The Pursuer-Distancer dynamic in intimate relationships

Once a couple has moved past the “honey moon” stage of a romantic relationship, where the focus was on each other, they return to normal behaviors and regular routines. This can trigger distancing and pursuing behaviors with some couples. For example, if Joe feels anxious because his partner Alex is spending more time with his friends, he may react by demanding more attention from him. In return, Alex may feel pressured and withdraw from the relationship. Without awareness of each other’s styles and underlying needs, this can spiral into a painful situation where neither couple is satisfied.

In order to move past the distance pursuer pattern into a healthy relationship, it is helpful to understand the dynamics of this power struggle.

Pursuers in a Romantic Relationship

The pursuer wants more attention, closeness, or affection. They are sensitive to being ignored or rejected and may feel disappointed or anxious when their partner withdraws from the relationship. This may lead to questions, complaining, or criticizing their partner. Underneath, what they really want is a deeper connection. But unfortunately, due to their reactive behaviors, they tend to push their partner away thereby creating more distance.

Distancers in a Romantic Relationship

When distancers feel anxious they are likely to become quiet and turn inward and avoid problems. They resist being controlled by others, and because they like to seek control they tend to reason or think, refuse to cooperate, and become rigid. They want connection, but because of their avoidant behaviors, they provoke criticism from their partner, which leads to further withdrawal.

The solution to a healthier couple’s dynamic

Pursuers are already good at communicating their needs and asking for what they want. What would be helpful is to find ways to meet their own needs in the relationship before making demands on their partner. In addition, because pursuers have a habit of noticing what’s wrong or missing in the relationship, they can foster closeness by focusing on what they appreciate in their partner and the relationship.

As pursuers learn to self-sooth their anxiety, show appreciation for their partner, and trust the process of the relationship, they will create the space and safety for their partner to move closer.

Distancers can end the power struggle in the relationship by speaking up when they are troubled or uncomfortable, sharing their feelings, and listening to their partner. Giving more of their time and attention to their partner will help bridge closeness and safety in the relationship. Expressing love to their partner in the way that their partner likes to receive love will go a long way towards creating harmony in the relationship.

With awareness, self-compassion and practice, people can choose healthier ways to respond instead of unconsciously reacting to their partner’s pursuing or distancing behaviors. It only takes one person to end a power struggle and begin mending the relationship.

The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center offers professional couples therapy and marriage counseling for couples in distress. Our clinicians are highly trained and experts in the field. 

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