Your partner hangs up the phone in the middle of a conversation, so you call repeatedly to get them to talk.
You feel overwhelmed from seeing your partner every day for a week, so you decrease your typical level of communication the following week.
Your partner avoids your attempts of showing physical affection, so you decrease your effort in hopes their effort will increase.
The scenarios above highlight a common pattern that couples find themselves stuck in: the pursuer-distancer tango. This tango can negatively impact your ability to create emotional safety and trust within the relationship.
The pursuer, oftentimes, will reach towards the relationship in attempts to receive validation, affection, and reassurance (e.g., constantly needing to be near your partner to feel loved and wanted). If the attempts at pursuing fail, it can cause feelings of rejection, and wondering if there is something you did/didn’t do. Internalizing your partner’s behavior is common, and developing self-soothing skills to regulate your emotions could be rewarding. Building your toolbox of skills may require you to spend more time away from the relationship. Whether you need to phone a friend or take a stroll by yourself around the neighborhood, find what works best for you at the moment.
The target of self-soothing is to meet your needs while maintaining the security of the relationship. The goal is having the discipline to step away until you are emotionally available to reconnect. It could be useful to know what your needs are before attempting to reach out to your partner. If your partner is unavailable, focus your attention on what could be helpful to meet your needs. Quality time may not be an option at the moment, and exploring alternatives could be beneficial. For example, “It would mean a lot to me that we spend time discussing our day. Are you willing to schedule some time before bed?” In this example, the importance of quality time is highlighted and your partner can decide if they are able to support this need.
If you are the distancer, you may feel physically and/or emotionally burdened by your partner’s attempts to create closeness. As a result, you typically pull back from the relationship to gain comfort. Perhaps you desire alone time or seek additional outlets to meet your need for distance. If you find yourself in a situation where you are overwhelmed and need space, it can be valuable to communicate with your partner when you want to step away. Withdrawing without notice and clear communication could prevent your partner from respecting your boundaries and needs. It is possible you will find strength in stating your needs and are likely to lean into your relationship once you see that your partner is someone that is willing to support and respect what you want.
It can be helpful to be specific about a timeframe for reconnecting. Saying, “Can we do this later?” may not be productive because later could be 10 minutes, 5 months, or a year. Some helpful alternatives could be setting a clear time (e.g., 15 minutes) or simply requesting before the day ends. Stating the intention to regroup along with the timeframe will allow you the space to check in and decide if you are available at that time. For example, “I know we said we’d watch a movie at 6pm. I have a headache and need to lie down. Can we reschedule for 1pm tomorrow?” In this example, the needs are stated, and the intention to spend time together is clear by suggesting an alternative.
Before interrupting this tango, it may be beneficial for each partner to increase their awareness of the behaviors in the moment. Self-soothing is the target and the goal is stating your needs to gain support. It is not your responsibility to make sure your partner support you, however, it is up to you to decide what you can do if they are not able to be of support. This may require you to soul search and pay attention to those triggers that tell you to withdraw or pursue. Once you identify those triggers and behaviors, the next step could be to implement those effective skills you’ve developed overtime. It is important to note that each partner can operate in both roles. It may be helpful to assess your role in maintaining the tango and ways to interrupt this pattern moving forward.