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Practical NLP: Separation and Separateness

by Nancy Blake(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 153 - December 2008

Keys to Relationship Health

Don't Leave Me, Can't Live Without You, Joined Forever Into One – the romantic ideal, or what I call the operatic view of romantic love. The one where everyone ends up dead! This may sound like a joke, but two women a week are murdered by their partners/lovers; lovers so-called.

In the core of our being, there are two fundamental fears: being abandoned, and being annihilated. Visualize our psyche as a circle, with a little central circle which I call the 'core self'. When we have a sense of ourselves as separate from each other; when we are clear that there is a physical and psychological space within which everything is 'self' and outside of which everything is 'not self', and we have a clear sense of the boundary of that space, then it is possible to negotiate relations with 'others' in the space between us. We want to see a film - we discuss and decide when, where, which film. Hopefully, we are each able to express our own views, and either agree, or negotiate a compromise. And lest you dismiss this as a trivial problem, let me ask you how you, as a couple, decide what television programmes to watch!

If there is too much overlap between us - everything becomes 'we', not 'you' and 'I' – (visualize the circles overlapping, so that the space occupied just by self becomes less and less) then we begin to lose a sense of who we are; the core self begins to feel threatened with annihilation, every argument becomes a major issue because of the fear of loss of identity – and on the other hand, we become terrified of being abandoned by the other, because some part of ourselves may be lost with them. Now we are deeply into the dangerous 'can't live with you/can't live without you' territory that is at the root of morbid jealousy, domestic violence and, in extreme cases, murder.

I use a simple exercise to illustrate this in a therapy situation. You are sitting on the settee; I am in a comfortable chair opposite you, at a distance of seven or eight feet. We are both fairly relaxed; it is easy to carry on our conversation. Now I close the distance between us, sitting right next to you on the settee. The tension level goes up, we can both be aware of muscles on the side of our body closest to each other tightening; we both have a strong urge either to move away or push the other away, but of course you are too polite to do such a thing! Now, I ask, how long will it be before we start hating each other? And supposing, noticing that we are becoming more and more tense and hostile, our marriage counsellor says 'Couldn't you two talk this out?' Well, no, because this desire to 'reject' the other (that is, push the other away) isn't about our personalities, it is simply about distance. If I then get up, walk across the room, look out the window, and try to resume our conversation, it won't be very long before you will invite me to come a bit closer, perhaps to where we were originally, because there is too much distance between us to have a comfortable conversation. I haven't 'changed', you haven't 'changed' – all that has changed is the distance between us. Yet now instead of rejecting me, you are inviting me closer.

When I am counselling couples, we never talk about 'who said what to who', and 'whose fault it is', because that isn't where the difficulties lie. My suggestion always is to find a way to get some boundaried space within your living arrangements, and if that isn't possible, move, or move out. But this is not about ending the relationship.

It is rather because each person has lost a sense of their own individuality within the relationship, so that every issue is fraught – a struggle for control within the too-overlapped selves, and equally, a sense of terror at the slightest separation, because when our 'selves' are overlapped, and you leave me, maybe you will be taking a piece of my 'self' with you.

To separate is to get out of the knot, it is to create a situation (like when I walked over to the window) in which we can begin to re-negotiate our relationship, hopefully to find a structure within which we can re-discover the love we used to feel for each other. It is separation in order to rescue, to recreate the relationship, not to end it.

However, often it is the woman who feels annihilated, while the man fears being abandoned (he may have taken her as much for granted as he takes his limbs for granted – and feel just as threatened by her loss). How to separate safely is a topic for another article


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About Nancy Blake

Nancy Blake BA CQSW, has worked in mental health settings since 1971. She served as the Chair of the ANLP PCS (now the NLPtCA), as well as on a National Working Party developing postgraduate standards for Psychotherapy (NVQ Level 5), and contributed to the document which led to NLP being accepted as a therapeutic modality by the European Association for Psychotherapy.  She has presented workshops at UKCP Professional Conferences on an NLP approach to working with victims of abuse, and in psychoneuroimmunology.  Recovering from ME since 1986, she is the co-author, with Dr Leslie O Simpson, of the book Ramsay’s Disease (ME) about ME, as well as A Beginner's Guide to ME / CFS (ME/CFS Beginner's Guides). Both titles are available both in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon. Nancy was previously enrolled at Lancaster University in a PhD doctoral program; her thesis topic was Conflicting Paradigms of ME/CFS and how the Psychiatric Paradigm creates its Influence in contrast to the Medical Model. She may be contacted via Her books are available to purchase at

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