Pursuer Distancer Dance- How to Make New Moves

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What is the pursuer distancer dance?

Have you ever felt like the closer you try to get to your partner, the more they pull away from you? Or the more you try to take a breath of space from conflict, the more your partner comes for you?

This dynamic can be mind-boggling, and it’s not just you. It is actually the most common dynamic in relationships experiencing stress, and it’s known as the pursuer distancer dance.

Here’s an example- let’s say, we have a couple (partner A and partner B). Partner A gets home late from work, and forgot to pick up the eggs that Partner B asked them to on their way home. Partner B sees Partner A get home, and says “where’s the milk?”. Partner A walks away, checks their email, etc.

If we break down this interaction by the experience of each partner, it might look like this:

Thoughts Feelings Actions
Partner A I was excited to get home, but I failed my wife. I’m never enough, I can’t make her happy defeated, frustrated walks away in an attempt to calm self down, regulate, take a moment
Partner B He is walking away, he doesn’t care about me- he forgot the eggs and now he’s just walking away uncared for, hurt follows husband, dials up intensity, reminds him he didn’t get eggs and now he’s just walking away

The more Partner A walks away, the more Partner B feels rejected and tries even harder to be heard. The more Partner B approaches Partner A, the more inclined they are to pull away and get more space.

Does this sound familiar? (If you’ve been in therapy, you may have heard your therapist refer to this dynamic as “your cycle.”)

pursuer distancer dance between couples danielle sethi therapist

Why does this dynamic happen?

To understand this dynamic a little bit more, we need to understand the positions within it.

  • Pursuer: These people tend to display an anxious attachment style. They tend to feel hurt or abandoned when they see their partner withdraw, which quickly dysregulates them. In an attempt to stop the disconnection, they want to address what is happening head-on and the approach their partner, criticize, or blame in an attempt to pull the partner into an active role.
  • Distancer (AKA withdrawer): People who withdraw more typically fall in the avoidant attachment category. They tend to feel rejected or shamed when their partner criticizes them. They may fear that participating in a conversation will not help, so their instinct is to pull back and defend in an attempt to preserve how things are and not make them worse.

How the pursuer distancer dance begins

At the end of the day, we are all human, and we all have the same underlying need of connection with others, especially those who are closest to us. When we sense that connection is under threat, we go to our own individual strategies to try and fight for the connection.

When one individual senses a looming threat of disconnection, they do what they have always done in other relationships to try and bridge the gap of space. This is typically unconscious; we don’t know why we’re making the moves we’re making, we just react and assume we are the one who cares more or knows what’s best.

In our Partner A/Partner B example, the threat of disconnection happens for both partners at different places, which is quite common. For Partner A, the disconnection happens when they hear the criticism from Partner B and feel ashamed. For Partner B, the disconnection happens when they see Partner A get home with no eggs and therefore, feel unimportant.

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Why the dance continues

As you can see, what tends to happen is that one person’s moves when they sense disconnection attempt to protect themselves, but they actually trigger the other person. Then that person senses disconnection, and plays their own protective hand.

Partner A was originally triggered by the criticism when they got home. Then they walk away and get criticized more for taking space, and not caring. This leads to defensiveness and doubling down on their strategy to move away.

Partner B was first triggered when they saw Partner B come home with no eggs. Then they are even more hurt when they see Partner A walking away, confirming their thoughts that Partner A does not care about them. Which makes them fight even harder to get Partner A’s attention.

Once partners enter this dynamic, the cycle goes round and round, regardless of the context of the fight. The more we care about someone, the more impact the threat of disconnection from them is, which is why these cycles happen with the people we are closest to.

How to break out of the dance

Ultimately to have the fulfilling closeness we all crave in relationships, we have to be willing to put our protections down (I.e. step away from the pursuer distancer dance) and speak from a place of vulnerability. If you are familiar at all with the work of Brene Brown, you know that vulnerability breeds connection, and that is the antidote to pending conflict in tense moments.

This means both partners becoming more aware of why they do what they do, and taking responsibility for how that impacts their partner. It also means taking the time to map out the way the pursuer distancer dance tends to play out, and redefining those moves.

Let’s go back to our pursuer distancer example above when Partner A forgot to pick up the eggs. Here are opportunities for both partners to have communicated from a place of vulnerability and create new moves.

  • Example 1 (Partner A)- Partner A gets home, Partner B does not greet them but instead asks about the eggs. Partner A takes a moment to notice how they are feeling, and shares this with Partner B. This could sound like: “I realize I forgot to stop and get the eggs. I had a really busy and stressful day and I was looking forward to just coming home to you. It makes me feel like a failure when you approach me like this, which makes me want to retreat. Can we work this out?”
  • Example 2 (Partner B)- Partner A get home with no eggs. Parter B takes a moment to notice what is happening inside of them and shares with Partner A. “Welcome home. I am happy to see you. I noticed you forgot to pick up the eggs. When I ask you for support and you forget, it makes me feel really unimportant to you. It makes me feel like I don’t matter to you, which makes me hurt. Can we talk about this?”

All of this work will facilitate a more secure attachment between the partners, which is their sense of safety and ability to regulate emotions in the context of the relationship. This secure attachment is the greatest resource a couple has to stay grounded to each other and know they have one another’s support when inevitable challenges arise in their lives.

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Breaking free from the cycle

Looking at these moves, understanding the function of the protections, and choosing a new dance is hard, complex work. This work is usually best suited under the guidance of a trained professional in the emotion-focused therapy model.

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