The Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic

Having counseled couples for more than 30 years and conducted original research, Terry Gaspard knows the pitfalls and the landmines. Unfinished business with exes (and other old baggage), pressures of dealing with debt and handling money, blending families, finding time and space for sex, managing conflict, and more can strain second marriages to the breaking point.

The Remarriage Manual is a culmination of Gaspard’s work—providing insights, stories, and tools that she’s used to direct countless remarried couples toward lasting happiness (including her own). The post below is an excerpt from The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around.

According to experts, the most common reason couples fall out of love and stop being sexually intimate is because of a pursuer-distancer dynamic that develops over time. Sue Johnson identifies this pattern as the “protest polka,” and says it is one of three “demon dialogues.” She explains that when one partner becomes critical and aggressive, the other often becomes defensive and distant. John Gottman’s research on thousands of couples reveals that partners who get stuck in this pattern in the first few years of marriage have more than an 80 percent chance of divorcing in the first four or five years. 

Why is this relationship pattern so common? Gottman found that men tend to withdraw and women tend to pursue when they are in intimate relationships. Further, he explains that these tendencies are wired into our physiology and reflect a basic gender difference. In his classic “Love Lab” observations, he notes that this dynamic is extremely common and is a major contributor to marital break-down. He also warns us that if it’s not changed, the pursuer-distancer dynamic will persist into a second marriage or subsequent intimate relationships. 

Partners in intimate relationships tend to blame the other person when their needs are not being met. A pursuer-distancer dance follows, which intensifies the dynamic. Couples report having the same fights repeatedly. After a while, they’re no longer addressing the issue at hand and a vicious cycle of resentment, frustration, and anger develops and never gets resolved. 

While all couples need autonomy and closeness, many partners struggle with the pursuer-distancer dance and feel chronically dissatisfied with their degree of intimacy. When the pattern of pursuing and distancing becomes…

read more…