When a couple is not able to find a good balance between the two - for example when one partner craves more togetherness than the other, a harmful pattern can become ingrained in the relationship that leads to hostility and conflict.
The partner seeking togetherness wants more contact with the other. In response the second partner feels overwhelmed and pulls away. When the withdrawing partner distances, the other partner pursues even more, creating a cycle of pursuing and distancing. The behavior of one partner provokes the behavior of the other.
Let's look at Jason and Claire, who came to marriage therapy while stuck in the cycle of pursuing and distancing.
Claire feels anxious because Jason is spending more and more time at the office. She reacts by demanding more attention from him. He feels pressured and withdraws from her by spending even more time working late.
Now Claire becomes even more anxious and starts texting and calling Jason. He in turn feels invaded and withdraws further by going out with the boys on a regular basis. This couple is doing the dance of the Pursuer Distancer. Her actions cause him to react. Jason will not be able to stop withdrawing until Claire stops pursuing
“We need to talk about why we're not spending time together anymore,” Claire complains as Jason reads the newspaper. “How can we get along if we don't talk about our problems?”
“I'm not sure what problems you're talking about,” Jason says. “We're getting along fine.”
Claire feels increasingly frustrated with her attempts to draw Jason out. Meanwhile, Jason resorts to a classic distancer strategy - stonewalling her attempts to communicate. As Claire continues to express more disappointment in Jason, he further withdraws.
If this pattern isn't reversed, they will both feel criticized and start to have contempt for each other – two of the major warning signs that their marriage is doomed to fail, according to Dr. Gottman, PhD.
In marriage therapy Claire and Jason learned how to break the Pursuer Distancer dance. First of all, both the pursuer and the distancer needed to learn to be able to be alone as well as connect with the other.
Claire finally realized that her underlying need for connection was pushing Jason away. She began to understand that she needed to pull back from Jason and put more energy into her own life. She realized she had been wanting Jason to provide her with something that she needed to provide for herself.
She was slowly able to take responsibility to fulfil her own needs. She looked for a more challenging job, signed up for a dance class, and spent more time on her own. She learned to identify her needs and found ways to provide for them, instead of expecting Jason to do so
Jason was suffocated by what he viewed as Claire's neediness. To cope he pulled away from contact with her. Jason came to understand his part in the dance - and how his avoidance was causing Claire to be more needy and dependant on him.
To break the pattern, Jason decided to schedule five nights a week for dinner with Claire. After a few dinners, the oppression he had been feeling lifted. He realized Claire didn't want to spend every minute with him. She was only pursuing him unrelentingly, because she was getting nothing from him. Once she knew they would connect every night at dinner, she stopped pestering him
Both Claire and Jason were able to find their own balance between solitude and connection. They broke the Pursuer Distancer cycle and their relationship became one of harmony and not conflict.
Couples can stop the dance of the Pursuer Distancer by desiring the other from a place of fullness rather than need. They can purposely dance the dance of togetherness. Pursuers can learn to dance on their own. Distancers can learn to initiate the dance.
Helen Rudinsky is a Marriage and Family Therapist serving couples, individuals and children in Vienna's Expat Community.