Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Spot Pursuer-Distancer Dynamics in Your Relationship

This type of conflict causes familiar problems in connection and communication.

Key points

  • When one partner seeks a deeper connection, and the other avoids it, a cycle of pursuit and distance can emerge.
  • A cycle of pursuit and distance can become self-reinforcing and difficult to break.
  • Empathy for your partner, even if their attachment needs differ from yours, can help interrupt the pattern of conflict.
Natalia Szymańska Żera / Pixabay
Natalia Szymańska Żera / Pixabay

We’ve all heard it said: relationships aren’t easy. When two people commit to each other, they can experience a deep, evolving intimacy, but as they grow together, each partner will need to balance this intimacy with autonomy. Unfortunately, marriages and other long-term relationships do not always settle into an appropriate balance between connection and independence. Feeling persistently dissatisfied in this way–with the amount of intimacy, freedom, or both simultaneously–is quite common for long-term partners.

Herein lies the crux of the pursuer-distancer dynamic: When one partner seeks connection and the other avoids it, the first partner may pursue even more aggressively, and the distancer may respond by pulling away even further. A vicious cycle may result, with each partner’s behavior triggering and perpetuating the other’s.

With sexual frequency mismatch being a common relationship problem, it’s easy to imagine the pursuer-distancer dynamic originating in the bedroom, with similar initiation-withholding behavior. In such cases, the conflict may not actually be about sex but reassurance: the pursuer, in many cases, is the partner who needs more affirmation and validation from the other. Quite often (although not always), the pursuer may have an anxious attachment style, while the distancer may be better described as avoidant.

Pursuing behavior can be literal, as it is with sex. But, it can also take many other forms–like persistently asking one’s partner “what’s wrong” when they fall silent, wanting to talk about feelings more often than they can accommodate, trying to chip away at their silence, or baiting them to engage in a confrontation. Pursuers often prefer to resolve conflicts immediately–to avoid going to bed angry, as some might say. Their goal is often to foreground emotional intimacy in the gap between themselves and their partners.

Distancers, on the other hand, prefer to take some time to think through relationship problems. They may withdraw into themselves by spending more time with friends, focusing on their hobbies, or giving the pursuer the silent treatment. They may feel easily overwhelmed by a partner’s advances, utilize avoidance as a defense, or have greater difficulty talking about their feelings in general. They may respond with clear rationality and choose not to engage on an emotional level. Even denying that a relationship problem exists while remaining perfectly untouchably pleasant can be described as a distancing strategy.

How, then, does the pursuer-distancer dynamic evolve in the first place? Stereotypical or “traditional” gender roles automatically cast men in the role of the distancer, and assume that women or girls will be their pursuers. Yet, contemporary relationships are usually more complex, and each is unique. When two people get together, each partner will bring out a new side of their partner’s personality, even as their partner elicits unique responses from them. Any partner of any gender can be pursuer or distancer; everyone in a committed relationship needs closeness as well as independence. In fact, these roles may even be time- or situation-specific, in that a given person might sometimes be a pursuer, sometimes a distancer, and sometimes neither.

Pursuer-distancer dynamics often affect the way relationship partners settle their differences–or don’t, as the case may be. The notion of “never going to bed angry” may have come from someone more comfortable pursuing reconciliation, stability, and harmony than allowing conflicts to cool before talking about them. If the pursuer-distancer mismatch is too significant, marriages or partnerships can settle into an impasse–a cycle in which no one ever wins, and no one gets what they want.

People locked into this dynamic may have the same arguments day after day. They may fight uselessly over things that come up during their arguments instead of addressing the heart of the conflict. Alternately, a pursuing partner may become stymied by their longstanding efforts to close the gap in their relationship; frustrated this way, they may even change their ways and pull back. In such cases, the original distancer can be confused or frightened by their partner’s behavior and, in response, can even switch roles and attempt to draw their partners back into the familiar dynamic once again.

In couples therapy, a pursuer-distancer pair may be able to learn to recognize the patterns in their relationship style. They might be asked to “walk in each other’s shoes” or to try to articulate what the other partner is feeling in response to their actions. Understanding your partner’s communication style becomes crucial in undoing these patterns of assumption and automatic behavior. You may need to learn how your partner expresses feelings and what they mean when they try to talk to you–even if they do so in a way that doesn’t make immediate sense to you. You’ll also want to try to empathize with your partner’s attachment needs.

Becoming comfortable with their need for closeness–or independence–can stabilize a relationship over the long term, even if you can’t always meet these needs. Try to recognize which of you tends to pursue and which one tends to seek distance–and in what situations these behavior styles occur. After all, it’s okay to be a natural pursuer, and it’s okay to be a distancer. Conflicts arise not from the roles themselves, but when the two dynamics interlock or cause communication gaps.

More from Loren Soeiro, Ph.D. ABPP
More from Psychology Today