The Pursuer-Distancer Pattern of Communication


Most couples struggle with communication at some point in their relationship.  It’s normal for couples to come into session and really have a hard time working through conflict and disagreements.  Sometimes it’s as though they can’t even work through the simplest of disagreements.  Obviously, this is discouraging and scary to couples who want better for their relationship.

In fact, there is a pattern called the Pursuer-Distancer that can help explain the dance that happens between couples.  Today I’m going to talk about what this looks like, and how to work together to be healthier in your communication with one another.

The Pursuer

Let’s meet Karen.  Karen is a pursuer.  She likes to deal with conflict in the moment.  Karen will do anything to make her husband, Mike, talk to her.  She will follow him through the house, talking at him, trying to get him engaged.  Karen does not like for disagreements to be drawn out unnecessarily.  She gets frustrated that Mike shuts down, and just gets louder and more animated.  Sometimes she insults him because she is so angry at his lack of engagement.  Mike will just shut down, stop communicating, or walk away.

Pursuers try to eliminate stress in the relationship by “moving toward” their partner.  They try to engage, communicate, and collaborate.  When their partner cannot do this, they get frustrated.  Karen frequently insults her husband for being emotionally unavailable and unwilling to work towards resolution when they have conflict.

The Distancer

Mike, as you may have guessed, is a distancer.  Mike struggles to process conflict in the moment and needs some time to think about what he wants to say to Karen.  Since she will pursue and pursue, Mike just shuts down.  He gets overwhelmed and is afraid he may say the wrong thing.  Mike needs time to think through the disagreement and what he wants to say to Karen.  He often gets frustrated that Karen nags him and won’t leave him alone, and follows him throughout the house.  He will do whatever he has to in order to get some space from her.

Distancers try to eliminate stress in the relationship by “moving away” from their partner.  They try to physically and emotionally create distance between them and their partners.  They are the type of people who need space to process on their own time.

Why the Pursuer-Distancer Pattern?

To be fair, neither behavior is wrong.  But put both together in a relationship, and it spells complete communication disaster.  Pursuers just want to get to the bottom of the conflict.  They don’t understand drawing a disagreement out.  Distancers just need some time to process before they can work towards a resolution.  They don’t understand the need to fix the problem right this second.

It’s not unusual for the Pursuer-Distancer pattern to be modeled to you.  Using Mike and Karen, if we take a look at their childhoods, it helps explain a lot.  Karen came from a family where there was a lot of aggressive arguing (yelling, screaming), and so she was taught that you have to be assertive to be heard.  Mike came from a family where no one talked about anything, and problems were swept under the rug.  Mike was taught that if you ignore something for long enough, it (mostly) goes away….at least for a little while.  Both Mike and Karen brought pieces of their families of origin into their current marriage, and have to learn different ways to communicate.  Maybe you can relate?

Pursuer-Distancer Breakdown

What happens in a relationship when there is a pursuer AND a distancer?  First of all, it’s almost impossible to work together towards any kind of conflict resolution.  Both partners get frustrated and angry.  Neither person can hear the other.  Assumptions are made, more miscommunication occurs, and nothing is really addressed.  According to Dr. John Gottman, this pattern of communication is a common predictor of divorce.  Pursuers just continue to get increasingly frustrated and annoyed, and distancers just continue to shut down and withdraw more.  Eventually, they both stop trying.  That spells disaster.

Do you identify with the Pursuer-Distancer pattern?

If so, it’s time to make a change.

Let’s talk about a healthier way for Mike and Karen to communicate without the unhealthy Pursuer-Distancer pattern.  First of all, pursuers have to stop pursuing.  So Karen needs to stop chasing Mike all over the house, trying to get him to talk to her.  Instead of being aggressive, she needs to be safe.  Karen needs to work on connecting with Mike, and giving him space when he needs some time to process.  She also needs to work on having patience with him.

Mike has to work on increasing his communication so he doesn’t feel the need to distance so much.  He needs to work on being vulnerable with Karen and sharing his thoughts and feelings.  It’s okay for Mike to take a break when there is conflict, but he has to communicate his need for a time-out instead of just shutting down or walking away.  He also needs to come back to Karen and continue the conversation, until eventually, they CAN work towards a compromise or a resolution.  These are just a few steps that would help Mike and Karen immediately with the Pursuer-Distancer pattern.

Getting Help for Pursuer-Distancer Pattern

When couples walk in my door, and I recognize this pattern, I immediately educate them.  We talk about what the pattern looks like and the problems it creates.  We come up with a game plan for how to handle the communication issue.  In our sessions, we use real-life problems that the couple has experienced in order to work through it.  And their homework is usually to apply this new communication style to actual disagreements.

If you are reading this, and realize you and your partner are stuck in an unhealthy pattern of communication, please reach out for help!  There is hope for a better relationship and a better pattern of healthy communication!

Written by Christy Fogg, MSW, LCSW

*Christy Fogg, MSW, LCSW is a licensed therapist at Journey to Joy Counseling in Carmel, Indiana. Christy enjoys doing marriage/couples counseling, individual counseling, premarital counseling. She also provides family counseling, teen and adolescent counseling.