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Relationships

A Therapist on How to Stop the Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic

| 03/18/2021

pursuer-distancer Illustration by Sara Wong

When we long for something, we often chase it so hard that it ends up eluding us. When we want something so bad, we often hold on so tight, we squeeze the life out of it. Our desires often get the best of us, and the very thing we want, the very thing we focus on, often slips right through our fingers. 

I see this all too often in my office, and in intimate partner relationships. This can happen when the threat or perceived threat of one partner’s waning interest; shrinking availability; increased time with friends, at the office, or away from home; or any shift from the current state shifts the balance of the relationship. When one partner no longer feels safe, the chasing occurs. Typically, when one partner begins the chasing, the other partner withdraws even more. 

We often label this imbalance in relationships pursuer-distancer. In family systems theory this helps to restore homeostasis, yin and yang, so to speak. In attachment theory, we label the pursuer as the anxious-attached and the distancer as avoidant-attached. 

However you slice it, whichever theory you subscribe to, the pursuer wants more security, more safety and clings harder, pushes harder and puts the pressure on. The distancer feels the pressure, feels pushed into a corner, feels their independence being infringed upon and essentially runs away.

This can be seen in a variety of scenarios. In intimacy, the pursuer wants more sexual and emotional connection and the distancer feels pressure to perform, or pressure to show up in ways that don’t feel authentic. So how do we change this?

Preventative: What You Need to Know First

The first thing you should do is allow for growth. One of the first steps is getting clear about the nature of relationships and life in general. We change, we grow, and we evolve—not just as individuals but in relationships, also. This simply means that relationships will shift over time. This should be a guarantee and a given. However, too many people become accustomed to certain dynamics and patterns in their relationship(s) and when these patterns shift, they become increasingly uneasy.  This uneasiness is the part that needs to be seen as normal. When we embrace the uneasiness in our relationships as a normal part of growth, we can relax into the changes more and allow them to happen.

It is also important for us to accept our partners for who they are. I am not talking about excusing bad or abusive behavior. I am simply talking about allowing room for our partners to explore, and to grow. This goes for ourselves too, really. Too many partners stay stagnant in relationships because they fear that growth will somehow change the relationship (which it will and should)—and thus keeps partners stuck in old dynamics that have stopped serving them long ago. It is important to try to accept that our partner is growing and changing and that we “get to” be a part of their journey, as they get to be a part of ours.

Relationships thrive on autonomy and independence.

There’s the old saying, “If you love someone set them free, if they come back to you it was meant to be.” Relationships thrive on autonomy and independence. Many studies have shown us that when there is respect for each other’s autonomy and independence, intimacy rates are higher, people feel more connected, and these relationships thrive due to their egalitarian and supportive nature. When we become activated by our fears, we throw this out the window. Trying to get back to this place can be key.

So, now that you have some key ingredients to having a solid foundation (or as I like to call them preventative care for your relationship), let’s talk about the times when despite all of our best efforts things do go awry. What then?

Let’s meet longtime couple, Paul and Sally. Sally recently discovered a new group of friends and has been spending a great deal of time with them. This has caused her to be away from home more often and Paul is getting jealous. He’s feeling a variety of emotions. He is feeling slightly neglected, he is feeling left out, he is worried about their future. What about all those plans we made together? He is feeling lonely. He is feeling lost, and does not know what to do with his time.

All of these emotions are causing Paul to cling to Sally harder. Paul becomes increasingly agitated. First, he begins questioning more, texting her a lot more when she is out, and his desire for sex has increased. Sally—who is really feeling energized by her new friends, feeling supported and like she finally has an outlet—is confused by Paul’s sudden shift. She feels a lot of pressure from Paul who is asking for more sex and suddenly seems very unhappy. She also feels like she has less time than before to take care of Paul so she begins to avoid him more by being less responsive to his texts, by turning down his requests for more sex and intimacy. In response, he criticizes her new friends and lashes out at Sally for small things, which brings about Sally’s defensiveness. 

This is a common scenario in relationships. We also see this in more casual dating. Two people may start off on equal ground and go on a date, but then one person cancels, or suggests they are not interested and/or are unavailable. This immediate rejection that is all too common in dating can activate a similar pursuer-distancer dynamic. The rejector becomes distant and the rejectee becomes more desirous, and may begin to put the pressure on. In some cases, they may even lash out.

How We Break the Cycle

There is a chemical that is activated when we get rejected, which causes us to want to chase it more. This is actually evolutionarily and biologically created. In hunter-gatherer times, we chased. We hunted in order to survive. This is not what is happening in our relationships. However, our biology has not caught up with our intellect. So our bodies still think that we need to chase this person in order to survive. We don’t need this person to survive. This person has shown us that they are not interested or that they are interested in doing other things. Similarly because of this chemical, if we are all hunters, by holding onto them we are making them want us even less.

We try to make somebody else responsible for our feelings, which will push the person further away because it activates blame.

But simply having the knowledge that this is just a chemical sometimes isn’t enough to tell our bodies to quell this survival instinct. So one real practical thing you can easily remember to do is breathe. Try the 4-7-8 breathing pattern. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, exhale for 8 seconds. Breathing actually sends the message from our brain to our body that we are not in any real life-threatening danger. It also buys us time and creates a natural pause in your response. Essentially, you are slowing down and pausing before responding to the rejection. By developing an ongoing breathing practice, over time we begin to learn to self-regulate and slow down, in other areas of our lives when things feel unmanageable or stressful.

And of course, jealousy is a major thing. A series of emotions—feeling left out, feeling inadequate, feeling lonely—are the various emotions that are linked to jealousy. And these emotions are ours. When we experience these emotions, it often wreaks havoc by causing us to become outwardly aggressive, toxic, and ugly. It is on us to work through these emotions, not on the object of our jealousy.

Too often we seek the other person to help us with our own jealousy. In doing so we try to make somebody else responsible for our feelings which will push the person further away because it activates blame, and the ugly side of ourselves. No one likes to be blamed, especially for living their life. This is where the real work is. If you find yourself becoming jealous, get real about what is happening for you. If you are in a long-term relationship, this can be about getting real about what your needs are, what your fears are, and having a heart-to-heart conversation with your partner.

Rejection in dating is different than jealousy, because you don’t even really know the person. Respecting their decision is a very important thing to practice and cultivate. Try saying this: “Thank you for taking care of yourself and being honest about what you need.” And if someone ghosts you? Why yes, this is disrespectful. But try to remember that going back into a disrespectful situation is only going to make this worse.

Apart from respecting other people and accepting people for who they are and what choices they make, we also need to cultivate self-respect. Knowing that we deserve to be with somebody that loves us, respects us, admires us, and listens to us is key. If someone is not giving us what we want, we have agency, and we can make a choice. We can communicate in a direct way and let people know what we want and what we’re looking for, and if they still don’t give it to us, we can walk away. 

In the end, the bottom line and the key to breaking the cycle is respect, both for ourselves and for our partners. Respect people’s choices, and respect the fact that you know what is best for you.

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