The pursuer-distancer pattern is very common in romantic relationships. We all have unique ways of responding to stress. When in a relationship, couples tend to respond to relationship stress in one of two ways: by moving toward their partner (pursuing) or by moving away from their partner (distancing).

Why is this important? Dr. John Gottman has found in his research that couples who become entrenched in the pursuer-distancer pattern within the first few years of their relationship have an 80% (or more) chance of breaking up or divorcing within the first 4-5 years.

How do you know if you are a pursuer or a distancer?

Here are some characteristics of each:

-You desire closeness, communication, and openness from your partner.
-You may find yourself wishing for more connection from your partner, even when you’re in the same room together.
-Your partner may see you as critical, nagging, demanding, or needy.
-You become anxious when you feel distant from your partner.
-You may take your partner’s need for space personally.
-You want to solve relationship problems immediately.

-You are self-reliant and desire privacy and distance (physical/emotional) from your partner.
-You may find yourself wishing you could get away or daydreaming about taking a break from the relationship.
-Your partner may see you as cold, defensive, distant, shut down, or unavailable.
-You become anxious when you feel pursued by your partner.
-You may find it difficult to be vulnerable.
-You do not like to feel pressured or criticized.

You may fall into one of these categories perfectly – or you may even fluctuate between the two. Neither of these patterns are wrong or bad. However, when you have a pursuer partnered with a distancer – and they become entrenched in their patterns – the relationship can suffer. Each partner is left feeling unsatisfied in the relationship and neither is getting what they need.

How this pattern ruins relationships

One of the ways I see the pursuer-distancer pattern destroying relationships is during times of conflict. It often starts when one partner wants to talk about an issue (pursuer) and the other partner feels criticized (distancer). In this instance, the pursuer is feeling anxious about a relationship concern and wants to get to the bottom of it (so they can relieve their own anxiety about the relationship). The distancer may feel caught off guard and pressured to talk about the issue (possibly the last thing in the world they want to do).

Now both partners are anxious and overwhelmed, and the conversation is escalating and getting out of hand. The distancer needs a break and the pursuer wants the issue solved right away. Neither partner is getting what they need and it’s now impossible to have a productive conversation or outcome.

How can you break the pattern?

For the couples caught in this pattern, it can sometimes feel impossible to move forward or to reach a solution that works for both parties (because their needs are so drastically different). However, as a result of working with pursuer-distancer couples over the past several years I’ve developed a roadmap that leads them through a 5-step solution for those discussions that end up turning into arguments because of this pattern.

By implementing these 5 steps the couples that I have worked with have reported:
-less frequent and less intense arguments
-less avoidance of relationship issues
-less criticism and defensiveness
-feeling more connected

If you’re interested in learning more about the 5 steps and how to implement them into your relationship you can find out more here: The Happy Couples Guide to Reducing Conflict.

Cindy Norton

I absolutely love providing helpful relationship education to couples so they can have happier, healthier, and more fulfilling relationships.

So if you’re a committed couple seeking to enhance the quality of your relationship, you’ve found the right place.

I offer my support with Premarital Counseling and Relationship Coaching.

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