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Break the Pursuer-Distancer Pattern

Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT

Jill wants more emotional connection and quality time with Jack. She also wants him to be more involved with the children and the household responsibilities. Jack feels overwhelmed by work, finances, and the demands of home. When Jill complains about the lack of emotional connection or about something that he hasn’t done at home, Jack gets defensive. He either pushes back or shuts down. He feels like he can never do enough to make Jill happy. He has begun to distance himself from Jill to avoid conflict. However, the more Jack distances, the more Jill pursues, and the more Jill pursues, the more Jack distances. They are caught in a pursuer-distancer pattern.

Does this sound familiar? Do you experience something similar in your relationship? Are you stuck in a pursuer-distancer pattern? If you are, you need to know that doing more of the same will not get you out of it, but only dig yourselves in deeper.

The pursuer-distancer pattern is typically female (pursuer)-male (distancer), but that is because, according to Dr. John Gottman’s research, if there is a problem in the relationship, 81% of the time, it is the woman who brings it up. Men typically try to avoid the problem and hope that she forgets about it. And men play an important role in the escalation of needs to criticism. If men do not pay attention to their female partner’s legitimate needs, needs become complaints, complaints become criticism, and criticism can escalate to contempt.

So, how can you break out of the pursuer-distancer pattern? It takes effort and commitment to change on the part of both the pursuer and the distancer. First, both need to take a step back from trying to change the other. Carl Rogers, the great 20th Century American psychologist, wrote: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.” In a relationship, this means that my partner can only change when they feel accepted as they are. Once they feel accepted, then they can change of their own free will. Second, they each need to take responsibility for their part of the equation and to change themselves, rather than their partner.

For the pursuer, it involves renouncing the pursuit while still expressing legitimate needs. The antidote to criticism or harsh startup is what we call gentle startup. Gentle startup involves starting with your own feelings (i.e. “I feel…” followed by a feeling word), describing the situation as neutrally as possible, and stating a positive need. The pursuer might also adapt the attitude of interdependency rather than codependency. Interdependency is a healthy aspect of good relationships and involves expressing concern and support, whereas codependency involves trying to control the problem or the partner. The pursuer might also try expressing appreciation for what the partner does do, rather than complain about what they don’t do.

For the distancer, it involves taking responsibility and engaging, rather than getting defensive and withdrawing. The antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility for the problem. You don’t have to take all the responsibility, but some piece of it. Dr. John Gottman found that if a man can respond non-defensively to his female partner’s negative emotion directed towards him for at least five seconds, it has a more positive effect on the outcome of the conflict than anything that a woman does or doesn’t do. That is because the man is self-regulating and not responding from a place of anger or defensiveness. The distancer also needs to commit to engaging with their partner rather than withdrawing.

The curious paradox is that breaking this pattern involves each partner renouncing changing the other and focusing on changing their part in the relationship. And you may find that by letting go, you get the change that you have been desiring. You may also find that you need some help with breaking this pattern, in which case you might consider couple therapy with a trained professional who specializes in couple therapy.

© 2023 Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT, dba Happy Couples Healthy Communities.

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