Commonly, one partner gets tired of pursuing and the other grows weary or gets angry about what they perceive as constant nagging. I’ve seen this pattern over and over again in the couples I’ve interviewed for my research. To complicate matters, it’s natural for one person to see their style as the correct way to communicate and become convinced that their partner needs to change — neglecting to see their part in the tug-of-war over intimacy.
Why is the pursuer and distancer pattern so common and destructive to relationships? Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington and The Gottman Institute, a renowned observer of couple dynamics, believes that the tendency of men to withdraw emotionally and women to pursue is wired into our physiology and reflects a gender difference. Gottman cautions us that if this pattern isn’t nipped in the bud early on, it can persist for decades and lead to divorce.
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It makes sense that the power struggle for emotional intimacy often plays itself out in the bedroom. Another couple from my practice, Tara and Justin, have become polarized because their struggle for emotional and sexual intimacy has gotten highly destructive—each partner provoking and maintaining the behavior in the other. As Justin withdraws, it raises Tara’s anxiety and she responds by stepping up her pursuing behaviors.
What does it mean when your partner seems distant in bed and disinterested in sex? While distance may signify a red flag, it doesn’t have to mean that your relationship is on the rocks, notes Harriet Learner, Ph.D., in her popular book Marriage Rules. She writes, "Your partner’s aloofness may simply be her way of trying to get through a difficult time." It’s important for the person who is pursuing to remain calm and not jump to conclusions. Just because your sexual relationship is going through a dry spell, it doesn’t have to mean you are headed to divorce court.
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Smart Ways To Break The Pursuer-Distancer Pattern (emotionally or sexually):
- Get in touch with the ways you might be denying your partner or coming on too strong sexually.
- Strike a balance between separateness and togetherness. Avoid criticizing each other and make peace by stopping the blame game.
- Keep in mind that it’s the pattern, not the person, that’s the problem so find ways to connect with your partner and to be more accepting. Understand that sexual desires ebb and flow.
- Distancers need to practice initiating sex more often and try carving out time for emotional intimacy and romance.
- Pursuers need to find ways to tell their partner "you’re sexy," while avoiding a critique after sex.
- If you or your partner feels flooded, walk away briefly but not in anger or blame. Disengage as a way to restore your composure not to punish your partner.