It was the first session and the couple in front of me were obviously very much in love – but also very much in pain. They had spent the first half of the session describing a frustrating repetitive dance that occurred between them.
Rita* expressed her dismay over Peter’s* habitual avoidance of speaking to her about his thoughts and feelings in regard to their relationship; while Peter complained of how pressured he felt by what he saw as Rita’s continual need for reassurance and closeness.
Sobbing, Rita recalled how in the early stages of their relationship Peter “couldn’t get enough of her” and how they would “talk for hours and hours about everything”; whereas now he was always busy and complaining that he was too tired to talk with her.
Peter on the other hand, kept on saying that he “just needed his space”, and that he felt “overwhelmed by Rita’s demands”.
Even though both were very frustrated by the other, it was clear that they really loved each other and throughout the session expressed genuine concern and sadness for the anguish of the other.
What is the Pursuer-Distancer Pattern?
This lovely loving couple were trapped in a very painful bewildering pattern called the “Pursuer-Distancer” pattern. In this pattern, one person pursues for intimacy and closeness while the other backs away and retreats into solitude. The more the pursuer pursues, the more the distancer distances – and the more the distancer distances, the more the pursuer pursues.
Each person in this dance feels entirely justified in their own behaviour and can’t imagine doing anything different.
The person in the pursuing role feels that if he or she stops pursuing for intimacy then the relationship will fall apart. This is because it is their lived experience in the relationship, that the other person rarely, if ever, initiates intimacy. They may say things like: “It’s always me that gets us to talk about the things that matter to both of us.”
The person in the distancing role can’t imagine initiating intimacy because they feel exhausted as it is by the amount of intimacy that their partner seems to crave. Each is trapped in their own role and sees the other as the sole cause of their relationship’s problems.
Fuelled by Anxiety
Both the behaviour of the distancer and pursuer are fuelled by anxiety, but quite different types of anxiety.
The Pursuer’s anxiety is fuelled by the worry that the other doesn’t seem to love them as much as they once did, and so they pursue to seek reassurance, while the Distancer’s anxiety is fuelled by a sense of their autonomy being overwhelmed by the Pursuer’s neediness. As a result they will distance themselves to protect their own personal sense of space.
This distressing dysfunctional pattern is quite a common one in committed relationships. It begins when for whatever reason a “desire discrepancy” develops between a couple.
One partner senses that the other doesn’t seem to want to be with them as much as they want to be with them, and so out of anxiety they begin to approach their partner for reassurance. Now if the partner on the receiving end responds by apologising and reassures their partner that they do still love them and demonstrates this by word and deed, a pursuer-distancer pattern will not develop.
However, often they don’t respond to their partner’s anxiety and instead make excuses; ignore their partner’s distress; react angrily or defensively and then “move away” from their partner, all confirming in the anxious partner’s heart that there is indeed a problem. Thy will then pursue harder, only succeeding in pushing their partner further away and so the painful and bewildering pursuer-distancer cycle bursts into existence. It can be a very difficult pattern to escape.
Breaking the Cycle
It is very important to appreciate that partners trapped in a pursuer-distancer pattern (especially in the early stages) often still do love each other, but they become terribly frustrated and exasperated with the behaviour of the other. If this continues long enough, it can even destroy the relationship.
If you recognise this pattern in your own relationship I would be very happy to assist you to “dissolve” this pattern, and help you to return to a more balanced and mutually satisfying relationship.
Author: Matthew Ryan, B Psych (Hons), MA (Marriage & Family Therapy).
Matt Ryan is a senior psychologist with over 25 years of experience, and has seen great success in helping couples to enhance their relationship, and work through their problems and difficulties.
To book, freecall 1800 877 924 or book Matt Ryan online today!
*not real names