In any healthy relationship, learning better communication skills can help improve your connection as couples and as individuals.
But there’s a specific type of relationship dynamic that you may not be aware of that you and your spouse might well be guilty of, known as the “distancer-pursuer” relationship pattern.
This pattern, also referred to as the “demand-withdraw” pattern, is a common issue that occurs when there’s a breakdown in how you and your spouse communicate with each other.
Essentially, in a pursuer-distancer relationship, one of you wants to settle disagreements or arguments by handling the situation right away, while the other pulls back and goes into “hiding” in an attempt to get their thoughts and feelings together.
So what is the “pursuer-distancer” relationship pattern, and how can you stop it from hurting your relationship or marriage?
It all starts with your childhood, interestingly enough.
How you communicate with others begins with your family of origin — your first family. They provide a template that becomes your foundation. Although your template is a foundation, with effort, you can change how you interact in your most important relationships.
As your relationship evolves, your communication patterns become a “dance” between two people. Sometimes the dance moves slowly and effortlessly; other times it leaves couples stuck. And even though they want to change your patterns, it’s difficult to extricate themselves from them.
These patterns of interaction are fostered due to one or both partners’ limitations in effective communication skills, as well as not being able to understand, identify, own, and express their feelings of fear and vulnerability.
Often, each person has fears that the relationship won’t work out (expressed in their own way), or that their partner won’t “have their back” and be available — especially emotionally available — and they will not feel safe in their relationship to share their most innermost thoughts and feelings.
They often fear that their safe haven might be jeopardized. All of these factors make people feel equally vulnerable.
How do all these factors intersect? In one of the most common communication patterns: the Distancer-Pursuer relationship.
According to John Gottman, Ph.D., professor emeritus and chief psychology “guru,” the tendency of men to withdraw and women to pursue is wired into your physiological makeup and reflects a basic gender difference. Women, by and large, are the ones that pursue. They want to continue to engage in communication even if it becomes dysfunctional and to try and talk it out despite the futility.
They often will do this until their needs are met. Men, on the other hand, tend to be distancers; they want to flee the argument. If they feel pursued, they will run for the hills and attempt to distance themselves. They want to avoid conflict.
They also need space and time, a cooling off, time to focus and process. The pursuer doesn’t see it that way. They certainly don’t feel it that way. They want to connect now and figure it out now. They often become increasingly critical.
As you can imagine, this sets up a dynamic that, if not recognized, can get couples stuck in a pattern with little chance of resolving the conflict to a degree that is agreeable to both parties. Every time there is a conflict or a disagreement, they each play out their role with increased frustration.
One partner seeking security as a way to assuage their anxiety reaches for the other in their attempt to want more contact. Their partner may feel overwhelmed by this and actually does the opposite of what the other needs — they create space and withdraw to relieve their anxiety.
As a result, a pattern of relating is established. And you can imagine, this type of communication style is a major contributor to a marital and relationship breakdown.
Unfortunately, according to Gottman, many couples who fall into this pattern early in marriage do not make it to their fifth anniversary while others are wired in it indefinitely.
Here are 8 ways to create a path of communication and healthier relationships:
1. Build a strong foundation for greater safety and trust.
Begin with a soft start-up (Is this a good time to talk?) and create a dialogue about how you both want to create greater safety and trust in the relationship.
This means honoring how each person feels even if you disagree. This allows each person to feel “safe” that they can share how they feel.
2. Know your communication style.
Have a conversation about your own first family and how your parents and other family members communicated with one another. This is key.
Look for differences and similarities. Have that conversation.
3. Learn to recognize patterns.
Are there certain trigger words? Are there certain times that you feel more overwhelmed or need to continue to have the conversation. Observe the process of communication within the relationship — not the content or the topic.
The goal is not to figure out how to manage every topic or discussion, but to create a different process — or dance — that will allow each of you the opportunity to change how you communicate with one another.
4. Be proactive and have a plan.
Ask yourselves if you have a pattern of communication that keeps you locked in this pattern of relating to one another. Recognize and examine when moments of disconnection occur. Start to slow down the “spin cycle” so you can give it a closer examination.
For example, make a plan to take a timeout. When both people are flooded with emotions your brain is literally on overdrive. By taking a timeout — say 30 minutes or so — couples can decrease their anxiety and start to talk about the issue at hand again.
However, come up with a plan before you start to argue or when there are moments of calm when cooler heads prevail and they are at a good place.
5. Use alternative communication.
Although I am not a huge fan of texting (especially when it revolves around something serious and in-depth), if people limit themselves to only talking to one another in person as they learn new ways of communicating, they may feel more frustrated.
So, if someone is better at communicating via text or email, then as they navigate at least in the beginning, some people do better at email (which gives them the time to share feelings). You can use this as a springboard to deeper conversations.
Some couples start a journal together as they learn how to communicate in more effective and healthy ways.
6. Manage your own emotions.
In times of stress, you are flooded with emotions. Each person needs to have the emotional bandwidth to manage your own emotions. That’s one of your main responsibility.
And it’s not your partner/spouse’s job to manage your emotions.
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7. Have a ‘you’ attitude.
Nothing creates greater intimacy and a stronger relationship when both people feel and say they are on board.
They also recognize they may have many “fits and starts” and that’s OK — but if they both feel they are in this together and want to find a way out of their unhealthy “dance” they’ve created, that speaks volumes!
8. Stay on topic.
Nothing says “let’s fight more” by bringing up all the issues that you feel are still unresolved. When you are in the midst of a discussion — stay on topic.
By choosing one thing to discuss and leaving the other issues to another time, will help each person stay on task. And by the way, this can also be part of your plan!
You will find that eventually — taking the small steps to make changes — you both will get to a better place: One in which you can stay connected and learn more quickly recognize dysfunctional patterns of relating.
Do that, and you will ultimately create a stronger relationship and one that you both believe will stand the test of time, with both people feeling better about they communicate with one another.
Do you find yourself in this type of relationship? If you start putting these suggestions into place, you will no doubt see your relationship improve!
Dr. Kristin Davin is a solution-focused psychologist and relationship coach who helps people and couples get their life back on track. Follow her on Facebook for more information.
This article was originally published at Kristin Davin. Reprinted with permission from the author.