I’ve been doing therapy for about 10 years now and I have worked with many couples and I wanted to share one of the most common problems that I hear about and see on my couch: that is the pursuer-distancer dynamic.
[The pursuer-distancer dynamic] is exactly what it sounds like: it’s where one person is constantly pursuing and the other is constantly backing away, creating a moving dynamic where the pursuer feels rejected, like their partner doesn’t want to be close to them, and the withdrawer feels like they don’t have any of their own space and time to come to their own understanding of what they want and how to communicate with their partner. [Over time,] it can create a really dramatic dynamic, where one partner is always coming after the other and the other starts really shutting the pursuer down. This feels bad to both people!
Often this is played out in a relationship where you have one person who is a little bit more anxiously attached and the other person who’s a little more avoidantly attached. We don’t like to put labels on people [unnecessarily], we don’t like to pathologize, but it can be helpful to have a framework around attachment. We have another video on attachment and it’s a little bit longer and goes into depth. [In the video] one of our therapists Hadley Davis and myself talk about attachment.
The good news is that when you see this pursuer-withdrawer dynamic, it can be changed. It can absolutely be changed, and often in little amounts so it doesn’t have to be a dramatic overhaul of how you interact with someone. It’s hard to change! Often [this dynamic] needs to be explored in therapy and really looked at [objectively, like:] “OK what’s happening here?” And what are the particular triggers around your pursuer-withdrawer dynamic?
[Generally] what works is for the person who pursues to gradually back off. We’re not saying disconnect, we’re not saying give up, not at all! We don’t want you to give up. We’re here to help you both get more what you need. The person who generally withdraws, you need to lean in a little bit, so gradually over time we’re going to correct this dynamic where one people is always pursuing and one person is withdrawing so it’s a little more in the middle and both of you get more of what you need from each other, and you feel more connected, more loved, more peaceful, and have a shared sense of meaning.
If that sounds good to you and you feel like you’ve got some pursuer-withdrawer stuff happening in your relationship and you want to see a couples therapist, we have a couple of really good ones on staff. You can schedule a free consultation and we’ll see if we can match you with one of our couples therapists.
Laurel Therapy Collective
offers online therapy to California residents for anxiety, transitions, and trauma.