The Dance of Connection

Rescuing women and men from the quicksand of difficult relationships.

Stop The Pursuer-Distancer Dance in Bed!

The number one reason married folks dread getting into bed at night.

When it comes to sex, it’s quite simple to identify the part you play in the pursuer-distancer dance. If you keep trying to initiate sex and almost always end up feeling rejected you’re the pursuer. If you’re the party who isn’t interested, and feel you can’t make the effort, you’re the distancer.

Men are often (though not always) the pursuers for sex, just like women are often (though not always) the pursuers for conversation.

In the bad old days some marriage counselors prescribed the following strategic solution to the “He won’t talk”/”She won’t have sex” impasse. The wife was given tokens to dole out to her husband in exchange for, say, twenty minutes of conversation. After the husband collected a certain number of tokens, he could exchange them for what a colleague calls “a good schtupping” (Yiddish for intercourse), as a colleague puts it. She would get her conversational needs met, he would get his sexual needs met, and all would be well with their world. Thankfully, this “therapeutic solution” has long been discarded.

Lesbian and gay couples get stuck in the same dance. One partner keeps pursuing until it’s too painful, at which point he or she retreats into cold withdrawal. The sexually reluctant partner is too exhausted, too angry about something, worries that the kids may come in, isn’t a “night person” or “morning person” or doesn’t feel enough trust. Escaping traditional gender roles doesn’t mean escaping traditional problems.

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When the pursuer-distancer dance becomes rigidly fixed, both parties dread getting into bed at night. The bed becomes a place of tension and pain. The pursuer feels devastated by the constant rejection. The distancer may be afraid to even put her arms around her partner and be physically affectionate, because this may be interpreted as “mixed message” that she wants sex, which will then trigger some kind of uncomfortable or angry interaction. Out of bed as well, things are apt to go less smoothly than they might, and irritability runs high.

If there are two “yes” partners, or two “no partners” there’s obviously no problem. On the other hand, one “yes” partner and one “no” partner is a problem so common, you can think of it as normal, which doesn’t mean it’s good for your relationship. If either you or your partner is in pain about the pursuer-distancer dance, you need to understand that continuing these moves will only bring you more pain. Appreciating the need to do something different is an important first step.

There’s only one way to break the cycle. The pursuer has to stop pursuing for sex. The distancer has to stop distancing. It’s as simple—and difficult—as that.

If you’re the pursuer, you really need to “get it” that nothing will change if you keep trying to jump through hoops to initiate sex, only to get rejected, and then go into periods of cold, angry withdrawal. You have to stop pursuing. More difficult still, you have to gather up all your anger and hurt and frustration and put it aside. Angry withdrawal is just the flip side of pursuit, and won’t lead to change.

If you're the distancer you need to initiate sex (which doesn't necessarily mean intercourse) once in awhile even though you don't feel like it. Your partner can't live in a sexless marriage, especially if he's someone for whom sex is an enlivening, essential force and means of connection.

For the "how-to's of making this work, see Rule #62 in Marriage Rules.  More than any other rule in this book, this one may leave one or both of you feeling "I just can't do that."  If you really believe that your relationship is sustainable as a platnoic friendship over years or decades to come, you can forget about this rule. Some marriages do fine this way.

But if you know in your heart that some sort of sex life is necessary for your relationship to survive and thrive over time, grab this rule and run with it.

 

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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