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.”