Pursuer – Distancer

There’s an old proverb that says: “Don’t chase the butterfly, mend your garden and let the butterfly come”.

When couples fight they often don’t realize that they have set up a pattern between them. The pursuer-distancer pattern is the most common conflict or power pattern couples find themselves in. Here’s what it looks like:

Jane:  “Why do you always do that?”

John: “Do what?”

Jane: “You ignore me. Everything is more important to you than me.”

John: “No, it’s not.”

Jane: “We need to talk about this. You’re doing it now.”

John: “I don’t see the problem. You’re over-reacting.”

Jane: “No, I’m not!”

John: “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”(S.Horsmon)

In this example Jane is the pursuer and John is the distancer. Jane feels anxious about the distance she feels in her relationship and aims for connection while John feels the pressure, and tries to distract himself from his own anxiety- by pulling away. Although neither one is inherently right or wrong, it’s still a lose-lose situation.

And the worst part is that it can destroy a relationship. Unless both parties see-and understand- the pattern. In order to change your part in the pursuer-distancer dance, you need to first understand the characteristics of each style.

Pursuers tend to: 

  • React to anxiety by seeking greater togetherness in their relationship.
  • Place a high value on talking things out and expressing feelings, and believe that others should do the same.
  • Feel rejected and take it personally when their partner wants more time and space alone or away from the relationship.
  • Pursue harder when a partner seeks distance, and go into cold withdrawal when their efforts fail.
  • Receive labels as “too dependent,” “too demanding,” or too nagging from their partner.”
  • Criticize their partner as someone who can’t handle feelings or tolerate closeness.
  • Approach their partner with a sense of urgency or emotional intensity when anxious.


Distancers tend to:

  • Seek emotional distance and physical space when stress is high.
  • Consider themselves to be self-reliant and private persons—more like do-it-yourselfers than help-seekers.
  • Have difficulty showing their needy, vulnerable, and dependent sides.
  • Receive labels such as “unavailable,” “withholding,” and “emotionally shut down” from their partner.
  • Manage anxiety in their relationship by intensifying attention to work-related projects or withdrawing into technology or sports.
  • Have a low tolerance for conflict and give up easily on their partner (“It’s not worth trying to discuss it with you”).
  • Open up most freely when they aren’t being pushed, pursued, or criticized by their partner. (Harriet Lerner, 2012)

The Problem is not so much the People-as it is the Pattern 

Even in healthy relationships, couples fail to see how entrenched they can become with each other when dealing with relationship stress. And, this is usually because they are too caught up in their own perspectives to even notice each other’s different styles and underlying needs. Many do not recognize their unhealthy relationship habits. Couples often assume the conflict has more to do with their partner, and not the pattern. Likewise, they fail to see how this very belief can lead to even more sabotage in their connection: while both partners attempt to control the interaction to manage their own anxiety (fears of being too separate vs. too close) decreased affection and emotional responsiveness now hems them in even deeper. In fact, feeling vulnerable and alone becomes the very thing fueling their interactional pattern: pursuing partners feel controlled -and unloved- by their withholding partner while distancing partners feel controlled -and unloved- by their nagging mate. Each person’s position and reaction reinforces the position of the other. A Catch 22.

Knowing Me is Knowing You…aha!

Relationship connection begins by each partner claiming their own moves of the pattern. Discovering who you are in all of your own unique history and extending the same to your partner is the place to begin. So, Instead of focusing on what your partner is doing to you, figure out what’s going on inside of you. Mend your own garden. For example, having conversations with the following questions in mind can help you cultivate more compassion and understanding about how your earlier life experiences or upbringing may have affected your current attachment style or pattern with each other:

What was my experience of love and trust as a child? Could I trust my parents were always there for me? Or, did I mostly feel like I had to take care of them? Did I turn to them for protection? Or, did I fear them in some way? Did I feel rejected? Neglected? Abandoned? Smothered with attention? How did my parents show me they loved me? Could I count on them for affection? Hugs? Attention? Did they comfort or soothe me when I needed it? Or did I mostly count on myself, having learned not to expect too much? What was this experience for me like? What, if anything, does this reveal about myself and the way I can get triggered up with you, today?

Emotions or History Reveal the Pattern…and change the course!

We all want a partner who can serve as a source of comfort and security. But shaming or blaming our partner into it rarely works. Wanting change is about making the choice to become a better partner. Goodwill: a win-win situation.

Showing up as a supportive partner for each other requires each person examine their own emotional needs first. Pointing the finger at our partner just allows us to get more embroiled in our one-sidedness, pushing us further and further emotionally apart. Finding the source of our pain or suffering, however, may get us more of a conscious response that connects and reassures, ultimately helping us recognize the impact this has on our partner, and the necessity of working toward satisfying both needs: a balance between solitude and connection. Just as with a butterfly, it’s about the power of personal transformation.







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