There are certain well-documented patterns that can play out between partners in a long-term relationships. The pursuer-distancer dynamic is a particularly toxic one – in a longitudinal study of 1,400 divorced individuals over 30 years, psychology professor E. Mavis Hetherington found that couples who adopted this pattern were at the highest risk for divorce. The pattern is a psychological dance, oftentimes unconscious, between two partners in a relationship — one partner (the pursuer) who pursues the other (the distancer) in an effort to form closeness. If unresolved, this pattern can escalate into a Bad Idea Dominos sequence of increasingly desperate attempts to re-connect. I believe understanding the pursuer-distancer dynamic is not just helpful to understanding human relationships, but also that it can serve as a kind of early-detection system of relational distress.

Relationship specialist Harriet Lerner summarizes the pursuer-distancer pattern as one centered around a need for connection and intimacy. The pursuer responds to relationship stress by attempting to achieve more intimacy and are insistent in their efforts to fix what they think is wrong. The distancer, on the other hand, responds to relationship stress by moving away from their partner. They want physical and emotional distance in order to handle their anxiety, and are at their best when they don’t feel pressured or pushed. The pursuer’s behavior is thus perceived by the distancer as being smothering, and the distancer resists by creating more distance. This heightens the pursuer’s anxiety, engendering more pursuit, which leads to more distancing, and so on. The pursuer views the distancer as being unavailable; the distancer views the pursuer as needy.

Psychologist Steven Stosny categorically states that “Every pursuer-distancer sequence ends in rejec­tion of the pursuer.” Stosny Lerner is more forgiving, pointing out that a healthy relationship can handle the tension of the pursuer-distancer dynamic with mutual respect and appreciation if both partners are aware of their behavior and are willing to adjust it for the benefit of the relationship. Both practitioners agree that there can be a reversal at the end of an unhealthy pursuer-distancer dynamic. Lerner warns: “Many [pursuing] partners, exhausted by years of pursuing and feeling unheard, leave a relationship or marriage suddenly. When a distancer realizes that a partner may actually walk out, he or she may flip into a position of intense pursuit. But it may be too late.”

Stosny purports that the pursuer-distancer pattern may be underwritten by the more general fear-shame dynamic. In the latter, one partner’s fear-avoidant behavior triggers shame-avoidant behavior in the other, and vice versa. In my interpretation of this as applied to the pursuer-distancer pattern, the pursuer’s core fear is of being abandoned. They attempt to avoid or soothe this fear by pursuing. This triggers the distancer’s shame of being weak or dependent. The distancer’s core fear is of being controlled, and when they attempt to soothe this fear by creating distance, it triggers the pursuer’s shame of not being acceptable or lovable.

The pursuer-distancer model sounds very similar to adult attachment theory, where the pursuer parallels an anxious attachment style and the distancer, an avoidant style. I’m not aware of any formal research that links the two models.

Have you noticed this pattern playing out in your own relationship?