Magnetic Partners

What pulled you together maybe pulling you apart.

Dysfunctional Online Dating Dynamics: Pursuit and Distance

Is the Internet a healthy matchmaker?

Given our fast-paced technological times, online dating is perhaps the most popular avenue for finding a mate. It's also a perfectly suited format for replicating dysfunctional relationship patterns. As made evident in my book, Intrusive Partners-Elusive Mates: The Pursuer Distancer Dynamic in Couples, the pursuer-distancer cycle(p-d) is one of the most common yet challenging relationship patterns cited in the marriage and family therapy literature. This dynamic consists of one partner pursuing while the other distances; the more the pursuing partner pursues the more the other distances, and vice versa. While not a dysfunctional dynamic in and of itself, when chronic or fixed, intimacy is avoided and relationship trouble ensues. For example, if one partner pursues for sex and the other is rejecting or distances from it on a particular night, little may be made of it; but if this same partner is rejected consistently, the dynamic can then split a couple physically and emotionally.

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Studies have found that the p-d dynamic was the pattern most responsible for divorce. I've found it to be prominent in dating sites around the world. Why? While all romance starts with a p-d dynamic, online dating usually begins with a great deal more distance. You pursue someone or they pursue you, but you each do it from afar and through a "machine." You're "somewhere in the swamps of Jersey" as The Boss sang, and he may be in New York or for some inexplicable reason: Idaho. No matter, even if he's around the corner he can disappear at any time in part, because you usually don't have any direct means of contacting him until deep into the relationship. You can pursue all you want, and many do, but usually to no avail. Clients who work these sites have told me that people disappear even after several e-mails and telephone conversations. Those shocked the most have had wonderful dates just prior to a disappearing act. It's just too easy for people to start something they can't, or won't finish, and to use the anonymity that these sites provide to "hit and run." I know this dynamic occurs in all forms of dating, but modern technology has made it all the more common. Unfortunately, some pursuers cross the line and actually harass or stalk their distancing counterparts—a scary dynamic that women are more prone to experiencing—although this did happen to a male I know.

A second reason online dating is fertile ground for the p-d dynamic is because many of the people on these sites are just plain scared of intimacy. They cannot tolerate the closeness, openness, and vulnerability that a truly intimate relationship requires. Intimacy isn't all about sex, but emotional closeness breeds physical closeness in long-term, healthy relationships. Intimacy starts at home. If you didn't learn it in your family of origin you'll be more prone to becoming engaged in a chronic p-d dynamic as an adult.

Many of the people on these sites have also been traumatized by a previous relationship. As a result, they stick their toes in the water so-to-speak, only to pull back when things close in for fear of being re-obliterated: "When the going gets tough, the tough run for the hills." Many of the "never married" over 40 (and those who have never been in a long-term relationship) seem to have a wide array of techniques at their disposal to help them to avoid commitment. In some cases their need for control contradicts intimacy.

How can you avoid being pulled into a frustrating online p-d dynamic? Let's address the pursuers first. Take "no" for an answer. If you're going to date online you must be a grown-up and accept the fact that you'll be rejected more often than not. Attraction is subjective and that's a fact. It doesn't mean you're an unattractive woman. It may mean that the man you're interested in likes unattractive women, or sociopaths, or who knows what?

If someone doesn't contact you in a timely fashion or never responds, that's usually a "no" also. Take it as such and move on. If they contact you sporadically they're most likely trying to engage you in a p-d dynamic. Either clearly communicate that you're not interested or take the relationship for what it is: a somewhat distant friendship or a "buddies with intermittent benefits." There's a saying in my business: "Never pursue a distancer."

If you have a tendency to distance try to avoid pulling someone into a relationship if you're not sure that you want to give the relationship an honest try. If you start out with good intentions but find that the person isn't for you, let them know rather than distance. You may still upset them, but you deserve to be with someone you truly desire. Remember, you're an adult—you're not trapped.  

 

 

 

   

       

 

            

Stephen J. Betchen, D.S.W., is the author of the book Magnetic Partners.

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