How To Break Out Of The Pursuer-Distancer Dance

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

While all couples need autonomy and closeness, many couples struggle with the pursuer-distancer dance and feel chronically dissatisfied with their degree of intimacy. A problem exists when the pattern of pursuing and distancing becomes ingrained because the behavior of one partner provokes and maintains the behavior of the other, according to marriage expert, Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. She writes, “It’s important to strike a balance between separateness and togetherness that works for both your partner and yourself.”

While pursuing and distancing are common ways that couples relate to one another when they are under stress, these patterns can become dysfunctional. If they go unnoticed and persist for a long time, they can even lead to the demise of a relationship or marriage. But with self-awareness and a willingness to change, couples can break their negative cycle of relating and build love, trust, and intimacy.

Why is the pursuer-distancer dance so damaging to an intimate relationship? One partner becomes increasingly unhappy with his/her partner – feeling that their needs for intimacy aren’t being met. Although they may have made ongoing attempts to get their partner to open up, they’re left feeling their efforts to bring him/her closer have failed. In fact, many of the women I’ve met with admit that they’ve resorted to nagging and didn’t feel good about its impact on their relationship.

On the other hand, the distancer may retreat and seek out alone time when under stress and intensify their partner’s need for closeness – thus their desire to pursue. The problem is that if this pattern becomes deeply entrenched, couples can become resentful and become emotionally detached. Sometimes a distancer realizes too late that his partner is so distressed that she/he is making plans to end their relationship.

Why is this relationship pattern so common? Dr. John Gottman, a distinguished observer of marital relations, believes that the tendency of men to withdraw and women to pursue is wired into our physiology and reflects a basic gender difference. In his classic “Love Lab” observations he has noted that this pattern is extremely common and is a major contributor to marital breakdown. He also warns us that if it’s not examined, the pursuer-distancer pattern will persist into a second marriage or subsequent intimate relationships.

So let’s see how it usually works in a typical scenario. A woman’s hyper-vigilance is seen as a way to motivate her partner to open up. But in this case, the ways that Kara and Jake respond to each other backfire – going from bad to worse.

“Let’s talk about why we’re not spending time together anymore,” Kara complains as her husband Jake reads the newspaper. “How can we get along if we don’t work on our problems?”

“I’m not sure what problems you’re talking about,” Jake says. “We’re getting along fine.”

Kara feels increasingly frustrated with her attempts to draw Jake out. Meanwhile, Jake resorts to his classic distancer strategy – perhaps stonewalling her attempts to communicate. As Kara continues to express more disappointment in Jake, he further withdraws. If this pattern isn’t reversed, it’s easy to see how they can both begin to feel criticized and contempt for each other – two of the major warning signs that their marriage is doomed to fail, according to Dr. Gottman.

It’s no wonder that many of the interactions between couples become deadlocked into the pursuer-distancer pattern and end up in a stalemate or with partners feeling bitter and disillusioned about their marriage. Repair work begins with expressing your intent in a positive way and taking responsibility for your part in it. Afterwards, both people need to make a commitment to work on improving their relationship.

According to Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., “It’s always easier to point the finger at our partner than to acknowledge our part in the problem. In order to truly connect with a distant or distancing partner, we need to identify the problem and take steps to change it.”

Here is what it looks like when your intent is to learn about the other person and grow together:

• “I feel left out when you don’t talk to me about what’s going on in your head, and I’d like to know what you’re thinking.”
• “I feel hurt when you watch TV while we’re eating dinner because I’d like to learn more about your day.”
• “I feel unimportant to you when you don’t include me in plans with your friends. I’d like to be kept posted, even if you prefer to see them on your own.”

Rather than expressing criticism or contempt, this type of dialogue will hopefully foster positive communication since the intent is to get information rather than to criticize or nag.

“The pursuer-distancer pattern can be thought of as a mismatch” writes divorce expert E. Mavis Hetherington in For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered. In her landmark study of 1,400 divorced individuals for over thirty years, she found that couples who adopted this pattern were at the highest risk for divorce. Commonly, the wife will get tired of pursuing and the husband will grow weary or get angered about what he perceives as his wife’s constant nagging. However, in some cases men are pursuers and women are distancers.

The irony of the pursuer-distancer pattern is that it’s reinforced by popular self-help books and websites to save your marriage. While most of these articles encourage couples to open up and communicate more, they don’t explain that this can backfire unless couples understand that a plea to get closer by one spouse can be perceived as a criticism by the other. It’s likely that the person at the other end of a “sharing feelings” conversation will feel blamed and attacked if your underlying message is “You are doing something wrong that needs to be fixed.”

Ways to Break the Pursuer-Distancer Pattern:

• Accept that the pattern exists and needs to be corrected to improve the long-term stability of your relationship.
• Work on changing your reactions to your partner and take responsibility for your part in interactions with him/her.
• Write in a journal or dialogue with a close friend or trusted therapist – this can be extremely helpful.
• Make peace by stopping the blame game. If you can actually embrace this concept, you and your partner will feel an almost immediate sense of relief.
• If your partner seems flooded, walk away but not in anger or blame. Disengage as a way to restore your composure – not to punish your partner.
• If you can’t walk away, attempt to take a break for at least twenty minutes. For instance, reading a magazine is a great distraction because you can flip through pages rather mindlessly.
• Attempt to resume a dialogue when you feel refreshed and able to talk calmly and rationally.

Let’s close on the words of author Darlene Lancer , JD: “Each must learn to ask for togetherness and space directly, without feeling guilty or blaming each other. When each is able to say, “Yes” and say “No,” without fear of being overwhelmed by intimacy or abandoned by separation, they won’t trigger each other’s defensive reaction. When they are conscious of their individual needs, they can acknowledge their partner’s needs with respect.”

I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome The Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”



21 Responses to “How To Break Out Of The Pursuer-Distancer Dance”

  1. Inside every distancer is a pursuer and inside every pursuer is a distancer. We all have different styles of getting our needs met or perhaps we ignore needs we don’t know about. Yet we both have needs for connection and distance (autonomy). Our unconscious needs are enacted by our partner. Often we deny our needs for attention and nurturing or autonomy because they were shamed. We likely had a needy, abandoning, critical, or controlling parent that didn’t respect us and meet our needs. (Sometimes we switch roles in different relationships.) Learn more in my blog http://www.whatiscodependency.com/the-dance-of-intimacy.
    Darlene Lancer, LMFT
    Author of “Codependency For Dummies” and “Conquering Shame and Codependency”
    http://www.whatiscodependency.com

    • Terry says:

      Hi Darlene,

      I agree that our patterns most likely stem from unmet needs from our childhood. Certainly, we switch roles and many of our behaviors are based on shame. However, I do find that most people have a tendency to be either a pursuer or a distancer and become too deeply entrenched in their role. This can lead to chronic dissatisfaction with their partner and often the demise of the relationship or marriage. Self-awareness is crucial to breaking out of the pattern and having a relationship with a partner who is committed to working on changing the dynamic.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Regards, Terry

  2. Victoria says:

    A Narcissistic Personality blames and cannot take responsibility in a relationship. You cannot have a sustainable relationship with this personality who lacks empathy, genuine love and respect. Knowledge is Power!

    • Terry says:

      Hi Victoria, Excellent points! Many people lack knowledge and blame themselves. In many cases, they keep hoping the person will change –
      not realizing that most people with personality disorders do not want to change because they don’t believe they have a problem.
      Regards,
      Terry

  3. Anonymous says:

    After reading my daughter’s college research project about the distance/pursuer relationship I immediately could see how my husband & I fit into those roles. Unfortunately he is like “Jake” in your article & sees no reason to change. Counseling to him is just going to a person & “tattling” on each other. We’re still married, but I’m tired of trying to fix things alone. Thanks for an interesting article.

    • Terry says:

      Hello,

      You are welcome! Being more aware about the issues can be helpful but dynamics such as the distancer-pursuer are hard to deal with and put strain on a marriage!

      Regards,
      Terry

  4. Ellie says:

    I’m really glad I found this. I’ve been reading all morning about this dynamic and I am stunned by how well it explains why I feel both smothered by and lonely in my marriage. My husband is the pursuer and since he wants to spend every moment of every day with me, I feel totally flooded and overwhelmed, but I don’t want to disappoint him. So I spend nearly all of my time when I’m not at work with him. I use emotional distance as a way to preserve a little bit of my own self. I feel lonely, but I don’t WANT to open up and communicate with him, because that last bit of privacy is all I have. I have to make up reasons to be alone, like running errands for groceries when I know he’s too tired and wants to stay home. It’s so sad to live like this. I keep hoping he’ll meet another woman and decide to be with her instead of me. I just want my life and sense of self back and a lot of the time it feels like he’s taken everything from me. I hate my marriage, but he loves it, because I always do what he wants and spend time with him. This relationship is crushing me a little more every day.

    • Terry says:

      Hi Ellie,

      Thanks for sharing your story. Don’t despair because help is available if you are open to it. Sometimes people are lonelier in marriage than they are when they are living alone. Please consider counseling (see the resources page on this site) or sign up for telephone coaching on this site (see tab with the same name).

      Regards,

      Terry

    • Teri says:

      Hi Ellie!

      I can relate to this. I had the same relationship. I ended up moving out and getting my own space. We are still working on things but I refuse a relationship until I know 100% this will work out. I am straightforward and honest with him about everything. I do not want a divorce if I do end up marrying him.
      Funny thing is, I was the pursuer first as he was kind of controlling, stubborn and insensitive. I changed, and checked out. Now I am the distancer. I became a happier and more fulfilled being. I have been improving myself mentally and emotionally. I am trying to get him to see the way he is now because he is always trying to manipulate me back into the relationship. Guilt, bribes, the “I do everything for you so I deserve more” type deal. I see it all so I call him out, not in a mean way but firm and understanding. I think he may be too immature for me though. He continues to think I am using him and tries to make me out as the bad guy. He is a good guy. I do love him so I try and help. It’s slow but I think he is getting better. I just don’t think I want to continue as his therapist. I am 32, I may want to start a family one day.
      I do also like someone else. It’s confusing. And he is definitely a distancer. But I find that I am also a distancer with a touch of pursuing.
      I am definitely learning a lot about myself and relationships through these experiences. I think I’m still interacting with these two is that I have a big heart and care for them each for who they are. I can see their pain. But I do believe that there comes a time where you must put yourself first.

      I wish you luck and love.

  5. rebecca says:

    I am also seeking advise: I am currently separated from my partner, we are not married and both have children from previous marriages. We have been together for 8 years. We got stuck in our negative dance many years ago and through couples therapy (that we are still continuing with) we see that he is a pursuer and i am the withdrawer (I am also in trauma therapy, realizing that my withdrawing is a learned behavior from my past).
    I suppose my question is that with the tension now released in my home, things seems ‘safer’, however when we try to communicate the dance continues, very quickly. I am unsure if we will be able to go back into an intimate relationship, this I think is what I wish to know….I suppose it is possible, but presumably the way we trigger each other is on going?

    • Terry says:

      Hello,

      It sounds like a complicated family and relationship dynamic and I recommend that you seek counseling. It would not be ethical for me to give you advice over the internet.

      Regards,
      Terry

  6. Rory says:

    I find this article’s assumption that the pursuer and distancer roles are gender-related very frustrating. I’m currently a female in a relationship where i am being relentlessly pursued and feel smothered because my boyfriend often does not acknowledge my autonomy and, i sense, would be perfectly fine with it if i never put my foot down to gain some breathing room. We just moved in together and i am finding the situation increasingly uncomfortable. Was hoping to find some insight/help here, but i’m not a male distancer, so…back to square one i guess. Everything is not always so cut and dry, folks…

    • Terry says:

      Hi Rory,

      I’m sorry you didn’t find my blog helpful but I believe I say that pursuers are more often females – didn’t say always. You can google the work of John Gottman or Ross Rosenberg and maybe find more helpful insight for your issues. My blog has helped many people but not every reader will relate to it.

      Regards,
      Terry

  7. Rachael says:

    I am currently experiencing a persuer-distancer relationship and it has been very stressful. In my case, the male is the persuer and I am a female distancer. It is very similar to what you have described. He is insercurely attached and it drives me further away. After distancing myself, I feel better but he becomes more clingy. This pushes me even further. This rapid and continuous cycle has fueled the resentment more as time has passed. We are currently roommates for financial reasons, as we broke up from a romantic relationship over six months ago. We have dated off and on for two years. During the times we have been broken up, such as now, he becomes obsessed with my life and critically questions every thing I do that does not include him. After the lease ends, I would like to completely break free. I am worried that he is and will be stalking me even after I move.

    • Terry says:

      Hi rachel,

      Thanks for your feedback. Since you have these significant safety worries, I recommend that you contact a counselor so that they can document them and advise you. I don’t have this capacity over a blog.

      Take care,
      Terry

  8. Sally says:

    I am in a same sex relationship which is complicated by distance as I took a job overseas. My partner who used to be totally loving and with whom I had a very emotionally satisfying relationship with has become distant, and what I am thinking is very cold towards me. She has become a classic distancer and I have responded by being more attentive, more loving etc. Her responses are increasingly lacking in affection and cold and distant. I do not think she is seeing anyone else. Since reading all of this, I have become distant and cool to her – not awful or horrible, but distant. Since my doing that, she is mildly more attentive and affectionate. But I am upset at this as it seems I am not being authentic with her and showing my true feelings – just engaged in some sort of game. What do you think?

    • Terry says:

      Hi sally,

      It is hard to give advice over a blog but generally it’s best to be vulnerable and authentic in relationships. If you feel you can’t be yourself with a partner, it’s not a good sign over the long run. Seeking counseling may help you get more in-depth on this issue.

      Best,
      Terry

  9. Randy says:

    I am a male pursuer… I would like to say that I really appreciate this article and have found that just being aware of this has made an improvement. I find myself going to one extreme or the other, meaning I’ll pursue or flip the table and distance. It’s app hard balance because I feel like trying to match her affectionate level is just me being there to serve her. Like as if the relationship is going to be based on what she wants and when she wants it. I’m not allowed to talk about my feelings as that is interpreted as scrutiny. The interesting thing is, when I distance myself, she reacts like we’re falling apart. So the amount of affection I give and how often I give it, has to be almost perfectly measured. When she finally comes to me, after a few days of us barely talking, she expects her affection to reciprocated. Again, when she wants it, she almost talks like she’s entitled to it. When I want it, I’m smothering her… I feel like the pursuer/distancer relationship will become something else, something possibly even worse.

    • Terry says:

      Hi,

      Thanks for your comments!It sounds like you are gaining awareness and you can gain more from counseling, reading or both. I recommend Dr. Harriet Lerner’s book “Marriage Rules” and Ross Rosenberg’s book “The Human Magnet Syndrome.” If you’d like phone coaching by me you can sign up at this link and there is a fee. If interested, forst pay the fee and and email me two preferred times (after 4pm EST)not weekends.
      http://movingpastdivorce.com/counseling-services/telephone-coaching/

      Regards,
      Terry

  10. RAK says:

    I am the pursuer in our couple after 27 years of marriage:We live in different towns because of our boy’s schooling.My husband doesnt feel calling me or talk unless I initiate.We arrange to meet every week ends.When he comes in our appartment he feels like a guest,and when I m in his appartment I try to behave as his wife but he doesnt allow me.I can feel it.Our sexless life began when he experienced erectile dysfunction,he denies there are problems.I asked for divorce but he keeps quiet and says he still wants to live together.I am tired of this dance, I am ready for divorce
    thank you

Leave a Reply