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Relationship saboteurs: the pursuer-distancer dance

relationships, patterns, pursuer, distancer
The pursuer-distancer Dance

When couples argue it’s common for each partner to find ways to cope with their conflict. Some partners pursue and some distance themselves from the conflict. This cycle, pursuer-distancer  can become dysfunctional and strain relationships; let’s take a look at it.

The pursuer-distancer pattern is one of the most common patterns in how couples handle interpersonal conflict or the problems that arise between them. When stressed with problems, pursuers tend to seek closeness and share their emotions with intensity and a sense of urgency. They become increasingly dissatisfied with their relationships when they have made multiple failed attempts to get close to their partner and their partner doesn’t open up. Distancers, on the other hand, tend to retrieve from the conflict, as if they’re avoiding it, they rather to not spend time with the other partner, and prefer to not talk about their conflict; they may or may not seek alone time when stressed by the conflict.

Problems between pursuers and distancers arise because they’re not aware of the pattern and they reinforce each others’ coping style as well and the cycle they’re developing together, causing the relationship to lose momentum and even, ending it. Pursuers continually ask for closeness, sometimes nagging, with an intensity that makes distancers want to seek alone time. When distancers seek too much distance it can make pursuers more anxious and they increase their attempts to get close which only make distancers want to seek more alone time. Over time, if the cycle continues, both pursuers and distancers feel disconnected from each other, loose intimacy, as if they have become to island co-existing together. Pursuers think of distancers as cold and unavailable and distancers think of pursuers as nagging, demanding, and dependent. The pursuer may ask “Why don’t you share?” and the distancer may say, “Why do you need to talk so much?”

A common argument between a purser and distancer wife and husband can begin with the husband keeping his feelings to himself. The wife will often feel left out and begin to ask her husband to share his feelings. The husband, feeling uncomfortable about doing this, will spend more time alone surfing the internet or watching television. This makes his wife more anxious and she will keep asking him to tell her what’s wrong or what he’s thinking which makes him feel pressured and he will spend even more time surfing the net or watching television. This pattern can reach a critical point when the wife thinks asking is hopeless and she stops talking.
Pursuers and distancers can help their relationships by first becoming aware of the ways in which they tend to cope with interpersonal conflict.  Recognizing your coping style and learning new ways to handle problems and seek intimacy can increase the closeness you’re looking for.
Additional reading:
Gottman, John (2002). The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships. The Gottman Institute: https://www.gottman.com/