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Monday, July 5, 2010

Independence and Intimacy

 It isn't only couples who can get stuck in the pursuer-distancer conflict.  Any two people---a parent and a grown child, two friends, even business partners, can become caught up in playing out the pursuer-distancer pattern.
One person, the "pursuer", seeks increased involvement, further intimacy, engagement, talking, meetings, or time together, while the distancer seeks separation, privacy, or physical space. 
  Remember when it became part of the vernacular to say, "I need my space."?  
"The pattern is self-reinforcing and self-escalating.  The more the pursuing partner pursues, the more trapped the distancing partner feels and the more he or she needs to get away.  The more the distancing partner needs to get away, the more deserted the pursuing partner feels..."the need for closeness and the more he/she strives to make a connection .  Yes, it's a vicious circle.

And so why do people do it?  Why would someone continue to hammer away at another who clearly wishes to withdraw?  On the other hand, why would anyone withhold time or attention from a partner who is obviously seeking it?  According to Harriet G. Lerner in her book, The Dance of Anger,
 it is all about "...managing anxiety."  We each try very hard to make the thing happen that we have found reduces our own distress.  
The pursuer may criticize themselves as being dependent and at the same time criticize the partner as being unable to communicate or handle feelings or tolerate closeness.  Their real value though is on talking things out because they have found that waiting is wearing and talking seems relieving.  
The distancers, on the other hand, seek the solace of their own company when stress is high. These individuals will often refer to themselves as 'a private person'.  They see themselves as being self-reliant but others may find them slippery, hard to find and emotionally unavailable.  For their part, they will accuse the pursuer type of beating a subject to death.  While it is an uncomfortable experience to open up to another, they may criticize themselves as not being successful in relationships. 
So, what to do?  First, try to figure out which style is yours.  Then, if you can identify it when you are caught up in this counter-productive cycle with someone important to you, recognize it. 
 At that point, someone (at least one of you) has to change their own behavior, in order to break the cycle.  For example, if you tend to be the pursuer, you can push another so hard that they may cut off the relationship completely.  So, you have to stop yourself.  Don't take it personally if the other wants some time away to think; let them have it.
If you find that you tend to distance, try to turn around from your walk-away and see if you can work it out.  
Of course, the key to changing your own anxiety-binding behavioral habits, is---you'll have to tolerate some anxiety!  The reward may be a business deal you could have lost or a closer and happier personal relationship. 
Credit:  First quote, Daniel B. Wile

Are you a distancer or a pursuer?  How does this affect your life?


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