In marriage: Which one of you asks for intimacy or runs away from it?

November 15 , 2018
Rasha Salib
Educational background:  Rasha received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where she specialized in Psycho...More

In these series of four articles, I will discuss a very common communication pattern amongst couples that contribute to divorce. In the first article, I will explain the pursuer-distancer pattern. In the second article, I will discuss how it evolved and how people become pursuers and distancers. In the third article, I will provide solutions for the pursuer. And lastly, in the fourth article of this series, I will outline solutions for the distancer.

One of the most important tasks for a couple wanting a passionate and fulfilling relationship is to balance two major opposing drives — intimacy/closeness and independence/autonomy.

In E. Mavis Hetherington’s study of 1,400 divorced individuals over 30 years, it was shown that couples who were stuck in the pursuer-distancer pattern of communication were at the highest risk for divorce.

Moreover, according to the researcher Dr. John Gottman, this destructive pattern is a common cause of divorce and if left unresolved, the pursuer-distancer pattern will continue into a second marriage and succeeding in intimate relationships.


Jude: “Why do you do that?”
Hashem: “Do what?”
Jude: “You always, always ignore me.”
Hashem: “No, I don’t.”
Jude: “We really need to talk about this. You’re doing it now.”
Hashem: “I don’t see the problem. You’re overreacting.”
Jude: “No, I’m not! You never listen to me. Can we talk?”
Hashem: “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

Jude is pursuing, as she is demanding intimacy and closeness; whereas Hashem is distancing, and is seeking autonomy.


How can we recognize a pursuer?

Usually, pursuers are labeled as needy, demanding and nagging. They are people who seek more connection and closeness. Pursuers tend to say things like, “Let’s talk,” or “What are you thinking about? Tell me, what do you feel right now?” They enjoy and seek discussion, communication, connection, togetherness, and expression of thoughts and feelings.

When their partner needs or asks for some space, pursuers feel anxious about the distance and take such requests as a personal rejection. Hence, they deal with relationship stress by getting closer to their partner, seeking greater togetherness in their relationship, and fixing what they think is wrong.

They emphasize talking about the problem and expressing feelings and strongly believe that their partner should do the same. In other words, their anxiety and fear of rejection lead them to try harder and pursue even more with a sense of urgency or emotional intensity, which just increases their partner’s distancing.


Pursuers may get into a fight and criticize their partner for being emotionally unavailable, distant, cold, etc. in the hope that they can create a connection by provoking the distancer’s anger or fear. If they fail to connect, pursuers may withdraw angrily and take a cold, detached stance.


What about the distancer?

A partner with distancing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by seeking emotional distance, moving away from the other, retreating into other activities to distract themselves, and taking physical space.

For example, they may manage their relationship anxiety by focusing their attention on work-related projects, withdrawing into technology, video games, sports, any activity outside the relationship, or brooding alone.

Their tolerance for conflict is low as they tend to give up easily on their partner by saying things like “It’s not worth trying to discuss it with you” or “forget it, I don't want to discuss this”. When a relationship becomes too difficult, they tend to end it abruptly.

Distancers enjoy independence and autonomy and have difficulty with vulnerability.

They view themselves as self-reliant and private. In general, they do not show their needy/dependent side, they adopt the “I can do it myself” approach and rarely seek help from others or their partner.

They are most approachable and open up most freely when they don’t feel pressured, pushed, pursued or criticized by their partner. Their partners usually label them as unavailable, withholding, and emotionally shut down.


Of course, each partner can be a pursuer and a distancer at different moments, or over different issues. For example, one partner may pursue more emotional intimacy but withdraw around a personal medical issue or family matter.

To truly connect, we need to identify the cycle and take steps to change it. It is essential not to point the finger at your partner, but rather to acknowledge your own role in a problem and to understand the characteristics of each style.

So, how can you become pursuers and distancers? Stay tuned for the next article.