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.


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More in Conflict Management
How to Avoid the Pursuer-Distancer Pattern in Your Relationship
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!

      • privacyplz

        So disheartening.
        I have to let go.

    • cyb pauli

      The advice to call off the pursuit makes no sense. The distancer doesn’t want the relationship. The distancer wants the pursuer to stop chasing them so the relationship can end. The distancer either made a mistake thinking they wanted to be close to someone or they purposefully lured someone in with false promises of cuddles and afternoon walks just so they could watch the pursuer in agony.

      • Lee Ann Clark

        OR the distancer wants the pursuer to chill out and be fun to be around so they will relaxed enough to come back around.

    • Ali Smith

      Independent Rob! Man, I so relate to your comments about just wanting someone to go to the grocery store with you and have breakfast on the weekends. My (soon-to-be) ex-boyfriend stopped doing all of that after the honeymoon phase was over. I would respond healthily at first and allow the space but at a certain point his distancing got to be so painful for me. If he wasn’t hunting, he was fishing, or wakeboarding or playing softball and I really begun to wonder if he was emotionally connected to anything in his life. Thankfully I’ve gotten out before marriage. I was a super happy and healthy girl when I met him and he’s managed to send me to a sad and bad place after just attempting to adjust to this shitty behavior for 2 years. That said, I do agree with the advice that we all have it in ourselves to make ourselves happy. It’ll take me a few months for sure but in that time, I look forward to joining lots of new activities and making friends and being open with those new people. I think always keep your heart open but to many people and then just to one romantically and you can balance the good life and feel emotionally fulfilled.

      • Independent Rob

        It has taken a couple of years to recover from my ex’s behaviour. I am happier now.
        And I have someone now who makes spending time together a priority.

  • 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?)

  • Chris

    Hi, Steve,
    I am am not married but have been dating a wonderful man for a year now. We are both divorced, and we have each been trying to recognize and correct past mistakes, and communicate. Overall, it has felt happy and healthy. Recently, he had a string of things happen which really took a toll on him emotionally. I now realize that he is a distancer and I have been a pursuer. Things have been different, he has been distant for 6 weeks, and I took things personally and pursued him with increased efforts at communication and invitations to get together. I never got angry with him, but I have been spinning, taking things personally, and worrying that he wanted to end the relationship. We have never openly communicated about this. One week ago, he left for a 2-week business trip, and I have not heard from him at all. I communicated with him once by text, but it seemed that he did not want to engage. I realize that he needs distance right now, and I am wondering what actions or inactions I might take to communicate to him that I recognize my part in this cycle? I am hoping to open a line of communication which conveys to him that I respect him, care for him, and hope we can work together to continue our relationship. But how to do that when I believe I have pursued him to the point of stonewalling?

    Thank you!

  • cyb pauli

    Why do people who hate intimacy get into intimate relationships? It’s sadistic. Marriage is not a casual relationship where you can just ignore and stonewall the other person. My husband broke my heart. I’m not desperate for attachment but he did sort of imply wanting to be close by marrying me. He lied to me.

  • Claire

    Hi, Rob.
    I would love to read some specific examples of what both the distancer and pursuer could each do to positively affect a change in the status quo. I am the pursuer and my husband the distancer. I feel compelled to pursue because I do feel very insecure and lonely in our marriage. I have tried many things to bridge the divide, including telling my husband exactly how I feel and asking for his attention and love. Nothing has worked so far. I would appreciate some practical suggestions.

    • DBrad

      Well, that he says he loves you is more than I get from my wife at this point, so you are better off in that regard. Things will go OK for you, if you can gain some new perspective on this dynamic. I am in a tougher spot. I am going the route of backing off the pursuing and though it does seem counter-intuitive, the rest of the equation is for the pursuer to take a good look at the things that we do that can cause the distance in our spouse. From the other’s perspective we are smothering them. After my wakeup call with all of this, I have seen a ton of things I was doing that I now don’t like about myself and am making good strides to change and think really will make a difference not only in me, but the relationship. Good luck., Claire.

    • Hi Claire, I asked my husband for a hiatus so that he would feel better. I told him this in an affirming way. Just that his happiness matters to me. I didn’t say this because I felt it–I did, but mostly, I couldn’t handle the misery. I installed an app that lets you freeze certain apps on my phone if you know you will be drunk (but in my case, lonely and craving) for up to 12 hpurs. Gmail, Facebook, IM. I told him during that time that he would always be a special person to me, no matter what. To put him on notice in a friendly/cordial manner. I wanted him to know it wasn’t just the pain talking. Now he is back in the house, but we essentially live as roommates who co-parent. Now when I see him, I literally will not talk to him without eye contact. I won’t respond until he looks at me. This satisfies my need to be acknowledged. I don’t hide my feelings when I look at him. But I let no desire show. None. I play up my sex appeal, but I make sure it looks natural and casual. There is a deep emptiness inside of me. I’m sorry for tired practical advice, but here goes: mindfulness stress based reduction meditation. I can point you to the good ones. Most are not. Reconnecting to God. Gardening. 12 steps. Sigh, I know. But it does feel like addiction. An alcoholic says, I won’t drink today. Not, I won’t drink ever. This is very good to read: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://cflarchives.org/images/The_Distancer_and_The_Pursuer.pdf&ved=0ahUKEwiG66DlwMjWAhXHNSYKHTPYB8sQFgglMAA&usg=AFQjCNH1Hljw6B-RitGycTQRj_a0rgfprQ

  • Lee Ann Clark

    WOW! this may have just sorted me out! I have ALWAYS been the pursuer looking back. i have spent my whole life doing this with men. My husband and I are having troubles, I feel he’s withdrawing, I peruse trying to fix things and control, he doesn’t want to be around me probably because I don’t make him feel like he can be him and now I am to the point of shutting off and considering leaving but I don’t want to because in my heart of hearts, I know he will then peruse me … wow!!!