“Why can’t we spend more time together? You always need more space!”
Emotional cat and mouse
The ability to have a passionate, fulfilling relationship requires that a couple balance two primary drives — intimacy and independence. If you don’t consciously balance these needs, you may wind up in the frustrating dynamic of the Pursuer and the Distancer. Pursuers pursue intimacy, unaware of their need for autonomy. Distancers seek autonomy, unaware of their need for intimacy.
The Pursuer/Distancer Dynamic
People who seek more connection — or Pursuers — tend to say things like, “Let’s talk,” or “What are you thinking about?” They like sharing thoughts and feelings, and feel personally rejected when their partner needs some space. As a result, they try harder. Eventually they start a fight or withdraw angrily attempting to create connection by provoking the Distancer’s anger or fear.
People who keep physical or emotional distance — or Distancers — enjoy independence and autonomy. They tend to be self-reliant and have difficulty showing vulnerability. They manage their personal relationships by intensifying work, activities outside the relationship, or brooding alone. When a relationship becomes too difficult, they tend to end it abruptly.
Evolution of Pursuer/Distancer Dynamic
We tend to attract into our lives people with characteristics that we have unconsciously disowned. That’s why Distancers and Pursuers frequently get into relationships with one another. They each need to develop a bit of the opposite quality to balance their one-sidedness.
Feeling that the connection received in childhood did not adequately satisfy their need to be seen or loved, pursuers spend their adulthood pursuing connection. They are often attracted to strong independent types. They tend to seek connection with the fear and expectation of being disappointed, which eventually comes across as needy and undesirable. As a result, their craving for connection often backfires. Thus, the cycle of near connection and rejection continues.
Distancers may have been left to themselves in their childhood or may have been hurt deeply at some point. As a way to protect themselves, they become very independent. They are often attracted to those who tend to be pursuers. Otherwise, how would a Distancer get together with anyone?
As the relationship develops, Distancers often feel smothered by the pursuer’s attention and desire for more connection. Based on their history they may feel they have good reason to fear that intimacy is likely to lead to dependence, constraint, or disappointment. Their partner’s apparent intrusiveness leads them to dread exposing their own vulnerabilities. As a result, they seek space and solitude.
How do People become Pursuers or Distancers?
Imagine a boy falling down and crying, “I’m bleeding!” The natural reaction of the parent is either to get upset with his outburst and reprimand, “Stop crying!” or to run over anxiously to help him. A more effective response would be in the middle-ground, remaining calm and saying something like “Yes, blood … Let’s take a look at it and wash it.” This validates the child’s reaction, while moving him or her to a calmer place. Thus, the child learns how to stay calm in moments of high anxiety.
Responding to a child’s needs without becoming too anxious is what Donald Winnicott referred to as “good-enough mothering.” “Good-enough parenting” allows a child to learn to stay calm without developing dread of being smothered, alienated, or infantilized.
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, subsequent situations of too much separateness or too much togetherness may cause us to experience inappropriately high anxiety.
The perception of too much separateness can trigger feelings of being neglected, abandoned, 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 ignored and try to get a reaction to make a connection, which will increase the stress for both of them.
Thus the Pursuer/Distancer dynamic often leads to hostility and argument. The person pushing for a response is 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 and independence.
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 fall 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, furthering the vicious cycle.
Recognizing both needs
Comparable to the concept of Yin-Yang, intimacy and independence require each other to make a whole. Each partner needs to be able to be alone and to connect with others. If we become conscious of the necessity of satisfying both needs, we can seek a balance openly and avoid much 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. A couple who came to see me had been caught in a cycle of emotional pursuit and distancing, which had escalated ever since the birth of their children. When John came home from work and retreated to his computer, Eve generally reproached him because she wanted to spend time with him.
One time, however, she attempted to break out of the cycle, by reframing the situation in her own mind. I’ve been wanting him to provide me with something that I realize I need to provide for myself. I recognize that I need to do something about fulfilling my own needs. She then rearranged her schedule so that she could take a classes, get a job, and/or see friends more often.
She soon realized that some independence and space of her own choosing would enrich her life. Dropping her neediness also allowed John to feel enough separation that he started to desire her again.
Solutions for the Distancer
The Distancer has a sense of power in the relationship, because he or she has the choice as to whether or not to submit to the Pursuer’s desire for connection. Yet by holding such power and fostering fear and weakness in his or her partner, the Distancer loses the opportunity to have a more fulfilling relationship.
If the Distancer needs space before talking about a subject, he or she 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.
The Distancer needs to purposely schedule time for making emotional contact. If the Pursuer knows when there will be time together, it will be easier for him or her to back off pursuit of connection. 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. Over time the practice will become habitual and less awkward.
Making the attempt to connect may actually quell the Pursuer’s need to continue pressuring for more 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 or her face!
A woman felt suffocated by what she viewed as her husband’s neediness. She had been running away from any contact with him.
After some discussion and thought, she decided she would make an effort to connect with him to see if things would improve. She discussed with him the idea of sitting down to dinner together five nights a week without technological devices and spending one afternoon on the weekend doing something together.
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 and less desperate.
Over time, the necessity to schedule time together diminished, as both partners became aware of their individual needs. Both individuals were able to find their own balance between solitude and connection within themselves.
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.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD
Reference: Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. (1986). “The Dance of Anger,” Perennial Library, NY.