Pursuing and Distancing in Marriage

WE ALL DO IT—AND OUR PARENTS DID IT

What do dancing the waltz, military battles, and all marital relationships have in common? They all involve advancing and retreating. They all involve leaning in and pulling back. They all involve pursuing and distancing.

All relationships are like a dance. And every marital relationship has a tailored choreography and rhythm. This Counseling Newsletter falls on the heels of the most recent Newsletter entitled, Unconventionally Wise Words on Being Married. Both of these Newsletters are significantly influenced by the work and writing of Dr. Dan Wile. Dr. Wile (who recently passed away) was a brilliant psychologist who developed a very creative and unconventional style of working with couples.

In this Newsletter I also draw upon my own experiences as a son and as a husband. My mom, in her role as a wife, was energetic, loving, and she was the “pursuer and initiator.” In contrast my Dad, in his role as a husband, was consistently gentle, spontaneous, and the “passive conflict-avoider and distancer.” My folks provided a classic example. I learned from the best!
In my own marriage, from the honeymoon forward, my wife and I have been in the process of figuring out we might live in an increasingly redemptive way given our tendencies to either address and pursue relational conflict and tension (Denise) or to avoid, ignore, and distance ourselves from that same conflict or tension (Rich).

Our journey has been joyful, yet complicated. Both of us have been humbled as we’ve come to see that these tendencies (in us and in our parents) are the result of our brokenness. Even so, we are responsible (individually and as a couple) for how we navigate conflict.

I am often uneasy and uncomfortable in conflicted situations and I have come to acknowledge that my default mode is usually to avoid conflict, to distance, and to punish others with withdrawal and disengagement. I don’t like this tendency within myself (and it is embarrassing to admit), but this is what I have often done when functioning in my default mode during times of conflict and tension that have arisen with Denise.

In contrast, wanting to keep peace when conflict arises between us, Denise often becomes anxious, unsure, and agitated. She pursues verbally, relationally and emotionally.

And this is where our dance begins—Denise pursing and Rich distancing. Neither of us like this pattern—neither of us enjoy this dance. But, it is a choreography that we know well.

After many years of discouragement and confusion, I came to the conclusion that when conflict and tension arise between Denise and me, my goal should be to “stay put.” “Staying put” is shorthand for not retreating and not distancing. It means being relationally accessible even when Denise becomes anxious and insecure. “Staying put” is the respectable, mature, husbandly way for me to respond to our episodes of tension and conflict. “Staying put” helps Denise be less of a worried-pursuer because I am not distancing myself from her.

Denise’s corresponding goal and posture, when we are in the midst of tension and conflict, is not to be “pushing-in and pressuring,” which is her default mode. This means that instead she takes a deep breath. She reminds herself that we’ve had arguments and conflict in the past and we’ve gotten through it. “Not being pressuring” means that Denise does her best to use a calm and steady approach as she encourages me to “stay put.” And I work hard to “stay put” because this helps Denise remain calm and secure. We have now slowed down the tempo a bit, we are listening and engaging thoughtfully, and with some grace we are dancing through the complicated choreography of marital conflict.

We all have trouble dealing with our pursuer-distancer conflicts because we can’t stand the idea that we have them. Pursuers hate it that they pursue. Distancers hate it that they withdraw.

Pursuers and distancers see themselves as defective people with defective partners in defective relationships.

Pursuers are upset as they picture themselves as dependent, insecure, demanding, and nagging. They often have long painful histories of receiving criticism from others (and themselves) about such tendencies. In addition, they frequently associate this characteristic with a parent whom, at least in this respect, they don’t want to be like.

Distancers often have similar experiences and sensitivities about being seen as withdrawn, uninvolved, or afraid of intimacy. Distancers (especially husbands) are ashamed and embarrassed that they don’t step-up to tension and conflict and deal with it head-on. They despise their tendency to avoid and ignore the conflict.

THE PUSH AND THE PULL

If fighting isn’t the couple’s main problem, then withdrawal often is. Fighting and withdrawal (pursuing and distancing) may seem like different problems. But they are intimately related and each can lead to the other. Withdrawal and distancing leads to fighting and pursuing leads to withdrawal just as dieting leads to binging and binging leads to dieting. The fight-withdrawal (pursuing-distancing) cycle is an occupational hazard of being a couple.

Between the two of you, one is always more likely than the other to deal with uncertainty or tension by engaging. This engaging almost always develops an accusing quality that leads to the other to defend, disengage, and withdraw.

Her buttons are pushed when she feels abandoned and she deals with feeling abandoned by pressuring. His buttons are pushed when he feels pressured and he deals with feeling pressured by distancing. The pursuing and distancing causes couples to appear even more incompatible than they actually are.

As spouses, you may have a severe case of a problem that, to one extent or another, every couple has. What makes the problem so difficult is that almost every attempt to solve it deepens it. One spends most of her time trying not to pursue (and that is part of the problem) and the other makes ineffectual and counterproductive efforts to not withdraw.

Yet, it’s important to remember that the pursuer has reason to pursue, and the distancer has reasons to distance. Since she reacts to withdrawal with demandingness, he reacts to demandingness with withdrawal. She is actually abandoned and she has reasons to pursue. He is actually pressured and he has reasons to withdraw. The problem becomes self-escalating.

The more he withdraws, the more she needs reassuring contact. The more she seeks contact, the more he needs to withdraw. The first step in understanding how your pursuing or distancing partner can possibly act and feel the way he/she does is to appreciate that it’s going to be hard to understand them.

BEING DEPRIVED AND BEING STUCK

The pursuing person isn’t the only person being deprived. The distancer is being deprived too; he or she just doesn’t know it. Each partner’s attempt to deal with his or her problem increases the problem of the other. One deals with the feeling of abandonment by pressure, while the other deals with feeling pressured by abandoning. The recognition that they are stuck in something together may enable them to increase their sense of sympathy for their shared position.

As previously stated, pursuers and distancers are both deprived. Pursuers pursue to try to get what they’re missing. But no one realizes that distancers are just as deprived. While the pursuer may be deprived, for example, of having a partner who looks forward to spending time with him/her, the distancer is deprived of having a partner he/she wants to spend time with. They both lose part of themselves: the distancer loses the part that might want to engage with, talk to, and be affectionate toward their partner; the pursuer loses the part that might otherwise have prompted their partner to pursue relational moments on their own initiative.

Couples are in a good position, or at least a better position, when they are able to jointly appreciate how desperate their positions are, individually and as a couple. People who see their partners and themselves as caught in a difficult situation, rather than as just stubbornly refusing to change, are likely to feel more sympathy about their situations. Pursuers and distancers often feel that it would be easy for their partners to change. Pursuers don’t see why it would be so difficult for their partners to be a little more forthcoming and affectionate. In contrast, distancers don’t see why it would be so difficult for their partners to be a little less dependent and demanding.

BOTH PARTNERS ARE RIGHT, BUT IT STILL GETS COMPLICATED

For example, one partner typically wants to do a particular thing (or talk about a certain thing) at least slightly more than the other does. Soon, the first person (the pursuer) is seen as always wanting to do that thing, and the second person (the distancer) is seen as never wanting to do it. Both the pursuer and the distancer are partly right. The pursuer is right, for example, that it’s important to be able to talk about their problems, whereas the distancer is right that, at the moment, they have no way to do so that won’t just lead to a fight. The pursuer is already spending most of his/her time trying not to pursue (and that’s part of the problem), and the distancer is already making futile efforts not to withdraw.

The pursuer might comment, “You seem quiet tonight,” but there is a hidden criticism in this statement. It implies that he/she shouldn’t be quiet. One senses that criticism, defends himself/herself by criticizing in return or withdrawing. It doesn’t take much to get a pursuer-distancer interaction going. And once it starts, the dance can escalate quickly.

THINGS ARE GETTING BETTER

She is no longer pursuing. Instead she is talking about her pursuing. He is no longer withdrawing. Instead, he is talking about his withdrawing.

This couple needs a non-accusing way to think and talk about their “stuck place.”

One has a reason to pursue (they are being abandoned) and the other has reason to withdraw (they are being pressured). Both of them have important points to make that they are having
trouble getting them across. The only way to avoid pursuit and distance is to be completely non-accusing, which is mostly impossible.

BROKEN, BUT REDEEMED

As a psychologist, and as a husband, I seek to approach my life, my work, and my marriage from the perspective of being an “adopted son” who is accepted and made right with God. It is from this perspective that I understand that I am “broken.” I recognize that my brokenness often gets in my way as I seek to be a redeeming influence in my marriage.

It’s my desire to gently lead and shepherd my wife, Denise—to responsibly and self-sacrificially care for her. I do not seek to care for Denise in this way because I believe that she is not competent or because I believe that she cannot take care of herself. Rather, I willingly and gladly take on the call to care for and to guard her in a kind and loving way (as God cares for and protects us). I can see God using my relationship with Denise to confront my fallenness—my selfishness, my primary concern for my desires, and my defensive and self-protective ways. God is kind and gracious as He confronts me with my broken and sinful ways. He is growing me up and maturing me as He continues to show me that my strategies to avoid conflict are not honoring to Him, to me, or to Denise. This is a humbling process for which I am thankful.

In Denise’s desire to break her pattern of being the purser and to love me even though I am her husband-distancer, she starts with a time of asking God for help. She asks to see herself clearly, to be newly-reminded of her secure place in God’s love, and in my love. She then waits for a non-conflictual moment to bring up her concern or hope. She (these are Denise’s own words) has the need and desire to abandon her expectations, to be honest when speaking to me, and then to let the issues go and see what happens. Denise often finds that when she can relax into this stance, that I (her husband who is working on gently leading) am better able to “stay put” and listen.

Generational and life-long patterns of pursuing and distancing do not change easily. These patterns and habits of the “flesh” are very robust and stubbornly tenacious. Yet, God promises to complete the work He has begun in our lives. And that is a promise worth holding onto as we continue to work on seeing ourselves more clearly and pushing into these changes.

The apostle Paul suggests these “dancing” outfits:

“So, to those chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic all-purpose garment. Never be without it.” (Col. 3:12-14 – The Message)

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