Friday, March 4, 2011

You Can't Get Blood From A Stone.

When I was new to recovery, and still trying to understand why my alcoholic ex-husband did what he did, I began to notice a pattern in our encounters. I realised that some of his behavior was directed at keeping a measured emotional space between us - not too much distance, not too much intimacy. I started to call these manipulative behaviors "advance/retreat games."

If I "advanced" by opening a discussion about the way we communicated, asking to have my wants or needs met, or speaking of my feelings for him, he "retreated" by changing the subject to what he'd done at work that day, pretending I hadn't spoken, or if I continued to press him, insulting me as a way to get distance.

If I then "retreated" into a hurt or angry silence, he would "advance" by giving me a hug, asking me what was wrong, and telling me he loved me.

If I took that as encouragement, and "advanced" again by once more trying to speak about my thoughts or feelings, he'd "retreat" by pushing me away, saying something rude, or changing the subject again.

We all have emotional safe zones; strangers are only allowed at the outer edges, friends are closer, spouses and best friends closer still. Some of us have very large safe zones, we only feel comfortable with other people kept at quite a distance - alcoholics can be this way, but so can many of us badly hurt as small children - we don't trust.

What I've learned in Al-Anon, is that I can ask to have my wants and needs met, but if I demand, I am trespassing upon another's safe zone. If they can't give me what I want and need at that moment in time, I must respect that, and go elsewhere to satisfy my emotional needs. I can call a program friend, talk to my Higher Power, take the dogs out for a walk by the sea.

If a person plays advance-retreat games, it's not because they've decided that they want to be maddening to me, it's because they don't feel safe with that level of intimacy. If I keep trying to force them to either move closer themselves, or allow me to move closer, I will damage the fragile delicate thing that is trust, and that's self-defeating.

A program friend started out by saying about her alcoholic husband, "You can't get blood from a stone." and over time, changed that to, "He wasn't comfortable with it." She describes the process as, "moving from judgement into acceptance."

When I'm taking another person's inventory, I have lost my focus. It's not my place to decide how someone else should act, think, or feel. I don't have to like it, but if I don't accept it, I will lose my serenity.
It is what it is.
People will do what they will do, and I can't control that. I can only control me, and some days, when I'm hungry/angry/lonely/tired, (H.A.L.T.) that can feel like driving a car with iffy brakes.

I pray for the strength and wisdom to keep my mouth firmly closed for a moment or two: give myself time to respond appropriately: to respect other's people's emotional safe zones: not to judge them for not being where I might want them to be. I pray to be loving.


  1. It seems that with the people I know in program this is a common thread (including myself). This dance come closer go away a fear of intimacy. They say you spot it you got it so this is what I am looking at for myself. Maybe being hurt has kept me at arms length to those who reach out to me or maybe it is all or nothing. It takes courage to just put it all out there.

  2. I kept my distance from my marriage by always being the victim....learning I have choices
    frees me up to look at life in a new way.
    Sometimes I retreat again
    Accepting where I am at is Ok too....
    Thanks for your share

  3. I understand the advance and retreat. I used to take it so personally. Now I do realize that the alcoholic does not know how to have a relationship that is truly open and intimate, unless they are truly sober and not just dry. A great post that explains the dance that we do with alcoholics.

  4. I've been reading your blog for a couple months now and I want to tell you how much it means to me.
    You have a gift for giving examples that make it much more clear to me what Al Anon is trying to say.
    Thanks! This was a great post. And yes, I see myself and my family members doing the intimacy dance. I think the contrast between saying, "You can't get blood from a stone" with "He wasn't comfortable with it" turned on the lightbulb in my head.

  5. New here. Looking forward to reading more. Still working the steps my first time through. Thank you for sharing.

  6. I wish I had read a post like this two years ago, when I first started in Al-Anon. It would have explained why my dry alcoholic had his habit of changing the subject, which used to wound me so much, and seemed so inexplicable to me. I might have understood that he was distancing because he felt threatened—a big difference from what I assumed: that he was distancing because I was threatening. Thank you for this, and for your blog, which I read faithfully but seldom comment on—thanks for letting me lurk. :o)