Warning Signs of Pursuer-Distancer Relationship Pattern of the Emotionally Unavailable
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 as time as possible together. Then, inevitably one partner feels like they’re not getting enough attention, and the other feels suffocated. The more the pursuer clings and tries to close the gap in the relationship, the more the distancer criticizes and pulls away. When you are emotionally unavailable, you naturally follow this pattern as an unconscious way of self-protecting.
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.
When Stefanie first met Paul The relationship was great. He seems charming, financially stable and a great dad. While she wasn’t in a rush to get married after having previously gone through a challenging divorce, she did want to date exclusively and even possibly introduce Paul as her boyfriend or significant other at social functions.
When she mentioned this to Paul, things began to change. Paul immediately began calling less frequently, was busy at work or always seemed to have a family commitment. When they were together, everything was great but they weren’t together nearly as often and the communication began to be all initiated by Stephanie. She began to spend time thinking up reasons that she could contact him without seeming too pushy. Within a few weeks, he had completely disappeared from her life.
Stephanie was heartbroken. She felt that Paul had used her for sex because the minute she had expressed her desire for dating exclusivity, Paul began withdrawing. The truth is that Paul is not evil or a “player” even though there are many men just looking for a hook-up. He actually did like Stephanie. Being an emotionally unavailable man, who had also gone through a painful and unexpected divorce himself, he was not able to emotionally commit to her or the relationship. Had Stephanie continued to let Paul be the pursuer he might not have felt suffocated or distanced himself. On the other hand, she also might have had to wait several years before Paul could tolerate the title of boyfriend. The best thing Stephanie could do is pursue her own life and let Paul come around on his own or cut him loose.
Minor fluctuations are natural in any relationship, but this cycle can become destructive if it becomes too intense or persistent. If you see such warning signs in your relationship, try these more effective methods for staying close.
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, taking short trips on your own or with friends.
- Ask for what you want. Your partner is more likely to respond to polite and reasonable requests than nagging and vague hints about where the relationship is going. If your request is reasonable and your partner doesn’t want the same then that’s good information for you to have.
- 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 also known as mirroring.
- 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.
Steps to Take in any Relationship:
- Hold yourself accountable. Focus on how your behavior contributes to the dynamics of 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.
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