How to Avoid the Pursuer-Distancer Pattern in Your Relationship

By Steve Horsmon

Is it really difficult to ignore Pursuer- Distancer pattern in relationships?

Jane: “Why do you do that?”
John: “Do what?”
Jane: “You ignore me.”
John: “No, I don’t.”
Jane: “We need to talk about this. You’re doing it now.”
John: “I don’t see the problem. You’re overreacting.”
Jane: “No, I’m not!”
John: “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

Jane is pursuing. John is distancing.

In her study of 1,400 divorced individuals over 30 years, E. Mavis Hetherington found that couples who were stuck in this mode were at the highest risk for divorce.

Researcher Dr. John Gottman also noted that this destructive pattern is an extremely common cause of divorce. He claims that if left unresolved, the pursuer-distancer pattern will continue into a second marriage and subsequent intimate relationships.

The pursuer-distancer pattern

Therapist Dr. Harriet Lerner summarizes the pattern like this.

A partner with pursuing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving toward the other. They seek communication, discussion, togetherness, and expression.

They are urgent in their efforts to fix what they think is wrong. They are anxious about the distance their partner has created and take it personally.

They criticize their partner for being emotionally unavailable. They believe they have superior values. If they fail to connect, they will collapse into a cold, detached state. They are labeled needy, demanding, and nagging.

A partner with distancing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving away from the other. They want physical and emotional distance. They have difficulty with vulnerability.

They respond to their anxiety by retreating into other activities to distract themselves. They see themselves as private and self-reliant.

They are most approachable when they don’t feel pressured, pushed, or pursued. They are labeled unavailable, withholding, and shut down.

Dr. Lerner points out the importance of recognizing that neither pattern is wrong. In a normal relationship, we may actually take turns adopting one role or the other.

Healthy relationships can handle the stress with mutual respect and appreciation because both partners are aware of their behavior and are willing to adjust it for the benefit of the relationship.

Marriages fall apart when partners become entrenched in the roles. If something does not change, both begin to feel criticized and develop contempt for each other – two signs their marriage is doomed to fail, according to Dr. Gottman.

What does it look like?

A common scenario is a wife who is very anxious about the lack of communication from her husband. She wants him to open up to her more.

She wants him to be more vulnerable and to connect with her so they can work on getting along better. His response is, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

She makes demands, he moves away. Her frustration shows as she begins to criticize him and he fights back with defensiveness. She becomes angry and expresses contempt. He stonewalls.

She doesn’t understand why he won’t see how wrong and stubborn he is.

He can’t believe she doesn’t know how unfair her demands make him feel.

He’s not good enough for her.

Both men and women can be pretty good pursuers. I think this skill is best used for pursuing mutual happiness rather than our own righteousness.

Why does it matter?

The research by Gottman and Hetherington is important. It can save an individual from a life of bad relationships.

The research sheds light on the extremely common dynamics that happen in everyday relationships with everyday people.

It gives language and insight to the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors which consistently cause the erosion of relationships. What matters is what you choose to do with the insights from the research.

With proper information and willingness, you can choose how you will respond to the pursuer-distancer pattern when it happens in your relationship.

Pursuers must stop pursuing

Dr. Lerner notes something I see consistently with clients who are pursuers.

The pursuer is the one in more distress about the distance, and more motivated to change the pattern. For this reason, the pursuer is often best served by discovering ways to call off the pursuit—and there are ways to reconnect with a distancing partner that don’t involve aggressive pursuing.

A distancer may feel unhappy about how things are going in a relationship, but he or she is still more likely to maintain the status quo than to move toward a partner who is in pursuit mode. This is the reality faced by the pursuer men I work with.

The Gottman Institute
The Gottman Institute uses over 40 years of research on thousands of couples to provide research based tips on how to make love last. Our research has saved troubled relationships and strengthened happy ones. Get your free copy of 7 Signs Your Relationship Will Last by clicking here Workshot for Couples Professional Training Certificate Courses

4 COMMENTS

  1. The problem here is that it is usually a case where , like it or not… one partner is usually a few steps farther along in their understanding of what a relationship is…. i.e. an EQUAL partnership…. some are not ready for this… but don’t yet realize it…. so to them , there is nothing out of place about how the relationship is developing… and if the one who is a bit more educated in the matter.. doesn’t realize that the partner is not ready and or able to be as open as the educated one wants.. then ….. it is up to the more learned one to review their understanding… and either wait till the other grows a bit more…. or move on to those who are better able to meet their requirements….

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