How A Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic In A Relationship Can Cause Problems

Every relationship dynamic has an ebb and flow to it. Some days, it's your partner who does the heavy lifting when it comes to household chores, grocery shopping, and taking care of things; and on other days, it's you. In fact, relationship experts may tell you that a pure 50-50 split of the effort is not sustainable. And while this kind of give-and-take is natural in a long-term commitment, there are other relationship dynamics that simply don't work — one of which is that of a pursuer and distancer.

As the name denotes, the pursuer in the relationship is someone who's looking to emotionally or physically connect more with their loved one, while the distancer is someone who pulls away. Psychologist Dr. Loren Soeiro wrote in Psychology Today that a pursuer-distancer dynamic is born out of an unhealthy balance between autonomy and connection in a relationship. A good relationship requires a mix of individual freedom and interdependence to survive. When you fall in love, you're often filled with a desire to constantly be around your partner, but as time goes on, a different pattern can emerge. Not all couples fall into this tug-of-war between pursuing and distancing, though, but for those who do, it could be a sign your relationship is heading toward its end. How does a pursuer-distancer dynamic cause problems, and what can be done about it?

Managing conflict is one of the biggest problem areas when it comes to a pursuer-distancer dynamic

Conflict is natural in any relationship, but with a pursuer and distance dynamic, it becomes all the more challenging to deal with it. According to therapist and author of the book, "Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up," Dr. Harriet Lerner, someone who pursues is anxious about feeling disconnected from their partner during conflict and their response is to try to move closer to their partner so they can fix things. They do this by forcing communication and connection and may even criticize their partner as being emotionally unavailable. The distancer in the equation pulls back, emotionally and physically, perhaps because they're uncomfortable with being vulnerable or simply because they want some time to work things through in their head. Problems arise when each person's default response to conflict becomes a kind of self-reinforcing pattern and the cycle continues every single time. Sometimes, the pursuer can get tired of seeking connection and shut down, which can cause the distancer to take on a pursuing role.

When one partner feels ignored and the other feels overwhelmed, it is easy for both to develop contempt toward the other. You might hear yourself asking your partner, "Why aren't you telling me how you feel about this whole thing?" A distancer might simply reply, "There's nothing to talk about. Leave me alone." Meeting in the middle can hold the key to solving the problem.

How to break out of a pursuer-distancer cycle

Self-awareness is often the start of change, and in the context of a pursuer-distancer dynamic, it's important to evaluate which roles you and your partner gravitate toward. Once you have a better grasp of this, attempt to share with each other about how you feel when one pursues and the other distances. Do this when the dust has settled and not during a heated argument. It'll give both of you a chance to calmly and empathetically listen to the other person's point of view.

"Pursuers must stop pursuing," wrote men's relationships coach Steve Horsmon for The Gottman Institute. Easier said than done, but not completely impossible. Try and institute a time-out when things get frustrating, and move into separate rooms if needed. Agree to come back to the conversation in a couple of hours when both of you have had time to reflect on the problem at hand. The distancer has a responsibility to understand their partner's need for connection and to engage with them when the stipulated time has passed. "You may need to learn how your partner expresses feelings and what they mean when they try to talk to you — even if they do so in a way that doesn't make immediate sense to you," psychologist Dr. Loren Soeiro wrote in Psychology Today. Failure to empathize and communicate is a relationship-killing habit — which is something both pursuer and distance types need to recognize and work on if you want your relationships to remain fulfilling in the long run.