After getting married, some find they have difficulty expressing their true emotions to their spouse. Much of what they learned about emotional expression may have come from experiences in their families growing up. For example, in my family, displaying any emotion besides happiness was discouraged. I was taught that if I was feeling any kind of negative emotion, it was not permissible to show it, and I should isolate myself until I could return with a smile on my face.
Once I was in a romantic relationship, it occurred to me that withdrawing myself from my significant other when I wasn’t happy was not healthy. It was not fair for me to withdraw myself and make him seek after me to connect. I realized that what some have referred to as the distancer-pursuer pattern was not helping our relationship, and some changes were needed.
In the media, a prevalent stereotype exists that men are distant, and women are clingy. In other words, in times of difficulty, men may withdraw and women then chase to re-establish goodwill. However, these roles can switch from partner to partner (more healthy) or develop into a pattern with one partner of either gender assuming the “chaser” role in the relationship (less healthy).
This pattern was described by Harriett Lerner as a “Distancer-Pursuer” relationship. As Dr. Lerner observes, the distancer is a person who physically or emotionally withdraws to cope when triggered by the partner. By contrast, pursuers seek out ways to reconnect through communication and closeness to help them cope during heated circumstances. They often take distancers’ response personally and may criticize them for being emotionally unavailable.
The Distance-Pursuer pattern is not always a negative pattern if partners take turns adopting one role or the other and are willing to adjust their behaviors for the benefit of the relationship. However, it can become an issue when partners’ roles become fixed or when roles reverse to an extreme level. When this pattern is evident in a relationship, partners can feel criticized, angry, and misunderstood, leading them to blame each other for the relationship’s issues in ways that can eventually lead to relationship breakdown. This pattern can be seen commonly in on-and-off- again relationships where couples break up and then make up frequently.
To break the pattern, partners can use awareness, time, and patience to intentionally undo the negative impacts, enhance communication, and change their conflict-resolution style.
Build Awareness and Discuss Differences
The first step in breaking the pattern is to understand that it exists in the relationship and that differences in communication styles may be leading to this pattern. Distancers and pursuers generally have distinct ways of communicating. When there is conflict within a relationship, distancers feel more comfortable communicating their distress by physically leaving the situation. They may be more likely to experience emotional flooding during times of relational stress. Emotional flooding is the experience of being overwhelmed with strong emotions, while lacking the resources to help one’s body to calm down. When people get flooded, their body goes automatically into a fight, flight, or freeze response and they have trouble thinking clearly in the moment. The choice to withdraw may be an attempt to calm themselves and have needed time to consider the situation before responding.
Some couples choose to establish a safe word for the distancer to use to let their partner know they are overwhelmed by attempts to talk and need a break to think or regain their composure. Distancers can reassure the pursuer of a designated time and place that they commit to communicate again, thus meeting their partner’s needs and relieving them of the need to “pursue.”
The communication style of “pursuers” may result from their emotional need to feel connection they crave by keeping a conversation alive. Thus, they have a tendency to increase their attempts at talking through issues in the moment or being near physically. When they can be assured that their partner will follow through on the commitment to return and listen well, the pursuer may come to better trust that issues can be solved in a more relaxed environment and both can feel more secure and respected within their relationship.
Once this awareness is built, partners can work together to consciously develop a clear plan for moments when stressful situations or arguments lead to this pattern. For example, pursuers could make a list of ways for them to self-soothe and meet their own emotional needs while their partner takes a break. Distancers could plan to use part of their time away not to just escape, but to intentionally take time to consider their partner’s actions or feelings in context, so they are better prepared to clearly voice their thoughts and seek solutions during the subsequent communication. Sharing these plans may help reassure each partner that the situation is being addressed during the time they are apart.
Avoid the Temptation to Engage in the Blame Game
In speaking of the temptation to engage in the blame game in stressful situations, Dr. Lerner stated: “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 . . . partner, we need to identify the cycle and take steps to change it.” Therefore, couples need to acknowledge the role they play within a relationship, be accountable for their actions, and discuss together how to manage their conflict in a healthier way.
Discussions of strategies for managing conflict in a healthier way can include couples choosing the type of language that would resolve the conflicts and identifying those communication patterns that they feel should be “off limits.” For example, some couples may recognize the need to eliminate blaming and commit to better articulating the emotions behind their behavior. Instead of saying something such as, “I’m so angry because you aren’t paying attention to me,” a partner might say: “I am sorry that I am angry. I think it is because I have missed spending time with you.” This type of conversation foregoes blaming one another for certain behaviors, accepts responsibility for one’s own feelings, and focuses on articulating needs and emotions. When partners are not regularly attacked, they may not so often feel a need to get defensive, which can then heighten the intensity of an argument.
Sometimes communication patterns are deep-set in one’s background and are hard to overcome and detect without some help. Couples may choose to be better prepared by reading information from reliable relationship experts who have published a variety of resources to help couples become more well-informed, such as those listed in the reference list below. Another available resource for couples is reaching out for professional help by meeting with a therapist to improve or even save the relationship.10 A trained therapist can act as a “third party” who can help couples to analyze negative communication patterns within their relationship and change those patterns to enhance emotional security and build a healthier relationship.
Breaking away from fixed roles in a Distancer-Pursuer relationship is generally something that couples cannot do overnight. Rather, this process takes both partners’ time, patience, and commitment. This shift, however, can help couples strengthen their ability to communicate, become closer, and have a more satisfying relationship. Change is possible—for it’s not too late to rewrite the story of a relationship.
Written by Bethany Jorgensen, a recent graduate of Brigham Young University’s School of Family, Home, and Social Sciences and a current student of the University of Utah’s Educational Psychology Graduate Program.
1 Lerner, H. (2012, October 13). How should you respond to crises in your relationship? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-dance-connection/201210/how-should-you-respond-crises-in-your-relationship
2 Gaspard, T. (2019, August 22). How to reverse the demand-withdraw dynamic in relationships. Patheos. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/terrygaspard/2019/08/how-to-reverse-the-demand-,withdraw-dynamic-in-relationships/
3 Horsmon, S. (2017, March 6). How to avoid the pursuer-distancer relationship pattern in your relationship. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/how-to-avoid-the-pursuer-distancer-pattern-in-your-relationship/
4 Gaspard, T. (2018, October 3). What to do when you fall out of love with your partner. Patheos. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/terrygaspard/2018/10/what-to-do-when-you-fall-out-of-love-with-your-partner/
5 Lickerman, A. (2012, November 11). The magical power of “safe” words to prevent harm. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-in-world/201211/the-magical-power-safe-words-prevent-harm
6 Firestone, L. (2017, April 21). Are you the pursuer or the distancer in your relationship? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/compassion-matters/201704/are-you-the-pursuer-or-the-distancer-in-your-relationship
7 Davin, K. (2019, January 22). 8 ways to break the distancer-pursuer relationship. Kristin Davin Psy.D. https://kristindavin.com/8-ways-to-break-the-distancer-pursuer-relationship/
8 Johnson, S. (2003, March 1). How to save your relationship. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200303/how-save-your-relationship