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How To Tell If You're Stuck In A Toxic Pursuer-Distancer Relationship (And 7 Ways To Break Free)

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How To Tell If You're Stuck In A Toxic Pursuer-Distancer Relationship
Love

Whether you're the pursuer or the distancer, it's not healthy.

You're sitting on the couch after a long day. Your turn to your partner to talk about your day in great detail. You touch his shoulder and try to cuddle him. He keeps his eyes firmly on the TV and you get angry at him for his lack of attentive listening. He suddenly gets up and goes to his office, saying he still has some work to do. You stay on the couch feeling upset and neglected or even follow him to his office to ask him why he's being so distant lately. 

Sound familiar?

This is a common scenario that unfortunately, many couples (both married and dating) can relate to. It's called a pursuer-distancer relationship.

If you think this relationship dynamic isn't a big deal, just read this: In a study of 1,400 divorced couples conducted by E. Mavis Hetherington, it was found that couples exhibiting the pursuer-distancer pattern were at the greatest risk of divorce. 

So, what exactly is a "pursuer-distancer pattern" in a relationship? The pursuer will frequently seek togetherness, quality time, attention, and affection from their partner. However, the distancer responds to this by withdrawing and seeking space which leaves the pursuer in an anxious, sometimes desperate, state. 

Harriet Lerner Ph.D. wrote on Psychology Today, "Pursuing and distancing are normal ways that humans navigate relationships under stress, and one is not better or worse than the other. A problem occurs only when a pattern of pursuing and distancing becomes entrenched. When this happens, the behavior of each partner provokes and maintains the behavior of the other." 

Who hasn't been through this cycle at one point in a relationship? Maybe your boyfriend has suddenly started doing his own thing lately: participating in hobbies, going out with friends, devoting more time to work, or just being emotionally distant. This can bring out the pursuer behavior in you and turn you into a desperate, clingy, nagging person that you don't even recognize. 


RELATED: How To Stop Being A Stage-Five Clinger


Whether or not you are a pursuer or distancer in a relationship has a lot to do with the attachment style that we develop as children. If you grew up with a parent who wasn't always there and was inconsistent in their attention and love, you may develop an anxious attachment style. However, if you grew up with a parent who was emotionally unavailable and very distant, you may develop an avoidant attachment style. 

According to Lerner, "the pursuer is the one in more distress about the distance, and more motivated to change the pattern. For this reason, the pursuer is often best served by discovering ways to call off the pursuit—and there are ways to reconnect with a distancing partner that don’t involve aggressive pursuing."

So how can you break this pattern in your relationship? (It's not too late, I swear!) Dr. John Gottman of The Gottman Institute said, "When one partner makes a commitment to change their approach and their responses, on a consistent basis, their relationship will change."

1. The pursuer needs to call off the chase

This means you need to stop the constant calls/texts/Whatsapp messages/smoke signals/messages in a bottle, initiation of affection, pursuit of conversation, and any other behavior that could be defined as "pursuing." As hard as it may be, you need to back off and give your partner space, both physically and emotionally. 

2. Distancers can make an effort to initiate affection and sex more often, as well as making time for their partner

A pursuer tends to have a great deal of anxiety about the relationship and the more their partner distances themselves, the more insecure the pursuer feels. In order to calm the anxiety of the pursuer, the distancer should make more of an effort to initiate affection and sex. 

3. The pursuer should focus on meeting their needs rather than looking to their partner to meet these needs

As the pursuer, if you are feeling yourself becoming needy and clingy (be honest, you know when you are!) then it's important to ask yourself what needs your partner is not meeting, and if you can do these things for yourself. Ask yourself: What am I not getting from my partner that I can give to myself? 

For example, if your partner is not paying enough attention to you, can you come up with some self care rituals that make you feel good about yourself? 


RELATED: How You Act In Relationships, Based On Your Attachment Style


4. The distancer needs to start sharing their thoughts and feelings

If you're a distancer, then you are most likely holding back many of your emotions, something a pursuer will immediately pick up on and feel insecure about. Can you make more of an effort to share your thoughts? Even sharing something as simple as how your day at work was can be a big step in bringing your partner closer. 

5. Pursuers need to give distancers emotional space, because they open up most freely when they aren't being pushed

As the pursuer, you need to emotionally back off before the distancer in your relationship will feel safe coming closer to you. The more questions you ask, the more you criticize and complain, and the more you push your partner to talk about their feelings, the quicker they will shut down. Give your partner a safe space to open up to you. 

6. Distancers can schedule quality time: If the pursuer can look forward to this it may calm their anxiety

A pursuer can feel a great deal of anxiety about the fact that their partner is not spending enough time with them, nor are they making the effort to. A pursuer places a great deal of importance on quality time, and as a distancer you can make your partner feel safe and secure in the relationship simply by making a plan to do something with them in the future.

7. Be understanding of your partner's needs

As a distancer you may feel the need to get space and emotional distance sometimes, but it's important to realize that your actions can cause your partner to feel insecure and question the relationship. 

As a pursuer you may feel the need to seek affection and emotional connection, but it's important to realize that your actions can cause your partner to feel suffocated, frustrated, and in need of some alone time. 

We all bring our own pasts, emotions, attachment styles, anxieties, and insecurities to a relationship. However, if we can make the effort to understand our partner and their differences, we can develop happier and more loving relationships. 

According to Darlene Lancer, J.D., "relationships can be an exciting path to the unknown. But it requires courage — courage to open yourself up and to experience pain. The rewards are worth it, because it is a path of self-discovery and ultimately the divine as we open ourselves to one another."

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Sarah Veldman is a writer who focuses on lifestyle topics for women, personal development, love/relationships, and travel. After traveling the world, she settled in Netherlands with her very own Dutchie (though still considers herself a part-time nomad).

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