A variety of experts such as Gottman, Johnson, and Tatkin, say one of the most common conflict cycles in relationships is the pursuer-distancer dynamic. In other words, if one partner becomes frustrated, agitated or (in extreme cases) aggressive - the other partner's reaction may be to become increasingly defensive and/or physically distant. This includes leaving the room, house, or neighbourhood.
A closer look at Gottman’s research reveals that if partners get stuck in this pursuer-distancer dynamic pattern in the first couple of years together, they have more than an 80% chance of their relationship breaking down. This commonly occurs around the four-to-five-year mark.
So, why is this relationship pattern so common?
Gottman found that these tendencies are hard-wired into our physiology, reflecting a primitive fight or flight response. From his observational studies, he warns that if this behaviour is not changed, the pursuer-distancer dynamic will follow through to the person's next intimate relationship. Therefore, it can be classified as both an ‘us’ problem and a ‘me’ problem in the relationship.
Partners in intimate relationships tend to blame their partner when their needs are not being met. This ultimately leads to a pursuer-distancer cycle which intensifies the partner’s push/pull dynamic. Couples report having “the same fight” over and over. After a while, they’re no longer addressing the issue at hand- but have now been caught in a vicious cycle of resentment and frustration. With this rising anger, the initial issue gets lost and becomes unsolved.
When you come across this cycle in the therapy room, it becomes a therapist’s first major task and it can often feel overwhelming and impossible.
HOW TO DEAL WITH A DISTANCER OR PURSUER
Let’s examine how the pursuer-distancer dynamic works by using an example of Cheryl and Dave (names changed for privacy).
Cheryl craves more emotional intimacy. She believes she has been working on this for years with Dave, but she feels as if it falls on deaf ears.
Dave feels that Cheryl constantly points out what she believes is ‘wrong’ with him. The more that Cheryl pressures Dave to share his inner thoughts with her, the more uncomfortable, bamboozled and fearful he becomes.
In other words, the ways that Cheryl and Dave respond to each other backfires. This creates a negative pattern of interpersonal relating.
A typical conversation between the two will go something like this:
“Let’s talk about why we’re not spending time together anymore,” Cheryl complains. Bob continues to read the newspaper and turns away from her bid for connection. She says, “How can we keep going if you never want to work on our problems?”
Dave thinks to himself “Oh great, here we go again. She’s looking for a fight. I can never get anything right! I need to get out of this.”
So, he responds, “I’m not sure what problems you’re talking about. We’re getting along okay. All couples go through hard times.”
Cheryl feels shut down with her concerns muted, she then thinks to herself “See, there’s no point, he doesn’t really care about me and never has”.
It’s no wonder that many of the interactions between pursuer-distancer couples become deadlocked. Partners can end up in a stalemate, left feeling bitter and disillusioned about their relationship.
Without recognising it, many pursuers come on stronger than they intend, not realising that being in the “pursuit mode” may cause their distant partner to withdraw even more. Likewise, by pulling away and out of the conversation, the distancer is triggering the pursuer to press the topic more vehemently.
In couple therapy, your aim would be to first help the couple become aware of this dynamic and their own role in it. Then secondly, to help the couple establish a more emotionally intelligent dialogue that allows both partners to feel heard and validated. This ultimately leads to their needs being met, cutting the cycle.
Gottman has developed a range of excellent practical intervention methods for therapists to use with couples. The methods allow every couple to both resolve their past misunderstandings and learn a wide range of emotionally intelligent dialogue and behavioural skills to better manage their relationship moving forward.
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