Breaking Out Of The Pursuer Distancer Cycle In Relationships

May Soo is a psychologist at RWA Psychology working with couples, helping them address their relationship issues.

As a relationship therapist and couples counsellor, I’ve seen a number of common patterns in the couples I’ve worked with. The pursuer-distancer cycle is extremely common and one worth mentioning because it is a major contributor to relationship breakdown.

A couple’s ability to have a loving and fulfilling relationship requires that they balance two primary human needs – togetherness and separateness. When a couple is not able to find a good balance between the two, they may wind up in the frustrating dynamic of the pursuer and the distancer.

What pursuing and distancing looks like

Pursuing occurs when one partner, usually the woman wants togetherness and seeks more contact with the other. Her partner feels overwhelmed by her pursuit and relieves anxiety by withdrawing. When he distances from her, she pursues even more (commonly with criticism and anger), creating a cycle of pursuing and distancing. Eventually, she’s left feeling that her efforts to bring him closer have failed and she withdraws in reactive anger perhaps even leaving the relationship abruptly, becoming at that point, the distancer. When the initial distancer realizes that his partner may actually walk out, he may flip into the position of pursuer.

According to renowned relationship expert and psychologist Harriet Lerner, pursuing and distancing are normal ways that humans navigate relationships under stress, and one is not better or worse than the other. A problem occurs only when a pattern of pursuing and distancing becomes entrenched. As the above illustrates, the behaviour of each partner triggers and maintains the behaviour of the other. Either partner can be a pursuer and a distancer at different times, or over different issues.

Are you the pursuer or the distancer?

In order to feel secure and cared for, pursuers want and need attention, closeness, and affection with their partner. They place a high value on talking things out and expressing feelings and feel personally rejected when their partner needs some space. As a result, they may ask many questions, make complaints, or criticize their partner to try to establish reconnection. The underlying need is for deeper connection and reassurance. Unfortunately, due to her reactive behaviours, the pursuer may inadvertently push her partner away, thereby creating more distance.

Distancers tend to seek emotional distance and physical space when stress is high. They enjoy independence and autonomy and are much more likely to become quiet and turn inward when feeling anxious in relationships. They have a low tolerance for conflict tending to manage their personal relationships by intensifying work and activities outside the relationship. While the distancer actually does want and need connection with his partner, the consequences of his avoidant behaviours provoke criticism, which leads to further withdrawal.

Recognizing the need for intimacy and independence

We tend to attract into our lives, people with characteristics that we have unconsciously disowned. That’s why distancers and pursuers frequently get into relationships with one another. Pursuers pursue intimacy, unaware of their need for autonomy. Distancers seek autonomy, unaware of their need for intimacy. To have a more workable relationship, they each need to develop a bit of the opposite quality to balance their one-sidedness.

Breaking out of the pursuer-distancer cycle

Without an understanding of the relationship dynamic and insight into each other’s styles and underlying needs, it’s no wonder that many of the interactions between couples become stuck in the cycle of pursuing and distancing. In order to break the cycle and transform the pursuer-distancer pattern into a healthy relationship, both partners need to find their own balance between solitude and connection. In essence, each partner needs to be able to be alone and also to connect with others.

Strategies for the pursuer

The pursuer is usually the one in more distress about the distance, and therefore more motivated to change the pattern. The first thing the pursuer needs to do is to find ways to stop the pursuit. Because pursuing is typically a way for the pursuer to seek external soothing from others, it is important that she learns ways in which she can meet her own emotional needs. She needs to put more energy into her own life and to develop her own separate interests. As the pursuer learns more skills to self-soothe her anxiety and trust the process of the relationship, she will cultivate the safety and emotional space for her intimate partner to move towards her. Pursuers need to remind themselves that distancers open up most freely when they aren’t being pushed, pursued, or criticized.

Strategies for the distancer

A distancer can do his part to end the power struggle in the relationship by speaking up when he feels upset, troubled or uncomfortable. He must learn to share his feelings in a vulnerable way and openly listen to his partner. The distancer needs to purposely schedule time for emotional contact with his intimate partner in order to cultivate closeness, trust and safety in the relationship. If the pursuer knows when there will be time together, it may actually quell her need to continue pressuring for more attention. It may be awkward for the distancer to seek emotional contact with someone who is always pushing for it but having a plan means that there is also time for separateness.

The cycle is broken when the pursuer’s needs for affection and soothing are met while the distancer gets the space to come forward, trusting he will not be criticized.

If you are interested in learning more about how the pattern of pursuing and distancing operates and what’s needed to achieve more balance in key relationships, then I highly recommend The Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Lerner.

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