Close-Up of a Celsius Thermometer

Pursuer-Distancer Dynamics

This is an almost painfully common and stereotyped relationship pattern:

“For example, if Max feels anxious because his partner Alice is spending more time with her friends then previously in the honeymoon stage, he may react by demanding more attention from her. In return, Alice may feel pressured and withdraw from the relationship by making more dates with friends and working late. Max, feeling insecurely attached, may then attempt to make emotional contact with Alice by texting and calling often. Alice feels invaded and withdraws further. This is the dance of the distance-pursuer cycle. Without an understanding and insight into each other’s styles and underlying needs, this cycle can spiral into a painful situation where neither couple feels secure or satisfied.” (source)

This dynamic is a subset of what Deborah Tannen calls complementary schismogenesis: “a process by which two people exhibit more and more extreme forms of the behaviors that trigger in the other increasing manifestations of an incongruent behavior, in an ever-worsening spiral.” It’s also quite similar to the concept of collusion presented in Terry Warner’s The Bonds That Make Us Free (eg the the Glen/Becky/Christmas story – description here, though with a bunch of other stuff on the page that’s maybe not worth reading)

The standard advice I’ve seen on how to break such cycles is to stop playing one’s typical role. If you’re the pursuer (often associated with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style), then dial back on reaching out or seeking connection. If you’re the distancer (classically an avoidant-dismissive in attachment theory), then start finding opportunities to reach out more often, even if you don’t feel particularly drawn to do so. (Harriet Lerner is a big proponent of this in her book The Dance of Anger.)

The model that I think makes this advice make most sense is of each person having a “closeness vs personal space spectrum” thermometer with a setpoint that is their comfort zone. If their partner tries to move the relationship above or below that setpoint by shifting intimacy/intensity/closeness/etc, they’ll feel uncomfortable and seek to rebalance by moving closer or further away. If two partners in a relationship have different setpoints (eg because they have different dominant attachment styles), then each time one partner seeks to restore what they see as equilibrium (the relationship being near their own setpoint), the other partner’s sense of equilibrium will be further disturbed. This will create a Red Queen race-esque dynamic (not unlike what I described in my post on S1/S2 relationships), where each partner will end up pushing harder and harder to maintain an equilibrium somewhere in between each of their set points.

I think that this model makes a fair bit of sense, and that the advice above is sound in lots of cases. However, there’s a funny thing I’ve noticed on a few different occasions, which this model doesn’t seem to explain nearly as well:

Say I’m dating Alice, and I keep getting upset at her because she’s not meeting all of my needs for emotional connection. The repeated conflict seems to be causing her to withdraw further, which when I reflect on it, seems perfectly sensible and worthy of empathy. When I reflect on why I get so upset, it seems that I have an expectation that Alice “should” meet my needs, and that the unmet expectation is what causes most of my suffering, and the resultant conflict. So I wonder if I can just change my expectations in the relationship. And I’m pretty clever, so maybe I succeed, and I’m no longer suffering so much about Alice not meeting my needs (although I’m somewhat less excited about the relationship now that I don’t expect it to meet those needs). I’ve essentially moved my setpoint further towards personal space, attempting to close the gap between our respective comfort zones. However! I notice Alice now seems to actually be doing fewer things to create connection/closeness than she was before. I try to shift my expectations once again, but again it seems to just prompt more disengagement on her part as well. Demoralized, I become yet more distant and less engaged in making the relationship work, the pattern continues, and we eventually spiral out of the relationship entirely.

In theory, my actions here are the right way to break out of a harmful Red Queen Race, and me lessening my pursuit should invite Alice to relax her distancing responses. But instead my reduced pursuit seems to invite in Alice the exact opposite reaction. Why?

Here’s a different model of intimacy setpoints: in contrast with each partner having an absolute preference about where their relationship should land on the closeness/personal space spectrum, they instead (or in addition – which seems most likely) have a sense of “how invested/vulnerable I am in this relationship” and “how invested/vulnerable the other person is,” and they have a preference about how those two values should relate to one another. I suspect that most people prefer the two values to be roughly the same, i.e. to be about as invested in any given relationship as their partner is in them.  So a “typical” relationship doesn’t actually have conflicting desires – instead, I posit that the difficulty comes in at the level of mismatched perception. In my example above, I saw myself as being over-invested, relative to Alice, and acted to restore equilibrium. But perhaps she believed she was about as invested as I was (and preferred that) before I made my shift. So when she saw me move away, she acted to restore what she saw as equilibrium by reducing her own investment, which caused me to move away once again, and so on.

This dynamic I claim is much more likely to cause relationship to end than the typical pursuer-distancer Red Queen Race. It’s now a straightforward positive feedback cycle, with both partners accelerating away from each other (instead of one accelerating away and the other towards). It’s still true that to prevent the pattern one partner must avoid taking their role’s ordained next step – which for me with Alice looks like staying invested even when that feels like over-extending or being too clingy. Essentially, taking on a pursuer role. If neither partner can hold this uncomfortable position sustainably, then the relationship ends. If true, this model would go a long ways towards explaining why pursuer-distancer dynamics are so sticky: they keep relationships alive.

As I mentioned, I suspect that both the absolute-setpoint and relative-setpoint models are at play in most people in most relationships. I personally tend to prefer high-intensity relationships, and although I’m definitely averse to feeling like a “shmuck” or being “clingy”, I suspect I’m relatively tolerant of being at least somewhat over-invested relative to where I perceive my partner to be. A stereotypical avoidant-dismissive might prefer to be somewhat less invested than their partner, or be quite intolerant of feeling more-invested, and so sometimes take a relationship to a lower level of absolute intimacy than they’d prefer because they have such a strong reaction to the thought of being a pursuer.

This squares pretty well with the idea that all people are seeking both independence and connection, and constantly struggling to balance these needs (Tannen talks about this, as does Robert Kegan in In Over Our Heads). One way to parse the differences in how different people seem to prioritize these is less about fundamentally wanting them more/less, and more about which need the person is more integrated with (as opposed to being in the “shadow”). Someone well integrated with their need for connection might tend to actively pursue connection in their relationships, have a higher closeness setpoint, fail to notice their needs for independence/space, and is therefore more likely to be the one who, when maintaining a relationship seems to require it, will take on the “pursuer” role – in some sense, it’s their comparative advantage, if their partner is more avoidant. The pursuer ends up carrying and looking after the both partners’ need for closeness, and the distancer is the one ensuring both partners’ needs for space and independence are met. When I think about it that way, it’s less obvious that such patterns can’t be part of a functional relationship: like having one partner specialize in managing the couple’s finances and another do all the car maintenance, it’s probably only problematic if it’s bad for the specific individuals in the situation.

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