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How Should You Respond to Crises in Your Relationship?

What happens when pursuers meet distancers.

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:

  • 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,” "too demanding,” or too nagging."
  • 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 and 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 relationship by intensifying attention to work-related projects or withdrawing into technology or sports.
  • Have a low tolerance for conflict and give up easily on their partner (“It’s not worth trying to discuss it with you”).
  • Open up most freely when they aren’t being pushed, pursued, or criticized by their partner.

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.

More from Harriet Lerner Ph.D.
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