Is your relationship stuck in a pursuer-distancer dynamic? Does your partner grow distant and defensive in conflict, leaving you feeling frustrated and unheard? Or, maybe they get increasingly angry and persistent, until you feel like you have no choice but to retreat.
As a marriage counselor and a couples therapist, I’ve worked with many couples who are stuck in an exhausting cycle of pursuit and withdrawal, both during conflict and outside of it. This common dynamic places a great deal of stress on both partners, and on the relationship itself. In fact, according to relationship psychologist Dr. John Gottman, a pursuer-distancer dynamic that’s left unresolved can be one of the warning signs that your relationship will fail.
It’s easy to understand why — this is an unsatisfying relationship pattern for everyone involved, with one partner feeling abandoned and uncared for, and the other feeling suffocated and like they can never do enough. Neither partner gets what they need, and both people in the relationship start to develop negative narratives about each other that can be hard to change.
So how can you and your partner break free from the pursue-withdraw cycle, and create a healthier pattern that feels safer, more satisfying, and more balanced for you both? You can begin by getting clear about where the need to pursue or to distance comes from, so you can better understand yourselves and each other, and begin to manage stress and conflict in ways that help your relationship grow.
What Is the Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic?
We all have our own unique personalities and ways of being. If left to our own devices, some of us would manage every conflict by avoiding the other party until tensions died down. Others would try to resolve every disagreement right then and there, and would feel like an anxious mess until we were able to do so, especially if it was a relationship we valued.
Your way of communicating with your partner under stress varies depending on the person you’re partnered with, and their style of relating to you. If you feel your partner going cold or pulling away, you’ll naturally work harder to get through to them. In other words, you will pursue. If your partner moves toward you when you want space, you’ll naturally push a little further away, or distance.
The pattern becomes problematic when it begins to deepen and reinforce itself, so that one partner’s pursuing provokes more distancing from the other, causing the pursuer to grow more anxious and more persistent, and so on. This is why you may be the “pursuer” or the “distancer” in some relationships, but not in others.
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Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic and Gender
Although stereotypes tell us that men are more likely to withdraw and women tend to pursue, in reality, many men play the “pursuer” role in their relationships and many women withdraw. This dynamic can also exist in same-sex couples between men or women.
The pursuer-distancer pattern often happens during arguments, with one partner withdrawing or stonewalling, and the other getting more reactive and upset as they work harder to get their point across. But the pattern can show up in other areas of your relationship, too. For example, one partner might distance themselves when they’re overwhelmed with work, leading the other to seek out closeness and connection even more. One partner might do the majority of the “pursuing” in the bedroom, and feel sexually rejected by their partner when they aren’t in the mood. The more the distancer distances, the more the pursuer pursues, creating a no-win situation that’s exhausting and unsatisfying for both.
Why the Pursuer Pursues
When the pursuer feels their partner pulling away, they experience intense anxiety. This discomfort propels them to move toward their partner so they can get back to feeling like everything is ok. They might insist on having conversations that their partner would rather avoid, push their partner to open up about how they’re feeling while tensions are running high, and grow increasingly frustrated (and passionate) when their partner defends, disengages, or simply walks away.
Internally, the pursuer is thinking something along the lines of: “I’m losing my partner. They don’t care about me and they don’t really want to be with me. I’m not important to them — if I was, they would want to stay here and work through this together. Don’t they see how scared I am and how much I need them?”
But from the outside, it can look like the pursuing partner is always upset, critical, and demanding. Their feelings of fear and anxiety — vulnerable feelings that their partner could attend to with compassion — can be hard to see under all their frustration.
Why the Distancer Distances
The distancer likes to manage stress by moving away from their partner, particularly during a fight. When their partner is angry, the distancer may feel emotionally flooded or even unsafe on a physiological level, even though they may look stoic and unbothered on the outside. The distancer may emotionally invalidate their partner or grow defensive, which will only turn up the heat. As their partner gets more agitated, the distancer will eventually disengage, stonewall, or physically leave the room to get some relief from their stress and discomfort.
Internally, the distancer is thinking something along the lines of: “I’m suffocating. My partner is too intense and cannot let things go. I need space, but they won’t give it to me. I feel trapped and like nothing I do is ever enough.”
It’s important to understand that the distancer is able to temporarily withdraw from the relationship because their partner moves toward them so reliably. Thanks to the pursuer’s insistence, the distancer feels assured that their partner will still be there whenever they’re ready to reconnect, sometimes days or even weeks later. If the pursuer stopped pursuing, the distancer would feel less secure about disengaging and more motivated to repair the relationship.
Unfortunately, this dynamic is not healthy, or sustainable. Neither partner gets their needs met in the relationship. The pursuer is likely to burn out after months or years of trying to communicate with a partner who shuts down, and all of the anxiety that brings up for them. Then, the distancer may do some pursuing of their own, but it is often too late.
Breaking Free from the Pursuer-Distancer Pattern
Breaking free from the pursuer-distancer cycle requires doing something different — which is easier said than done. When you’re feeling anxious and abandoned by your partner, it can genuinely feel like you have no choice but to pursue them. When you feel like your partner is coming at you relentlessly and that you’re going to be swallowed up by their intensity, it can feel like your only option is to put up walls and hide behind them.
The good news is that you do have other options, and trying a different approach can make a huge difference in your relationship dynamic. Real change happens when you recognize that your go-to method of managing fear and anxiety isn’t working and you choose to do something else instead — despite the voice that tells you that you have to pursue or withdraw.
It’s great when couples can work on this pattern together in couples counseling, but even if your partner refuses marriage counseling and won’t even read this article, you still have the power to create change in your relationship.
If you are the pursuer in your relationship, you can create change by resisting the urge to pursue. That means trying to keep a level, emotionally safe tone in conflict, allowing your partner to take space when they want to, expressing your vulnerable feelings (like anxiety or sadness) rather than anger or frustration, and asking your partner for what you need rather than criticizing them.
Putting these changes into practice is difficult when you’re upset. When you are being ignored, invalidated, or shut out, it’s natural to get more and more agitated. But your partner will be able to feel even a small change in your approach, and it will change the way they respond to you. When you resist the urge to pursue, you create space for them to come toward you for a change. Doesn’t that sound nice?
If you are your relationship’s distancer, you can start to break this pattern by moving toward your partner. You can offer validation for their feelings rather than defending, listen without trying to “fix” the problem, and communicate about your own vulnerable feelings, including the feelings that are causing you to want space. You will be amazed by the difference you can make by listening to your partner in an empathetic and validating way. This alone can ease the tension between you like a deflating balloon.
When you do feel overwhelmed and need to take some time to calm down, communicate with your partner about how you’re feeling, what you need, and when you’ll be back. Letting them in on your internal process can help ease their anxiety, making it much easier for them to give you the space you need.
These patterns don’t go away overnight, especially if you’ve been stuck in them for a while. It will take practice for you to begin responding to stress in a new way, and for your partner to adjust their own way of responding to you. Don’t get discouraged if the pattern persists after you’ve started working on it. Getting help from a good marriage counselor can help you both stay on track and make positive, lasting change together.
P.S. — If you’d like to learn new ways to improve relationship dynamics, check out our “relationship repair” collection of expert blog posts and articles.
Meet Alejandra: specializing in helping clients create positive transformation–to live happier lives and foster more fulfilling relationships, she will not only help you set clear goals but chart a pathway to achieving them.
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