In couples therapy I often meet couples who struggle with the pursuer-distancer dynamic. In this blog post I will explore how attachment theory can help couples understand and overcome the problems this dynamic creates.
The pursuer-distancer dynamic refers to a pattern of interaction in which one partner takes on the role of the pursuer, seeking closeness and connection, while the other partner adopts the role of the distancer, seeking space and independence. These two roles trigger and reinforce each other and it’s not hard to see how it can become a very vicious circle.
Understanding attachment styles is key to comprehending the dynamics of the pursuer-distancer relationship. Attachment styles, such as secure, anxious, and avoidant, play a significant role in shaping how individuals navigate intimacy and closeness.
Attachment theory was developed mainly by the British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1907-1990) and in the 70s, the American developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) conducted her famous “Strange situation” experiments and expanded greatly on the theory.
Attachment theory suggests that early experiences with primary caregivers shape our attachment styles, which in turn influence our patterns of relating to others throughout our lives.
Individuals with a secure attachment style feel comfortable with both intimacy and independence in relationships. They have a positive view of themselves and their partners, and they can easily seek and provide support. They feel secure in their relationships, trust their partners, and have effective communication and conflict resolution skills.
Anxious (or Preoccupied) Attachment:
Individuals with an anxious attachment style have a strong desire for closeness and reassurance in relationships but often feel insecure and worry about abandonment. They may seek constant validation, become easily anxious or jealous, and require frequent reassurance. They may also have difficulties with trust and self-esteem.
Avoidant (or Dismissive) Attachment:
Individuals with an avoidant attachment style value their independence and self-reliance. They often have difficulty with emotional intimacy and may feel uncomfortable with excessive closeness or dependence on others. They may prioritize personal space and tend to minimize emotions or avoid emotional discussions. They may also struggle with committing to long-term relationships.
This helps us understand how attachment styles can contribute to the pursuer-distancer dynamic.
Anxious-preoccupied individuals, driven by their fear of abandonment and rejection, often become the pursuers. They may seek constant reassurance from their partner, initiate contact recurrently, and attempt to maintain a high level of emotional connection. Their anxiety can be triggered when their partner shows signs of detachment, which can inadvertently push the partner to withdraw further.
Avoidant-dismissive individuals, who prioritize independence and autonomy, are more likely to become the distancers in the dynamic. They may feel overwhelmed by their partner’s quest for closeness and respond by withdrawing emotionally and/or physically. This distancing behavior can trigger anxiety in their partner, reinforcing the pursuer role.
Understanding attachment needs and insecurities is crucial in comprehending the pursuer-distancer dynamic. The pursuer’s need for reassurance, validation, and closeness often stems from an anxious attachment style and fear of rejection. The distancer’s need for space, autonomy, and self-reliance can be rooted in an avoidant attachment style and fear of engulfment or loss of independence.
Recognizing the pursuer-distancer dynamic through an attachment lens allows couples to address underlying attachment needs and insecurities. When you understand your own and your partner’s attachment style, it helps fostering empathy and compassion.
By understanding the attachment-related motivations and needs of both partners, couples can break free from the pursuer-distancer cycle and develop healthier relationship dynamics. With support and commitment, couples can create a secure base where both partners feel valued, supported, and emotionally connected.
Bowlby, J. (1969), Attachment and loss, Vol. 1: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation (Psychology Press & Routledge Classic Editions). Part of: Psychology Press & Routledge Classic Editions (1 books) | by Mary D. Salter Ainsworth Jul 1, 2015