Pursuing and distancing are normal ways that humans navigate relationships under stress, and one is not better or worse than the other. A problem occurs only when a pattern of pursuing and distancing becomes entrenched. When this happens, the behavior of each partner provokes and maintains the behavior of the other.
For example, a crisis causes stress to arise—and she wants to talk about it but he withdraws, which only raises her anxiety, so she pursues more, which just increases his distancing. Sooner or later, a fight ensues, and each blames the other for it.
It’s always easier to point the finger at a partner than to acknowledge our own role in a problem. 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 in times of high stress, when we tend to become a more exaggerated version of ourselves.
Pursuers tend to:
Distancers tend to:
Of course, each partner can be a pursuer and a distancer at different moments, or over different issues. For example, one partner may pursue for more emotional intimacy, but withdraw around a personal medical issue.
Regardless, the pursuer is the one in more distress about the distance, and more motivated to change the pattern. For this reason, the pursuer is often best served by discovering ways to call off the pursuit—and there are ways to reconnect with a distancing partner that don’t involve aggressive pursuing. A distancer may feel unhappy about how things are going in a relationship, but he or she is still more likely to maintain the status quo than to move toward a partner who is in pursuit mode.
But distancers beware: Many partners, exhausted by years of pursuing and feeling unheard, leave a relationship or marriage suddenly. When a distancer realizes that a partner may actually walk out, he or she may flip into a position of intense pursuit. But it may be too late.
So: Pursuers, stop pursuing! Distancers, stop distancing! Change your approach—and give your relationship a fighting chance.