Is This the Relationship Dynamic That Leads to the Most Pain?

Does the emotional intimacy in your relationship feel imbalanced? You may be tangled up in a pursuer-distancer dynamic. This is a frustrating place to be for a couple because both partners feel chronically dissatisfied with the level of intimacy being shared. For the pursuer, feelings of distance and disconnection cause insecurity. For the distancer, there is a sense of being pestered. Like all lopsided relationship dynamics, the pursuer-distancer dynamic is largely influenced by the attachment styles of both partners. It is also a dynamic that is fed by poor communication. Let’s dissect why love sometimes feels like a chase in all the wrong ways.

How Does a Pursuer Act in a Relationship?

The pursuer in the pursuer-distancer dynamic tends to react to stress, turmoil, or feelings of insecurity in the relationship by moving toward the other partner. As they seek communication and togetherness, the pursuer can sometimes come across as pushy, clingy, or suffocating. Their anxiety manifests as a need to get constant closeness and validation from their partner. Some pursuer behaviors are similar to codependency behaviors.

While turning toward a partner can seem like a healthy reaction on the surface, the pursuer-distancer dynamic can turn dark when the pursuer feels that their needs are not being met. One might begin to criticize their partner when they feel that they are not receiving the emotional connection they deserve. In many cases, the pursuer then turns cold and detached as a way to punish the partner who did not give them what they demanded.

How Does a Distancer Act in a Relationship?

When a distancer experiences relationship stress, they respond by pulling away. This isn’t metaphorical. The distancer will detach from their partner both physically and emotionally by spending time away, not responding to calls and text messages, or vanishing. In many cases, the distancer will become focused on activities outside of the relationship in order to stay distracted. Some might spend long hours at the office as a way to avoid going home.

While pursuers get comfort from closeness when they feel vulnerable, distancers gain comfort through self-reliance and solitude. Once they feel pressured by a partner, they “retaliate” by becoming distant. This creates a push-and-pull dynamic where a “demanding” pursuer actually pushes the overwhelmed distancer away more and more with each attempt to feel closer. While I don’t have time to dive fully into the topic here, it’s important to say that the pursuer-distancer dynamic can also be behind why some couples struggle with initiation-withholding behaviors in their sex lives.

Who Is Right?

It’s so important to emphasize that one partner in the pursuer-distancer dynamic isn’t necessarily handling the situation better than the other. Both are using skewed coping skills to try to stay protected against vulnerability. It’s important for both people in this dynamic to know that the other person is acting out of a sense of powerlessness. For the pursuer, distance feels like a black hole of rejection. For the distancer, there is a sense that the other partner is trying to “swallow them up” until they lose their independence. The distancer is so afraid to give up the safety that their self-perceived autonomy provides that they would rather lose a relationship than become vulnerable.

Working Through Your Relationship

This really only scratches the surface of the many layers of the pursuer-distancer dynamic. If you’re in a relationship with this dynamic, clear dialogue is crucial for communicating your thoughts and feelings instead of reactively going into your default mode of either chasing or running. If you’ve had an especially painful split in the past that still has you questioning what happened, there’s a chance that you were actually on the pursuer side of a pursuer-distancer dynamic. My Break-up Guide is a great place to start with unpacking where things went wrong!