Relationship Patterns 101: The Pursuer- Distancer Dance

Think about the last time there was tension in one of your relationships. Maybe it was with a parent of yours, a sibling, your child, maybe even with a colleague. Put yourself back into that moment of tension and notice, were you the one to distance from the other person, or were you the one to pursue?

Now I’m not talking about the space you take after a conflict, the space that lets emotions settle and calm down. This done strategically with minimal reactivity is a very healthy way to manage conflict. Rather, I’m talking about that reactive position we take with another person when under stress.

Jill comes home from a very busy day at work. She’s tired and has little energy left. All she wants to do is relax. When she walks in the door she is met by her partner, Jack, who immediately senses something is up. Anxious that she’ll have to give more energy, Jane doesn’t say very much let alone clearly communicate her need for space (distance). Her partner anxiously asks “what’s wrong?” (pursue). Jane turns the TV on and continues to say little (distance) and her partner pushes harder “did you have a bad day?, “what happened?”, “have I done something wrong?” (pursue).

Most of us, in one relationship or another, find ourselves somewhere along the pursuer-distancer spectrum.


Therapist Harriet Lerner (2012) in her book “Marriage Rules” captures the pattern nicely.

A partner with pursuing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving toward the other. They seek communication, discussion, togetherness, and expression and can be urgent in their efforts to fix what they perceive as wrong. They are anxious about the distance their partner has created and often takes it personally. They are often labelled as needy.

A partner with distancing behavior responds to relationship stress by moving away from the other. They want both physical and emotional distance. Vulnerability can be very difficult for them and they often respond to their anxiety by retreating into other activities to distract themselves. Distances are most approachable when they don’t feel pressured, pushed, or pursued and are often labeled unavailable and shut down.

Dr. Lerner points out the importance of recognizing that neither pattern is wrong and often we may actually take turns adopting one role or the other. Healthy relationships can handle the stress with mutual respect and appreciation because both partners are aware of their own behavior and are willing to adjust it for the benefit of the relationship.

Although this pattern is often healthy and reciprocal, when it shows up in more extreme polarizing ways it can become problematic.

Relationship researches have found that couples who are stuck in extreme patterns of pursuit-distance are at higher risk of separation. It’s a pattern worth explore as it isn’t limited to our intimate partners. This pattern can even show up with colleagues and can potentially impact workplace enjoyment and stress.

So what do we do about it?

First, we own our part in the pattern. Identify your role in the patterns- are you the pursuer, or the distancer?

Second, don’t judge the other. The pursuer and the distancer are different sides of the same coin. Each of them are reacting to stress in the relationship, each just have a different way of expressing it.

Third, empower yourself by knowing that YOU DON’T NEED TO TRY TO CHANGE THE OTHER to change the pattern. Regardless of if you are the pursuer or the distancer, know that change can start with you. The other doesn’t even need insight into the pattern for shifts to happen.

Fourth, try an experiment. If you’re the pursuer, make a move to pursue less. And if you’re the distancer, make a move to distance less. All while staying in good contact with the other.

Fifth, be gentle with yourself. The pursuer or distancer in you has had years and years of training. It’s probably very good at what it does. Don’t expect you’ll be able to shift your part right away. Try some experiments and see what happens.

If this post speaks to you, and you want to have some conversations about how this pattern shows up in your life… there is a support group just down the hall, we meet every Wednesday, I’ll be there too… Just kidding! But really, if you want to take a deeper look at how this pattern shows up in your life please don’t hesitate to contact me. I specialize in relationships and offer individual, couple and family counselling and I’d be happy to work with you.

Written by Kathy Kutzer, MSW, RSW, RCC

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