The pursuer distancer dynamic is one of the most dangerous traps that couples can fall into in times of relational distress. In this dynamic, one partner actively albeit aggressively pursues the other, while the other distances and retreats into themselves. It is important to understand that this pattern of relating to one’s partner represents two opposing ways of dealing with relationship stress. While the pursuer deals with their inner turmoil and anxiety by moving toward their partner, the distancer deals with their anxiety by moving away from their partner. This pattern essentially represents a couple's difficulty with regulating both closeness and distance.
Couples therapy expert Dr. Sue Johnson in her book ‘Hold me tight: Seven Conversations for a lifetime of love’ views this communication pattern as what she considers one of her ‘Demon dialogues’. She calls this particular relational pattern the “Protest Polka”. This is so named because here one couple is actively protesting the disconnection, while the other is actively disconnecting as a way of dealing with the pressure they feel to connect. This sort of relating to one another takes the couple further away from true connection and communication.
A breakdown of what is occurring in this dynamic:
A lesbian couple sitting in front of a therapist. One partner is looking at their partner and talking while the other is looking away.
Let’s take the example of Sania and Sandhya. Sania is constantly critical of Sandhya over not prioritising her and making time for her. Sania tells Sandhya “You never have time for me and our relationship. I don’t think you understand what it means to be in a relationship. I just don’t feel like I am a priority in your life.” To which Sandhya responds defensively “I don’t know what you’re talking about. We already live together day and night. I don’t know what more you want from me.”
Sandhya feels very low about Sania’s constant complaints. She feels like she is not a good partner and that she is constantly letting Sania down. Overwhelmed with the criticism, Sandhya goes into her shell and starts communicating less and less with her partner. This makes Sania feel rejected, alientated and not valued as a partner. In return, she becomes even more critical and frustrated with Sandya’s behaviour. What exactly is happening here?
The pursuer is feeling anxious and their attachment needs compel them to reach out to secure some form of closeness, reassurance and communication from their partner. When their partner does not respond to their bids for connection, they become increasingly anxious and try to get a reaction from their partner by being aggressively critical, demanding or overall pressurising. Even though they crave connection, their urgency to connect and frustration at their partner's refusal to engage with them, leads them to approach their partner in a more critical and aggressive way.
The distancer feels overwhelmed by the pursuer's relentless pursuit of them. They deal with their anxiety by withdrawing and increasing the space between themselves and their partner. They may respond to their partner through silence, numbing or shutting down, becoming defensive or even overly rational. They may even retreat into other activities such as work or a hobby. Even though a distancer may desire connection, they feel unable to connect to a partner that is aggressively approaching them. They use space as a way to regulate the discomfort and feelings of overwhelm that they experience.
This pattern is dangerous because it is mutually reinforcing. Each partner's moves feed into and exacerbate the moves of the other. This is because the more the pursuer pursues, the more their distancer distances themselves. Becoming frustrated with the distance causes the pursuing partner to become even more fervent in their attempts to engage with their distancing partner, ultimately leading to a further increase in the distance between them. Therefore, this can turn into a vicious cycle that keeps the partners from truly interacting with one another. Over time, this way of relating to one another can create a deep sense of dissatisfaction and resentment in both partners.
How to break apart from the pursuer-distancer cycle
Identifying their role in the dynamic: Both partners must recognise their actions and the part they play in this unhealthy way of relating to one other. They must see the steps they are taking in these interactions and how it is ultimately alienating them from each other.
Recognising the intent behind their partner’s actions: The pursuers need to realise that their partners can only feel safe and be open and responsive to them if they aren’t pushed and pressured into connecting. At the same time, distancers need to realise that their partner’s pursuit is nothing but a desperate plea for connection.
Seeing this pattern as arising from individual attachment needs and fears: A person with an anxious attachment may fear abandonment and the loss of connection and this may cause them to pursue their partner to re-establish the connection. Whereas a person with an avoidant attachment may need personal space and independence to cope with their anxiety about the relationship. They may withdraw as a way to avoid conflict and believe that is the way to maintain the peace in the relationship.
Expressing relational needs by communicating openly: For the pursuer, this may involve expressing their need for closeness and connection without being critical or demanding. Whereas for the distancer, this is may involve expressing their need for space to their partner without being rejecting or defensive.
Making a vow to reconnect: Both partners must decide to reconnect at a mutually decided time. This allays the pursuer's anxieties and gives the distancer time to mentally prepare themselves to re-engage with their partner.
Overall, it must be noted that it will take both partners to take efforts to move out of this deadlocked position to recreate safe connection and communication with one another.