THE BLOG
03/13/2013 01:38 am ET | Updated May 12, 2013

How The Pursuer-Distancer Pattern Can Destroy Your Marriage

Every divorced person has a story to tell about why their marriage ended. While no two divorce stories are exactly alike, what I've come to realize is that many bear a striking resemblance. One partner, usually the woman, becomes increasingly unhappy with the relationship, feeling that her needs for intimacy aren't being met. Although she's made many attempts to get her husband to open up and to become less hidden, she's left feeling that her efforts to bring him closer have failed. In fact, many of the women I've interviewed for my website admit that they've resorted to nagging and didn't feel good about this tug-of-war over communication and intimacy.

Why is this relationship pattern so common? Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington and The Gottman Institute, a distinguished observer of marital relations, believes that the tendency of men to withdraw and women to pursue is wired into our physiology and reflects a basic gender difference. In his classic "Love Lab" observations, he's noted that this pattern is extremely common and is a major contributor to marital breakdown. He also warns us that if it's not examined, the pursuer-distancer pattern will persist into a second marriage or subsequent intimate relationships.

So let's see how it usually works in a typical scenario. A wife's hyper-vigilance is seen as a way to motivate her husband to open up. But in this case, the ways that Karen and Erik respond to each other backfire -- going from bad to worse.

"Let's talk about why we're not communicating anymore," Karen laments as her husband Erik reads the newspaper. "How can we get along if we don't work on our problems?"

"I'm not sure what problems you're talking about," Erik says. "We don't have any problems."

Karen feels increasingly frustrated with her attempts to draw Erik out. Meanwhile, Erik resorts to his classic distancer strategy -- perhaps stonewalling her attempts to communicate. As Karen continues to express more disappointment in Erik, he further withdraws. If this pattern isn't reversed, it's easy to see how they can both begin to feel criticized and contempt for each other -- two of the major warning signs that their marriage is doomed to fail, according to Dr. Gottman.

What Karen and Erik don't realize is that they are deeply entrenched in a pursuer-distancer pattern that is quite common and needs to be repaired before it's too late. Otherwise, this dysfunctional pattern will develop into a vicious cycle that will be hard to stop.

"The pursuer-distancer pattern can be thought of as a mismatch," writes divorce expert E. Mavis Hetherington in For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered. In her landmark study of 1,400 divorced individuals over thirty years, she found that couples who adopted this pattern were at the highest risk for divorce. Commonly, the wife will get tired of pursuing and the husband will grow weary or get angered about what he perceives as his wife's constant nagging.

I've seen this pattern over and over again in the couples I've worked with. One partner, usually the wife, is seen as open and the other, usually the husband, is perceived as hidden. Think "Hope Springs" with Meryl Streep. Unfortunately, things don't always turn out like a Hollywood movie.

The irony of the pursuer-distancer pattern is that it's reinforced by popular self-help books and websites to save your marriage. While most of these articles encourage couples to open up and communicate more, they don't explain that this can blow up their faces unless couples understand that a plea to get closer by one spouse can be perceived as a criticism by the other. Likewise, psychologists often advise their clients to share their feelings with their partner, unaware that half of the battle with intimacy is about intent and tone. It's likely that the person at the other end of a "sharing feelings" conversation will feel blamed and attacked if your underlying message is "You are doing something wrong that needs to be fixed."

It's no wonder that many of the interactions between couples become deadlocked in the pursuer-distancer pattern and end up in a stalemate or with partners feeling bitter and disillusioned about their marriage. Repair work is all about expressing your intent in a positive way and taking responsibility for your part in it.

Here is what it looks like when your intent is to learn about the other person and grow together:

  • "I feel left out when you don't talk to me about what's going on in your head, and I'd like to know what you're thinking."
  • "I feel hurt when you watch TV when we're eating dinner because I'd like to learn more about your day."
  • "I feel unimportant to you when you don't include me in plans with your friends. I'd like to be kept posted, even if you prefer to see them on your own."
Rather than expressing criticism or contempt, this type of dialogue will hopefully foster positive communication since the intent is to get information rather than to criticize or nag.

What to do to avoid the pursuer-distancer pattern:

  • Accept that the pattern exists and needs to be corrected in order to improve the long-term stability of your marriage.
  • Work on changing your reactions to your partner and take responsibility for your part in interactions with him/her.
  • Write in a journal or talk with a close friend or trusted therapist; it can be highly beneficial.
  • Make peace by stopping the blame game. If you can actually embrace this concept, you and your partner will feel an almost immediate sense of relief.
  • If your partner seems flooded, walk away but not in anger or blame. Disengage as a way to restore your composure not to punish your partner.
  • If you can't walk away, attempt to take a break for at least twenty minutes. For instance, reading a magazine is a great distraction because you can flip through pages rather mindlessly.
  • Attempt to resume a dialogue when you feel refreshed and able to talk calmly and rationally.

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