It’s easy to understand why someone would panic if they felt their partner had retreated or was no longer invested in the relationship. While all couples need autonomy and closeness, many couples struggle with the pursuer-distancer dance and experience pain when their partner is pulling away or withdrawing from them.
According to marriage expert Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., 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. 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, neither person is getting their needs met. Sometimes, a distancer realizes too late that his partner is so distressed that she/he is making plans to end their relationship.
Dr. John Gottman, a distinguished observer of marital relations, posits that “bids for connection” and turning towards, against, or away are a crucial aspect of determining relationship success. In his Love Lab, he observed newlywed couples during a 24-hour stay and found fascinating results. In fact, six years after the research took place, the couples who divorced turned toward each other only 33% of the time during his study. On the other hand, the couples who were married six years later turned toward one another 86% of the time.
Why is this relationship pattern so common? Dr. John Gottman 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’s 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 Kayla and Jack respond to each other backfire – going from bad to worse.
“Let’s talk about why we’ve drifted apart,” Kayla comments as her husband Jack is looking away from her. “How can we get along if we don’t communicate?”
“You always have the same complaints and blame me for our problems,” Jack says. “It’s not just my fault.”
Kayla feels increasingly annoyed with her bids for attention from Jack. Meanwhile, he resorts to his typical distancer strategy – perhaps stonewalling Kayla’s attempts to communicate. As Kayla continues to express more disappointment in Jake, he further withdraws. If this pattern isn’t reversed, both partners will 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 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.
Here three are productive examples of bids for attention that can help couples 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 when 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.
In her landmark study of 1,400 divorced individuals for over 30 years, Dr. E. Mavis Hetherington found that couples who adopted the pursuer-distancer 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.
8 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.
- Don’t take it personally. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that your partner is withdrawing from you, but that’s not always the case. Their behavior may have nothing to do with you.
- Work on changing your reactions to your partner and take responsibility for your part in interactions with him/her.
- Don’t withdraw from your partner. It can really hurt when someone you love seems to be pushing you away, but resist the urge to pull away yourself because this will only worsen the dynamic and create more resentment between you.
- Take care of yourself. Write in a journal or dialogue with a close friend or trusted therapist; it can be extremely helpful. Going to the gym or for a long walk can help you destress and gain a healthier perspective.
- 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 20 minutes (go for a walk or read a magazine).
- Attempt to resume a dialogue when you feel refreshed and are able to talk calmly and rationally.
Let’s close on the words of 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.”
Terry Gaspard’s new book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks, January 2016), is available on Amazon.