One of the most common patterns in a couple-relationship is what is known as the pursuer-distancer pattern. Picture this: You and your significant other are having a disagreement. The fight escalates and is no longer a minor disagreement but a full blown fight. One of you needs some space to process and the other wants to talk and fix things now. Because you are both handling the situation in different ways, the initial conflict becomes an even bigger issue as one partner is seemingly disengaged and the other is seeking connection and resolution as soon as possible. Does this sound familiar? Let’s take a look at what is really going on when this happens.
In the above scenario, one partner pursued the other during conflict which then caused the second partner to distance his/herself. Most pursuers react to conflict in a relationship with anxiety, feeling as though they need to fix or solve whatever the issue is in order to regain peace. In an effort to do so, pursuers often place a high value on sharing and expressing their feelings and are subsequently wounded when their partner doesn’t respond in the same way. When stress and conflict occur for the distancer, however, he/she reacts by withdrawing and seeking emotional and physical distance from the stressor, even when that stressor is their significant other. It can be difficult for a distancer to share their feelings and be vulnerable, so distancing themselves becomes a safer option. This couple is then left with a cycle of communication that leaves both partners dissatisfied and often hurt by the others’ actions.
In nearly all of the couples I have met with for therapy, this pattern exists in some form. More often than not the wife is the pursuer and the husband is the distancer, though I have seen it reversed as well. The good news is that by understanding what is actually happening in this cycle, the cycle can be changed and communication can become more effective and productive! The easiest way for this cycle to be changed is for the pursuer to stop pursuing. Now, if you’re the pursuer in the relationship and you’re reading this, that probably sounds kind of scary, doesn’t it? The concern I’ve heard most often from pursuers (and ones I have said myself in my own relationships) is that “if I don’t pursue my partner, he/she won’t pursue me and nothing will ever get resolved.” This is a valid concern and one that should certainly be vocalized and addressed. The amazing thing that happens when the pursuer stops pursuing, however, is that your partner stops feeling the need to distance him/herself emotionally or physically. Suddenly the threat has disappeared and there is no reason to distance him/herself anymore. It is crucial that each couple begins to understand the reasons why their partner responds as they do, because this will ultimately lead both partners to deeper understanding and empathy for the other. Through understanding the reasons behind each partner’s reaction and gaining a level of sympathy and consideration for his/her needs, this cycle can move from one of frustration and anxiety to a more productive way to communicate. If you recognize this cycle in one of your relationships and would like additional help understanding and/or changing it, counseling is a wonderful way to explore that!