During a recent couples counseling session, Karen, 37, and Rob, 40, discuss their destructive pursuer-distancer pattern in their marriage. During their ten-year relationship, Karen has felt ignored and emotionally neglected by Rob often and Rob feels criticized, unloved, and unappreciated.
Karen put it like this, “No matter how hard I try, Rob withdraws and avoids talking to me when I seek him out. He says that I’m needy and put too much pressure on him and I feel lonely and ignored.”
Rob reflects, “Maybe if Karen gave me a break and didn’t criticize me so much, I’d feel like spending time with her. It never seems like I can do enough to please her.”
What is the Pursuer- Distancer Dynamic?
One of the most influential authors on this topic, Dr. Sue Johnson, posits that one of the primary reasons why we fear intimacy and lack connection with our partners is that we do not feel emotionally safe with him or her. Lacking confidence in our partner’s trustworthiness can cause us to feel disconnected and distressed a great deal of the time. Over time, this can lead to a Pursuer- Distancer Dynamic.
Dr. Johnson identifies this pattern as the “Protest Polka” and refers to as one of three “Demon Dialogues.” She explains that when one partner becomes critical and aggressive the other often becomes defensive and distant. Renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman’s research on thousands of couples discovered that partners that get stuck in this pattern the first few years of marriage have more than a 80% chance of divorcing in the first four or five years of marriage.
Let’s see how it usually works in a typical scenario with Karen and Rob. Karen’s hyper-vigilance is her strategy to motivate her husband to open up. But in this case, the ways that Karen and Rob respond to each other backfires – going from bad to worse.
“We never spend time together anymore because you’re too busy,” Karen complains as Rob watches the news (which she dislikes). “How can we get along if you ignore me?”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” Rob says. He continues, “You’re never happy with me. I’m just trying to work and relax when I get home.”
Karen feels increasingly frustrated with her attempts to draw Rob out. Meanwhile, Rob resorts to his classic distancer strategy – becoming defensive and ignoring her attempts to communicate. As Karen continues to express more disappointment in Rob, he further withdraws. If this pattern does not change, Karen and Rob might both begin to feel criticized and contempt for each other – two of the major warning signs that their marriage is doomed to fail, according to Dr. Gottman.
7 ways to connect with your partner in positive ways and break the Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic:
- Gain awareness about how your past can impact you and your partner’s preferences for emotional attunement. For instance, did you feel ignored or criticized by one of your parents? Our relationship with our parents can affect our expectations and responses to our spouse.
- Think back to when you felt more emotionally attuned to your partner, earlier in your relationship, and try to recreate that level of emotional intimacy (do similar activities and/or rekindle loving feelings).
- Accept that negative patterns exist and need to be corrected to improve the long-term stability of your relationship. Work on changing your reactions to your partner and take responsibility for your part in interactions with him/her.
- Don’t let your fear and shame of failure keep you from being vulnerable with your partner.
- Accept your different perspectives and preferences and try to understand rather than criticize your partner.
- Stop the blame game. Practice tolerance and forgiveness for real and non-intentional acts or hurtful words.
- If you or your partner feels flooded, walk away but not in anger or blame. Disengage as a way to restore your composure not to punish your partner. Attempt to resume a dialogue when you feel refreshed and able to talk calmly and rationally.
The best way to nurture any intimate relationship is to establish emotional safety and emotional attunement. When experiencing problems in your marriage, it is wise to examine your own actions while adopting realistic expectations about your partner’s willingness to change.
Put simply, don’t focus on trying to fix your partner or play the blame game (no one wins). Self-awareness and being aware of your partner’s needs for attachment are key to ensuring a lifetime of love.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her award-winning book, Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Feel free to ask a question here.
Terry’s book award-winning book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020.