Pursuing and distancing are patterned ways that humans move under stress, two different ways of trying to get comfortable. Obviously, relationships go best when neither partner is locked into the extremes, and both have the flexibility to modify their style. But neither style is “right or wrong,” “good or bad,” or “better or worse.”
Here’s a brief description of each style: Which category is “more you”?
- React to anxiety by seeking greater togetherness in their relationship.
- Place a high value on talking things out and expressing feelings, and believe that others should do the same.
- Feel rejected and take it personally when their partner wants more time and space alone or away from the relationship.
- Tend to pursue harder when a partner seeks distance, and go into cold withdrawal when their efforts fail.
- May negatively label themselves as “too dependent,” “too demanding,” or “too nagging” in their relationship.
- Tend to criticize their partner as someone who can’t handle feelings or tolerate closeness.
- Approach their partner with a sense of urgency or emotional intensity when anxious.
- Seek emotional distance via physical space when stress is high.
- Consider themselves to be self-reliant and private persons—more do-it-yourselfers than help-seekers.
- Have difficulty showing their needy, vulnerable, and dependent sides.
- Receive labels such as “unavailable,” “withholding,” or “emotionally shut down” from their spouse.
- Manage anxiety in their marriage by intensifying work-related projects or withdrawing into technology or sports.
- Tend to give up easily on their partner (“It’s not worth trying to discuss things”) and have a low tolerance for conflict.
- Open up most freely when they aren’t being pushed, pursued, or criticized by their partner.
The Problem is the Pattern, Not the Person
A problem occurs when the pattern of pursuing and distancing gets entrenched and the pursuer and distancer become polarized in painful ways. When this happens, the behavior of each partner provokes and maintains the behavior of the other.
If you pursue a distancer, they will distance more. If you distance from a pursuer, they will pursue more.
Keep in mind that it’s often the pattern, not the person, that’s the problem in the relationship. In most relationships, the pursuer is the one in more distress about the distance, and therefore the one who is most motivated to change the pattern. The distancer may feel unhappy about how things are going in the relationship, but she’s still more likely to maintain the status quo than move toward a partner who is in pursuit mode. For this reason, my work as a therapist is often directed at helping the pursuer call off the pursuit, and to find ways to reconnect that won’t intensify the pursuer-distancer dance.
Respect Your Partner’s Different Style
Even if you’re not ready yet to modify your own style, try to respect your partner’s automatic way of navigating relationships under stress. It’s natural to see our style as the correct one. If our way of handling a problem is to go into therapy, we may be convinced that our partner needs to do the same, even if he comes from a family with a strong tradition of figuring out problems on one’s own. If we want to pay a professional to talk about it—well, he should, too.
Consider a conversation between newly married friends of mine, Alan and Sabra. I was with them when Sabra received bad news about her sister’s health, and no one was surprised when Sabra shared the information in a matter-of-fact way and then changed the subject. This was typical of Sabra, who had great difficulty sharing the softer, more vulnerable side of herself—a style that irritated Alan immensely, although he also admired her “don’t grumble, carry on” approach to life.
Later in the evening, Alan said, “As always, Sabra, you leave me no room to respond to the painful news that you’re sharing. It’s like you have a broom in your hand and you’re sweeping me away at the same time you’re telling me about your sister’s diagnosis. And then you’re on to the next subject. You don’t even give me the space to say how sorry I am that this is happening.”
“Alan,” she responded in her very firm way. “I know you’re sorry that this is happening. I don’t need to hear it.”
When Alan began to argue the point, Sabra stopped him with an even firmer tone. “Look, Alan,” she said. “When you talk about what’s bothering you, you feel better. When I talk about it, I feel worse. I want to say it and move on. You need to appreciate this difference between us.”
Alan does need to appreciate the difference. He also needs to help Sabra understand that he needs space to respond when she shares painful news, even if she prefers him to stay mute. They’ll do better if they can each modify their own styles a bit, while respecting their differences.
For my part, it was useful to hear Sabra say that talking left her feeling worse. Her words reminded me that even “clashing styles” obscure a basic human commonality: When stress hits, we all try to get comfortable. There is no one right way.
Pursuers: Make a Date, Not a Diagnosis
When our partner has distanced, we have an understandable tendency to diagnose him (“You’ve been absent lately, I think you’re depressed and don’t know it”) along with the relationship (“I think the closeness has gone out” of our marriage”). If we’re feeling vulnerable, we also tend toward exaggeration (“We haven’t had a real conversation in a year”). In this way, we can name a non-existent problem into existence, or make a small problem into a large one.
When you want more connection, suggest an activity (“I hear there is a beautiful trail by the lake—do you want to check it out this week?) Instead of communicating about communication—talking about how you don’t talk—just try talking.
The same advice goes for the distancer. Instead of diagnosing your partner as overly-emotional or in-your-face, move toward her. Just try to warm things up and close the distance. After three months of moving toward her, observe the results of your own experiment.