Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Dynamic That's Poison for Any Couple

When one partner refuses to connect, the other is left with few options.

Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Intimate relationship dynamics are interactive patterns in which both parties automatically react to each other in set ways. In my last post, I described the first of the three major unconscious dynamics that rule unhappy relationships: demand-withdraw, in which one party seeks control through criticism, complaints or coercion, while the other seeks control through distraction or isolation.

A close cousin of the demand-withdraw dynamic is the pursuer-distancer dynamic. More about connection than power, the dance of pursuer-distancer is made up of one party trying to achieve a degree of closeness and intimacy that is considered by the other to be smothering. Any attempt by the pursuer to get more closeness in the relationship, then, is met with resistance—and more distance.

Common among the many ways of creating distance in intimate relationships are:

Pursuers can be creative in attempts to engineer closeness, while distancers can be just as fervent in their resistance. For example, "Sheila" got her husband to agree to a weekend in the mountains with their best friends. "Harry" was furious when they got to the cabin only to find that the other couple had canceled at the last minute. He called the husband of the other couple, who knew nothing about the proposed weekend.

Sheila’s ruse to lure her husband into a romantic interlude never had much chance of success. Feeling controlled and manipulated, Harry threatened to leave her in the cabin alone. He ended up staying the weekend but barely spoke to her. When he saw her crying several times during those long two days together, he tried to explain that he couldn’t let her get away with any manipulation that could harm their relationship.

Every pursuer-distancer sequence ends in rejec­tion of the pursuer.

Pursuers see the primary relationship issue as the coldness and withholding nature of their partners:

“You just throw me a few crumbs of affection now and then. You don’t care at all about my needs.”

Distancers see the “issue” as the neediness of their partners:

“Nothing I do is enough for you. Nobody could meet your needs.”

The accumulated guilt from rejecting a loved one—and the shame of being rejected by a loved one—activate cycles of resentment, anger, and hostility that drain life from a relationship.

Reversal at the End

A reversal of roles occurs near the end of pursuer-distancer relationships, just as it does in demand-withdraw relationships: Pursuers eventually stop pursuing when the weight of contin­ual rejection becomes too great. They make less eye contact, close off their body language, and appear tired, irritable, cynical, or angry much of the time. The cessation of pursuit makes distancers unsure of who they are, because the foundation of the distancers' self-perception is the unbridled devotion of the pursuer. Out of desperation, they start their own pursuit of the weary, angry, withdraw­ing former pursuer. Distancers tend to fall in love with their partners just as, bags in hand, they finally walk out the door.

No One Self-Regulates

In the frustrating, painful struggle of pursuer-distancer, both parties remain power­less over their internal experi­ence. The dynamic of the relationship provides negative regulation by “making them” push harder or run faster. Sadly, the more it hurts, the more both partners play out their respective ends of the dynamic. Demanding and withdrawing, pursuing and running away, feel like powerful emotional needs.

An emotional need is a preference that you've decided must be gratified to maintain equilibrium: It feels as if you can’t be well or feel whole without it. The perception of need begins with a rise in emotional intensity: You feel more strongly about being with someone or having something. As the intensity increases, it can feel like you “need” to do it or have it, for one compelling reason: It’s the same emotional precursor of biological need. (Try planting your face in a pillow; emotional intensity rises just before you struggle to breathe.) The brain confuses the rise in emotional intensity with biological necessity.

In terms of motivation, perceived emotional needs are similar to addictions: The body decides that you have an addiction; and the mind decides that you have an emotional need. Once you decide that you need something, the pursuit of it can be just as compelling as addiction.

Perceived emotional needs always come with a sense of entitlement:

“I have a right to get you to do what I want, because I need it, and my right to get what I need is superior to your right not to give it.”

It also carries a coercive element: “If you don't do what I want, you'll be punished,” through criticism, harassment or abuse on the part of the demander—or rejection, abandonment and withdraw of affection by the distancer.

Seeking to get your needs met in an intimate relationship, as opposed to being loving, compassionate, and kind, is likely to make you appear demanding, selfish, or needy. You're almost guaranteed to get depressed, chronically resentful, or both. One thing is for sure: You won’t give or receive very much love.

In the next post, I’ll describe the most hidden and pervasive of intimate relationship dynamics: the fear-shame dynamic.

Read more on Intimate Relationship Dynamics.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today