Jane: “Why do you do that?”
John: “Do what?”
Jane: “You ignore me.”
John: “No, I don’t.”
Jane: “We need to talk about this. You’re doing it now.”
John: “I don’t see the problem. You’re overreacting.”
Jane: “No, I’m not!”
John: “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

Jane is pursuing. John is distancing.

In her study of 1,400 divorced individuals over 30 years, E. Mavis Hetherington found that couples who were stuck in this mode were at the highest risk for divorce. Researcher Dr. John Gottman also noted that this destructive pattern is an extremely common cause of divorce. He claims that if left unresolved, the pursuer-distancer pattern will continue into a second marriage and subsequent intimate relationships.

The pursuer-distancer pattern

Therapist Dr. Harriet Lerner summarizes the pattern like this.

A partner with pursuing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving toward the other. They seek communication, discussion, togetherness, and expression. They are urgent in their efforts to fix what they think is wrong. They are anxious about the distance their partner has created and take it personally.

They criticize their partner for being emotionally unavailable. They believe they have superior values. If they fail to connect, they will collapse into a cold, detached state. They are labeled needy, demanding, and nagging.

A partner with distancing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving away from the other. They want physical and emotional distance. They have difficulty with vulnerability.

They respond to their anxiety by retreating into other activities to distract themselves. They see themselves as private and self-reliant. They are most approachable when they don’t feel pressured, pushed, or pursued. They are labeled unavailable, withholding, and shut down.

Dr. Lerner points out the importance of recognizing that neither pattern is wrong. In a normal relationship, we may actually take turns adopting one role or the other. Healthy relationships can handle the stress with mutual respect and appreciation because both partners are aware of their behavior and are willing to adjust it for the benefit of the relationship.

Marriages fall apart when partners become entrenched in the roles. If something does not change, both begin to feel criticized and develop contempt for each other – two signs their marriage is doomed to fail, according to Dr. Gottman.

What does it look like?

A common scenario is a wife who is very anxious about the lack of communication from her husband. She wants him to open up to her more. She wants him to be more vulnerable and to connect with her so they can work on getting along better. His response is, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

She makes demands, he moves away. Her frustration shows as she begins to criticize him and he fights back with defensiveness. She becomes angry and expresses contempt. He stonewalls.

She doesn’t understand why he won’t see how wrong and stubborn he is. He can’t believe she doesn’t know how unfair her demands make him feel. He’s not good enough for her.

Both men and women can be pretty good pursuers. I think this skill is best used for pursuing mutual happiness rather than our own righteousness.

Why does it matter?

The research by Gottman and Hetherington is important. It can save an individual from a life of bad relationships.

The research sheds light on the extremely common dynamics that happen in everyday relationships with everyday people. It gives language and insight to the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors which consistently cause the erosion of relationships. What matters is what you choose to do with the insights from the research.

With proper information and willingness, you can choose how you will respond to the pursuer-distancer pattern when it happens in your relationship.

Pursuers must stop pursuing

Dr. Lerner notes something I see consistently with clients who are pursuers.

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. A distancer may feel unhappy about how things are going in a relationship, but he or she is still more likely to maintain the status quo than to move toward a partner who is in pursuit mode.

This is the reality faced by the pursuer men I work with. His distancer partner’s ability to maintain the status quo is confusing for him. She will stay in distancer mode for years while he keeps trying the same pursuer tactics. She feels powerless to turn toward him because she needs to feel a decrease of the intense pressure of his relentless pursuit.

The impact on a woman’s ability to trust from years of pursuit can be enormous. It’s hard for him to understand her fear about reconnecting. Rebuilding trust requires a consistent and dependable energy of acceptance and respect. She wants to feel less pressure, less judgment, and less anger.

When he chooses to understand and empathize with these critical needs, he can choose a new mindset: He can love her in ways that pull her toward him instead of pushing her away. He can choose to understand before providing advice on how to stop the pattern.

What if she is the pursuer?

Everything applies the same. She has the same responsibility.

The distancer’s dilemma

Dr. Lerner also gives a warning to distancers.

But distancers beware: Many partners, exhausted by years of pursuing and feeling unheard, leave a relationship or marriage suddenly. When a distancer realizes that a partner may actually walk out, he or she may flip into a position of intense pursuit. But it may be too late.

She must realize the power she holds in how she chooses to turn towards his desire for connection. A choice to create feelings of fear and insecurity in her partner also sabotages her own chance for a rewarding relationship.

She must be aware of what she is avoiding and why. Your partner is most likely pursuing you because they are scared of you abandoning them. While you are putting distance between you and them because you fear being controlled in the relationship.

The worst thing for a pursuer to feel is detachment. When they are given the gift of genuine reassurance they are able to relax. This is known as the dependency paradox.

Of course, a man who is distancing has the same responsibility.

Starting all by yourself

Must both partners do their work at the same time in order to escape the pattern?

No. And expecting that to happen will negatively affect their ability to start making their own changes.

Changes must be driven by a desire to be a better partner, not to get some instant result or reciprocation. Pursuers are known for being outcome dependent and have a hard time making changes without expectations. Distancers are known for being stubborn and have difficulty making the first move when under pressure.

When one partner makes a commitment to change their approach and their responses, on a consistent basis, their relationship will change.

The Marriage Minute is a new email newsletter from The Gottman Institute that will improve your marriage in 60 seconds or less. Over 40 years of research with thousands of couples has proven a simple fact: small things often can create big changes over time. Got a minute? Sign up below.

More in Conflict Management
Steve Horsmon

Steve Horsmon is the founder of Goodguys2Greatmen – a professional coaching service for men. Steve specializes in working with smart, compassionate, successful men who want more from their relationships. By helping men find their true source of masculine value and power, Steve’s client learn how to create the trust, respect and passion they crave. You can find more about Steve and get access to his blog and video library here.

  • Robert Ted Elliott

    Steve, Would you say a man’s desperate need for intimacy is a pursuer tactic or is that just a need sweet and simple and not something they are using to manipulate the other person?

    • Steve Horsmon

      Hi Ted,
      If his “desperation” is coming from an intense feeling of insecurity, unworthiness or lack of self-esteem, then his pursuit is coming from an unhealthy place – which will drive his partner even further away. In that case it’s an insecure tactic to “give in order to get”. This mode is personally destructive…it’s “nice guy/girl” behavior. (ref. Dr. Robert Glover, No More Mr. Nice Guy)

      If his need for intimacy is really a “want”, coming from a healthy desire for connection and expectation for mutual care and intimacy, it isn’t a manipulation. It’s simply an expectation of what he desires in his life. This man/woman gets to choose, from a healthy place, who will they will include in their life and not begrudge those who have expressed no desire to want what they want.

      • Robert Ted Elliott

        Steve, The problem with the pursuer pursuing is that it may come from a healthy desire for connection but if the distancer is bound and determined to view it as coming from an unhealthy place (neediness) then we are still left with the same dynamic, no change. In fact, meeting your partners needs is what most people sign up for, if they begin viewing any need as coming from a unhealthy neediness place then what is the point of relationships. What the whole GD human race has to realize is that these unhealthy dynamics between couples is a waste of both people’s lives, life is too short for this, you’ll all be dead sooner than you think.

  • godfrey Mangenje

    In being a “distancer” are you talking about it from the perspective of character disposition, it’s just natural for the person to want distance they’re an introvert, or from the perspective of disenchantment by the relationship? If it’s the latter, is it worth the “pursuers” time and effort to try to salvage the relationship or is their way for him to broach the subject and communicate his needs as a pursuer and what can they do to make sure they exhaust every option before the relationship heads to splitsville?

    • Steve Horsmon

      I’m actually referring to both.

      Distancers can be healthy, happy, loving introverts who simply need time alone and who want to be understood and respected for that part of their personality. Pursuers can be healthy, happy, loving extroverts who simply need time to connect and share and who want to be understood and respected for that part of their personality. The solution is a simple application of love, empathy and the intention to love each other the way they want to feel loved.

      In the case of disenchantment it’s much more difficult. This includes a festering contempt, emotional detachment, disgust, repulsion, disrespect and/or an infatuation or love for another person. There’s not much a pursuer can do to influence this situation and the relationship normally stays the same or gets worse – including divorce.

      • Debrah Armstrong

        Hmmm…..both my ex and I were mostly introverted. I was the pursuer and he the distancer. He did not want time alone. He would spend his time with many friends but only me if it suited him. He only went to one counselling session. I had to leave as the dynamic was making me very unwell.

  • Independent Rob

    In my marriage that ended in divorce, we were definitely in a pursuer-distancer pattern by the end (I was the pursuer).
    It seems to me that the distancing started to occur several years earlier before I was actively pursuing. I knew something was wrong but I let it go for a while thinking that things would get better given time.
    Once I started to actively pursue, I was told that I was selfish for wanting to go out to breakfast on the weekends, that I made my wife go to the grocery with me, and overall the distancing became more deliberate. Pursuing did not accomplish anything positive and I see where calling it off would have been healthier for me, but I really doubt the distancing would have changed if I had stopped my pursuit.
    I wanted to be in a marriage, in a partnership, and the distance precluded that.
    Once the distancing occurred, I should have saved myself a lot of heartache and just gone for personal therapy and divorce.
    I just do not agree that changing my pursuit behaviour would have resulted in a marriage without distance which does not seem like much of a marriage.

    • Steve Horsmon

      Hi Rob, you’re right. Many times the pursuer will back away, relieve the pressure, find other ways to connect and nothing changes. Sometimes the distancer is in an unrecoverable state of detachment caused by many things – most of them not the fault of the pursuer. In this case, your conclusion is correct. Moving on is the best option unless you prefer to keep things just as they are.
      Thanks for your comment!

  • Meg

    “When he chooses to understand and empathize with these critical needs, he can choose a new mindset: He can love her in ways that pull her toward him instead of pushing her away. He can choose to understand before providing advice on how to stop the pattern.”

    I am not married, but am in a serious relationship — and this pursuer/distancer dynamic exists, especially in times of conflict. I pursue, he distances and the perceptions you mention (me feeling the need to resolve the issue – now, him feeling cornered or pressured) absolutely exist. How can I change my approach and love in ways that pull instead of push? What are some practical methods? (Especially in a moment of distance, where he has distanced himself and, to me, it seems as if any initiation on my part would be unwelcome?)