The Dance of Connection

Rescuing women and men from the quicksand of difficult relationships.

Are You A Pursuer or A Distancer?

One is not better or worse than the other.

Pursuing and distancing are normal ways that humans navigate relationships under stress. One is not better or worse than the other.

A problem occurs only when the pattern of pursuing and distancing gets entrenched. When this happens, the behavior of each partner provokes and maintains the behavior of the other.

For example, stress hits (say, a problem with a child), and she moves toward him wanting to talk about it. He withdraws which only raises her anxiety so she pursues more, which increases his distancing. Later a fight ensues and each blames the other for causing it.

It’s always easier to point the finger at our partner than to acknowledge our own part of the problem. In order to truly connect with a distant or distancing partner, we need to identify the cycle and take steps to change it.

To change your part in the pursuer-distancer dance, you need to understand the characteristics of each style. Identifying our role is easiest to do at times of high stress when we tend to become a more exaggerated version of ourselves.

PURSUERS TEND TO:

       *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.

         *Pursue harder when a partner seeks distance, and go into cold withdrawal when their efforts fail.

         *Negatively label themselves as “too dependent” or “too demanding” or too nagging” in their relationship.

         *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.

 DISTANCERS TEND TO:

         *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,” and “emotionally shut down” from their spouse.

         *Manage anxiety in their marriage by intensifying work-related projects or withdrawing into technology or sports.

         *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.

Of course, each partner can both pursue and distance at different times or over different issues. For example, he may pursue for more emotional intimacy, but withdraw around a medical issue.

Regardless, the pursuer is the one in more distress about the distance, and therefore the one who is most motivated to change the pattern. For this reason, there are eight rules in Marriage Rules  that are directed at helping the pursuer call off the pursuit. There are ways to reconnect with a distance partner that don’t involve pursuit.

There is only one rule in Marriage Rules that's directed at helping the distancer stop distancing. The distancer may feel unhappy about how things are going in the marriage, but he’s still more likely to maintain the status quo than move toward a partner who is in pursuit mode.

But distancers beware! Follow the rule!  Many women, exhausted by years of pursuing and feeling unheard, leave the marriage suddenly. When a distancer realizes that his partner may actually walk out, he may flip into a position of intense pursuit. But it may be too late.

Pursuers stop pursuing! Distancers stop distancing! Change now and give your relationship a fighting chance.

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is best known for her work on marriage and family relationships and the psychology of women. Her book The Dance of Anger has recently been reissued.

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