the individuals involved may have trouble identifying which of their behaviors are pursuing or distancing.  It can also be very difficult to let go of these behaviors when there is a strong fear of abandonment or losing ones autonomy.  In these cases, a psychologist with experience in family or marital therapy can help guide one or both individuals through the process.  Of course there is also a risk that even when the pattern is disrupted, one or both individuals may remain dissatisfied with the relationship due to irreconcilable differences in wants, needs or values.

 If you suspect you are struggling with an AAC in a relationship, it may be helpful to talk to a mental health professional. A good therapist can help you understand the function of your behavior, identify triggers, and maintain your changes. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy.

Please also visit my website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Walking in Their Shoes: ADHD and Learning Disorders

Have you ever wondered what it is like to have ADHD or a learning disorder like dyslexia, dysgraphia or dyscalculia?

The PBS Misunderstood Minds website offers a number of experiential activities along with a wealth of other useful information and resources.  Try a few of the links below to walk in their shoes for a moment:

1.  Visual Activity: Reading with Distractions "simulates what a child with an attention problem might experience during a classroom reading assignment"

2.   Auditory Activity: Listening to Directions "attempts to illustrate what it might be like for a first-grader with an attention disorder to try to concentrate on a set of oral instructions amidst a cacophony of classroom distractions"

3.  Decoding Activity: Recognizing Phonemes simulates dyslexia by having you try to sound out words without automatic decoding abilities

4.  Memory Activity: Recall and Understanding "simulates the effect that memory and attention problems can have on reading comprehension"

5.  Graphomotor Activity: Tracing Letters "is designed to simulate what a child with a graphomotor writing disability might experience every day"

6.  Composition Activity: Putting Ideas in Sequence "is designed to simulate what a child with a writing disability might experience during a classroom writing assignment"

7.  Arithmetic Activity: Using Basic Facts simulates dyscalculia by having you solve math problems without efficient recall of basic math facts

8.  Spatial Activity: Making 3-D Inferences simulates dyscalculia by impairing your ability to visualize "three-dimensional objects presented on the flat surface of a piece of paper or computer screen"

9.  Sequence Activity: Multistep Problems "is designed to evoke in you the intimidation and frustration a young student with a math disability might feel working out a problem that requires the integration of mathematics skills"

Please visit my website for more information about ADHD, learning differences and other mental health concerns,

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Breaking Bad Habits

A habit is any action that is performed so often that it becomes almost an involuntary or automatic response. Some people use the words "habit" and "addiction" interchangeably; however, there are important differences between them.

A habit is something a person is inclined or accustomed to doing routinely, almost without thinking, There is often no forethought or planning in it and they may even be unaware they are doing it. There are "bad" habits like snacking on fatty foods while watching TV, biting ones nails when nervous, or twirling ones hair when tired. A habit can also be something helpful like going to the gym after work, flossing after meals, or eating a nutritious breakfast in the morning.

An addiction is something you are dependent upon or that you need more and more of to satisfy you. Someone who is addicted spends time deliberately thinking about and planning for the activity - like going to the liquor store to stock up on alcohol or going to the casino over a long lunch for some clandestine gambling. People who are addicted make a conscious effort to obtain the things they need to satisfy their addiction and they deliberately arrange time for it in their day, sometimes even putting off other important things to do it. Addiction is never helpful in that the behavior is engaged in too frequently or intensely such that it causes problems.

Some behaviors, like smoking, are part habit and part addiction. Lighting up after dinner may be a habit in that it is automatic and done without much thought, but the smoker is addicted to the nicotine and might even pass on lunch to spend his or her last dollar to obtain a fix. In addition, quitting the smoking will result in physiological symptoms that do not occur when stopping a pure habit.

A habit is learned in that over time the behavior is rewarded and becomes consistent. For instance, biting your nails might provide you a little relief when you are feeling stressed. After several repetitions, your brain learns to associate the nail biting with stress relief and a habit is formed. The common lore is that learning a habit takes about three weeks of frequent repetition with reinforcement.

Overcoming an addiction can be a very difficult and complicated process, but changing a habit is something that can often be done on one's own with a little focus and persistence. The trick is to make the involuntary voluntary and the unconscious conscious so that good choices can be made about behavior instead of letting things just happen.

How to Break a Bad Habit

First it is important to determine your level of motivation. Ask yourself if you really want to make a change and why. Identify the pros and cons of the habit (its payoffs and tradeoffs) and this will help you understand the function your habit serves. Write down what you want to change and why - there is some evidence that writing down your goals contributes to success in achieving them.

Work on one habit at a time. Start small and go slow. Well planned, measured, reasonable changes are the most lasting changes. Impulsive, dramatic changes such as rapid weight loss or spontaneous New Year's resolutions are often short-lived.

Identify your triggers and plan for them. Keep a diary logging the situations, thoughts, feelings, and actions surrounding your habit. With whom do you perform your habit? Where? When? This way you will have a better understanding of your patterns.

In the early stages of change, you will want to avoid your triggers or replace your habit with another more productive behavior when your triggers are unavoidable. Substitute a helpful habit for the problematic one - preferably one that satisfies that same underlying need you discovered when examining your motivation for change. For example, if you twirl your hair when you are sleepy, you can replace it with better sleeping habits. Once you are secure in your habit change, you can begin to safely expose yourself more and more to your old triggers without risking a slip.

Self-control and will power are learned skills that can be developed with practice. Each time you restrain yourself from performing your habit, your will power and self-control become stronger.

Since habits are learned through reinforcement, remember to reward your successes. When you slip, don’t become discouraged and "throw out the baby with the bathwater". Just as it takes time to develop a bad habit, it also takes time to break one.

If you suspect you are struggling with addiction and want to make a change, it is important to consult with an addictions specialist to assist you in your recovery. If you have tried unsuccessfully to change a bad habit despite your strong desire to do so, it also may be time to talk to a mental health professional. A good therapist can help you understand the function of your habit, identify triggers, and maintain your changes. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy.

Please also visit my website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.