Emotional Cat and Mouse
The ability to have a passionate, fulfilling relationship requires that a couple balance two natural needs—intimacy and independence. If we don’t consciously balance these needs, what often results is a frustrating struggle caused by the PURSUER/DISTANCER dynamic. Pursuers pursue intimacy, unaware of their need for autonomy. Distancers seek autonomy, unaware of their need for intimacy.
The PURSUER/DISTANCER Dynamic
When there are problems, Pursuers might say, “What are you thinking?” or “Let’s talk.” They like sharing thoughts and feelings, and feel personally rejected when their partner needs some space. As a result, they try harder and often feel rejected and hurt, and finally withdraw coldly.
Distancers seek emotional or physical distance. They tend to be self-reliant and have difficulty showing vulnerability. They manage their personal relationships by intensifying work and activities outside the relationship. When a relationship becomes too difficult, they tend to end it completely and abruptly.
We tend to attract into our lives what we disown. That’s why Distancers and Pursuers frequently get into relationship with one another. Pursuers, who may have received a lot of attention and connection as a child, are often attracted to those who are more independent. As their relationship moves forward, they yearn for that familiar connection. Sometimes, on the other hand, Pursuers never received enough connection, and spend their adulthood pursuing it. Yet, they may seek it in a way that appears to others as being needy. Thus, the cycle of near connection and rejection continues.
Distancers, who may have been left to themselves, and therefore have become very autonomous, are often attracted to those who are warm and connecting. Yet, over time, they feel smothered by the attention, and long for more space. They may fear the unknown discomfort in exposing their own vulnerabilities. They may also fear losing control and experiencing unwanted intrusion by others. They may also have a deep-seated fear that allowing intimacy to develop will only lead to possible abandonment or rejection.
How do People become Pursuers or Distancers?
Imagine a child falls down and screams, “I’m bleeding!” The natural reaction of the parent is either to get upset with his outburst, or to run over anxiously to help him. An ideal parent would remain calm, and might say something like “Yes, blood … Let’s take a look at it and wash it.” That validates the child’s reaction, while moving him to a calmer place. The child learns how to stay calm in moments of anxiety.
Responding to the needs of a child without becoming too anxious is what Winnecott referred to as “good-enough mothering.” “Good-enough parenting”—in today’s parlance—allows a child to learn to stay calm without the dread of being smothered or alienated.
Yet, how many of us are ideal parents or had ideal parents? If during anxious moments as an infant we were neglected or smothered with attention, we may develop anxiety in subsequent situations of too much separateness or too much togetherness. The perception of too much separateness can trigger feelings of being unsupported, unloved, and rejected.
The perception of too much togetherness can activate feelings of being crowded, trapped, and controlled. Later in life, Distancers often avoid saying what they think in order to avoid escalating anxiety. Pursuers may then feel unresponded to and try to get a reaction to make connection, which will increase the stress for both of them.
This is how the PURSUER/DISTANCER dynamic can lead to hostility and argument. The person pushing for a response is often seeking connection. Focusing on the other person through argument provides at least some emotional contact, albeit negative. The Distancer, who likes his or her autonomy, will resist and become hostile to protect his or her separateness.
Preventing what we want
Without realizing it, the Pursuer expresses enough desire for intimacy for both partners. Therefore, the Distancer doesn’t have to recognize his own desire for connection. If one person is doing all the pursuing, the other has the luxury to experience a need for space and independence. In fact, the Distancer may believe he’s fallen out of love, because there is not enough room for him to experience a sense of desire to be with his partner.
Similarly, the Distancer creates enough distance for both partners, so that the Pursuer never gets a chance to recognize her own need for autonomy. Consequently, the Pursuer can disown her own desire for autonomy. Without some sense of being a separate, capable individual in her own right with her own interests, she feels an increasing need to be connected to her partner in order to feel worthwhile
Like Yin and Yang, true intimacy and independence require each other. Each partner needs to be able to be alone and to connect with others. If we become conscious of the necessity to satisfy both needs, we can seek a balance openly with less pain and frustration. The result is real autonomy, which allows for no-strings-attached intimacy.
Solutions for the Pursuer
The Pursuer needs to draw back and put more energy into her own life and her own separate interests. Imagine that a couple has been caught in a cycle of emotional pursuit and distancing, which has escalated ever since the birth of their child as it often does. When John comes home from work and retreats to his computer, Eve generally reproaches him.
This time, however, she attempts to break out of the cycle, and says, “John, I want to apologize. I’ve been wanting you to provide me with something that I realize I need to provide for myself. Perhaps part of the problem is that you have your work, the kids, and me, while I have only you and the kids. I recognize that I need to do something about it.”
The next night she might ask John if he’d put the kids to bed two nights a week so she can go to yoga one night and see a movie with friends the other night. If John has too much work, she can call a babysitter to come in two nights a week.
Eve will soon realize that some independence and space of her own choosing will enrich her life. Dropping her polarized position of clinging to togetherness also allows John to feel enough separation that he may start to desire her again.
Solutions for the Distancer
The Distancer has a sense of power in the relationship, because he has the choice of whether or not to submit to the Pursuer’s desire for connection. Yet, by holding such power and fostering fear and weakness in his partner, he loses the opportunity to have a more fulfilling relationship.
If a Distancer needs space before talking about a subject, he can say “I just need some time to think. Let’s talk tonight after dinner.” The Distancer should then approach the Pursuer, rather than waiting for the Pursuer’s inevitable approach, so the Pursuer is not left hanging and wondering when and if there will ever be any connection.
As counter-intuitive as it might feel, the Distancer needs to purposely schedule time for making emotional contact. I say “schedule” time, because if the Pursuer knows that there will be contact and when it will be, then it will be easier for him to back off pursuing. It may be awkward for the Distancer to seek emotional contact with someone who is always pushing for it. But the plan includes time for separateness.
See what it’s like to turn the tables for one week. The fear that the other will continue to be smothering may be unfounded. Chasing (or pursuing), just for once, may actually quell the need for the spouse/wife/husband to continue pressuring or asking for attention. This may help to bring about balance in the relationship. If nothing else, it’ll be worth seeing the look of surprise on his/her face!
A woman felt suffocated by what she viewed as her husband’s neediness. She had been essentially running away from any contact with him. After some discussion, she decided to try initiating real contact with him during breakfast every morning, even though connecting with him was the last thing she felt like doing. She then discussed with him the idea of having the evenings free for herself to read, but to spend one evening with him going out to dinner and to have every breakfast with him.
Within two days, the oppression she had been feeling lifted. Her husband hadn’t wanted to spend every minute with her. He had only pursued her so unrelentingly, because she gave nothing of herself to him. Once he knew they would be connected every day, even though it was relatively brief, he stopped pestering her. In addition, he felt better about himself and became more attractive to her, because he became more calm and confident. Over time, the necessity to schedule times diminished, as both partners became aware of their individual needs.
Each individual needs to find their own balance between solitude and connection within themselves.
The Pursuer will benefit by developing the ability to be content to be alone without allowing the desire to connect to become engulfing. The Distancer will benefit if the desire for solitude doesn’t escalate into abandonment of the partner.
We can purposely dance the dance of togetherness by desiring the other from a place of fullness rather than need. If you’re the Pursuer, be the flame and not the moth. If you’re the Distancer, try exercising your own wings too.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD
Reference: Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. (1986). “The Dance of Anger,” Perennial Library, NY.