People often talk to me about relationships. Lately, I have been hearing a theme of people either chasing or feeling chased by others. This dynamic, often called the “pursuer-distancer dynamic,” happens in both friendships and romantic relationships, although it is more commonly discussed in the latter. What I find frustrating about this dynamic is that (1) there is often a subtle power play involved and (2) it blocks intimacy between partners.
I imagine that the label “pursuer-distancer” makes you recall certain relationships of your own. You probably know what I am talking about…it refers to a pattern where one person is pulled into chasing another person, who remains withdrawn. You may even know which role you typically play–do you tend to pursue, or withdraw? Do you crave connection, or space? Of course, even though we may lean toward one role over the other, we can change roles depending on the particular relationship and what it stirs in us. Of course, this is a complex dance, since it takes both people to create the dynamic. A pursuer cannot chase unless their partner flees. A distancer can’t flee when their partner doesn’t chase.
One thing about this dynamic that is hard to bear, in my opinion, is that it has an inherent power dynamic. The distancer is usually the one in the more comfortable, more powerful position, since they are not caught up in wanting anything from the other person. The tend to feel ok on their own, and may even feel relief at the idea of personal space. On the other hand, the less-powerful pursuer is often filled with anxiety, akin to separation anxiety, about being left or rejected. They crave connection with their partner. The pursuer may feel desperate to catch and hold onto the distancer, while the distancer may feel annoyed or trapped by the pursuer.
Although I’m certain that this dynamic is not entirely new, I imagine that today’s methods of communicating make the feelings it engenders more intense. (Check out my earlier post on perspective flipping for some more thoughts about how this happens.) For example, when a person feels eager to remain connected to a love interest, they will likely text them. If the love interest does not reply quickly, this may stir anxiety in the person, causing them to try again. The lack of responding on the part of the love interest puts the person in the one-down position of “pursuer.” On the other end, the love interest may wonder why the other person is “blowing up their phone.” They don’t always understand that their slow reply felt like a possible rejection to the other person. Their lack of responding, innocent as it may have been, puts them in the more powerful “distancer” position. Because today’s technologies allow for quick communucation, and we are used to being able to reach someone instantaneously, I think these dynamics are more common and more stressful than ever.
So, when we are caught in this dynamic, how can we get out of it? The answer is simple: it takes communication, sensitivity, and mindfulness. If two people want to be together, they can each describe their experience. The pursuer can let their partner know they fear they are being rejected or abandoned. The distancer can describe feeling suffocated. If each person can understand the other with sensitivity, they can mindfully change their behavior. The pursuer can back off, and the distancer can become more responsive. If each partner makes a conscious effort to behave differently, then the power in the relationship can become more evenly distributed. When this happens, both people can stand together (without chasing or being chased), and an intimate connection can form between them.
However, if the dynamic can’t shift because either communicating, empathizing, or capacity to mindfully change are not possible, then the relationship becomes toxic. In my opinion, it’s best to let these relationships go. That way, you can each move on to find a more comfortable match.
If you find yourself consistently in the same position in your relationships (always the pursuer or always the distancer), the spending a little time working on it in therapy can make a big difference. My personal observations tell me that people who frequently pursue can benefit from building their self-esteem and becoming more independent. Distancers, on the other hand, can often benefit from being less avoidant and becoming more open to connection with others. If this describes you, then working through whatever history or feelings lead you to continually pursue or distance will greatly expand your capacity to have a healthy, gratifying relationship.
© 2016 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.