Many relationships run into trouble because one partner seeks more closeness, while the other seeks more distance. It’s a cycle that psychologists call a pursuer-distancer dynamic.
Typically, during the initial infatuation stage, you both want to spend as much time as possible together. Then, reality sets in. One partner feels like they’re not getting enough attention, and the other feels suffocated. The more the pursuer clings, the more the distancer criticizes and pulls away.
To make things more complicated, the roles can sometimes change during the course of the relationship. For example, when the pursuer decides to move on, the distancer may suddenly start trying to win them back.
Minor fluctuations are natural in any relationship, but this cycle can become destructive if it becomes too intense or persistent. If you see pursuer-distancer warning signs in your relationship, try these more effective methods for staying close.
Steps to Resolve Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic
Steps to Take When You’re the Pursuer:
- Meet your own needs
Be honest with yourself about how much you’re expecting from your partner. You may be exhausting them if you’re placing excessive demands on the relationship. Try making new friends, cultivating outside interests, and fixing your own dilemmas.
- Ask for what you want
Your partner is more likely to respond to polite and reasonable requests than nagging and vague hints. Make it clear that you’re asking for something, rather than putting them down.
- Level the field
Who texts more in your relationship? A slight disparity may be insignificant, but if you’re reaching out too much, you may need to exercise some restraint. Resist the impulse to leave repetitive messages just because you want assurance. Try to match each other’s communication frequencies.
- Back off
It’s essential to talk things over, but you also want to choose the appropriate time. If your partner seems overwhelmed, encourage them to take a break. Schedule your sensitive discussions for a time when you both feel up to the task.
Steps to Take When You’re the Distancer:
- Build trust
You’ll miss out on love if you try to protect yourself by holding back. Instead, learn to trust by remembering that you’re strong enough to deal with disappointments. Notice how your partner shows their concern and good intentions, and treat them with compassion when they make a mistake.
- Share your feelings
Risk being vulnerable. Start small and work your way up to the deeper issues.
- Show affection
Let your partner know you appreciate them and find them attractive. Hold hands at the movies or give them a hug when they come home. Make eye contact when they’re talking and ask questions that prove you’re listening.
- Spend time together
Share your time. Plan a romantic weekend if you’ve been working extra hours for the past month. Wake up early on weekdays so you can get together for breakfast.
Similar Patterns to Consider
If this pattern seems to resonate with the reality of your relationship or past relationships, taking a closer look at the specifics can be helpful.
While the Pursuer-Distancer pattern is common, there is another similar pattern seen in toxic couple relationships. This pattern is known as the love avoidant and love addicted pattern, or sometimes as the Cycle of Love Addiction.
In this pattern, the two people in the relationship are drawn together to create a toxic relationship based on anxiety and fear of the relationship itself. It’s not the specific individual but the push-and-pull of the two different relationship types that drives the cycle. The two types involved in this relationship are the love addict and the love avoidant.
The love addict is driven by the emotional connection and the sense of being a part of a couple. The love addict is driven by a fear of being left or abandoned and is more interested in holding the relationship together, while the love avoidant fears intimacy and wants to move out of the relationship.
Signs of a Love Addict:
- Thrive on attention
The more attention provided early in the relationship, the greater the appeal for the love addict. She or he feels a “high” from the validation and connection experienced.
- Ignore red flags
Even when there are obvious issues with the partner or his or her expectations, the love addict will gloss over reality and accept, or even endorse, bad or destructive types of behaviors.
- Magical thinking
The love addict engages in magical thinking, believing he or she can “fix” or modify any negative behaviors or gaps in the relationship. They also see the other person as perfect at heart, or perhaps as a diamond in the rough that just needs to be in the right relationship to change into the perfect partner.
- Total preoccupation with the relationship
Over time, the love addict abandons all outside relationships to focus on preventing the love avoidant partner from leaving. This includes pursuing the other person while anxiety builds over the growing distance in the relationship.
If the relationship fails, the love addict may seek to start over despite the lack of change in the dynamics. Depression, anxiety, and panic may lead to bargaining, obsessive behaviors, and total focus on recreating the initial high of the relationship.
Signs of a Love Avoidant:
- Initial charm
The love avoidant thrives on the need for love from the love addict. Initially, this translates into paying attention, spending time, and often pretending to like the same things as the love addict. The neediness and validation of the relationship from the love addict creates a sense of strength and purpose in the relationship in the early stages for the love avoidant.
- Pulling away
As the love addict pushes to increase the physical and emotional connection, the love avoidant begins to feel vulnerable and overwhelmed with demands for intimacy in the relationship. The initial sense of control now begins to feel restrictive and smothering, so he or she begins to create distance and pull away. This change is sensed by the love addict, who pushes even harder.
- Dramatic distancing
With the increasing feelings of being trapped in the relationship, the emotional connection decreases dramatically for the love avoidant, and he or she is actively moving away from the partner. This may include physical distancing, as well as creating emotional walls and barriers.
- Complete avoidance
As the love addict goes to extremes to avoid abandonment, the love avoidant sees this vulnerability and dependence as a fatal flaw. He or she may display this as anger, frustration, or emotional or physical abuse towards the partner. Some love avoidants may seek out a new relationship to gain the initial positive feelings in a relationship. It only furthers the potential actions of the love addict and escalates the cycle to its inevitable negative end.
It is not uncommon for both the love avoidant and the love addict in the cycle to attempt to reconcile if there is a separation. The cycle tends to shorten with each attempted reconciliation, with increasingly challenging behaviors seen by both partners unless there is a significant intervention and change.
Steps to Take in any Relationship:
- Hold yourself accountable
Focus on how your behavior contributes to the dynamics in your relationship, rather than blaming your partner. You have more control over your own choices.
- Spot your triggers
Increase your awareness of how you may be inadvertently sabotaging your happiness. Notice when you’re trying to get your own way by checking in too often or withholding affection.
- Work together
Remember that you’re on the same side. Support each other as you’re trying to develop healthier patterns of interaction.
A healthy relationship allows you and your partner to balance your needs for autonomy and intimacy. Replace the pursuer-distancer cycle with more open and respectful communication so you can both enjoy more love and satisfaction.
Sherry Gaba helps singles navigate the dating process to find the love of their lives. Take her quiz to find out if you’re struggling with co-dependency, sign up for a 30-minute strategy session, or learn more about how to get over a break-up. For more information visit www.sherrygaba.com or sign up today for Sherry’s online group coaching program. Buy her books Love Smacked: How to Break the Cycle of Relationship Addiction and Codependency to find Everlasting Love or Infinite Recovery