Thoughts on the Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic

A partner with pursuing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving toward the other. They seek communication, discussion, togetherness, and expression. They are urgent in their efforts to fix what they think is wrong.

Steve Horsmon
How to Avoid the Pursuer-Distancer
Pattern in Your Relationship

Recently, as I read Esther Perel’s book, The State of Affairs, I came across the phrase Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic. The words leapt off the page and carved through my psyche. I’d never heard the phrase but based on context I knew understanding was essential to move through my emotional and mental pain.

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This entire concept is new to me and as I cross-referenced to other articles and read the research on the hows and whys of a Pursuer I realized, this is exactly how I act and how I feel. Exactly.

This is a survival skill. A useless, painful and childish survival skill.

Before we get into the post, let’s consider definitions.

Being a Pursuer isn’t the same as being a stalker or harasser. I make that distinction because while the former is a word used to describe a well documented and researched relationship dynamic the latter when it actually happens, is a result of dangerous and unstable emotional state – and is equally well documented.

If anyone has evidence they are being stalked or harassed they should talk to law enforcement. Do not confuse the Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic as an excuse for reckless and illegal behavior.

The armchair psychologists in the world will shrilly announce it’s all the same and cry wolf from every hilltop. I’m sure there is a special place in hell for rumormongers.

Honestly, I didn’t know I was a Pursuer. I had no idea. None. Zero. Zilch. I also didn’t know I was drawn to Distancers. None. Zero. Zilch. After reading the details, it is obvious I have a type.

I’m been flailing about for seventy days trying to understand everyone’s role. Repeatedly I’ve been guessing what she needs and wants by trying to respond to the ghost stories of glory hounds and C’s emotional and informational vacuum. I’ve done it with the one broken relationship skill: Pursuing. Pursuing is clearly the mallet of my relationship toolbox.

I cannot speak to her motivations but I can tell you, this completely describes my external behavior and my internal anxieties.

What sparked my awareness was I recognized immediately I was the Pursuer in relationship after relationship since childhood.

I was the Pursuer with my high school girlfriend after she wrote me a Dear John letter I received on my birthday at USMC boot camp in 1987. I pursued. I did this with my first wife for a few year after our separation in 1994. I pursued.

I did this over and over again with friends and family well after the relationship had changed and was non-recoverable. Sometimes I Pursued when the non-recoverable relationship was clearly not in my best interest.

Not only have I spent the last seventy days Pursuing C, but I also acted the same way with the other relationships I thought were friendships. I pursued.

Here is the important part of this experience: I cannot solve a problem with the same level of understanding that was used in creating the problem. Therefore I am eternally grateful to Perel’s writing. She opened the door to an understanding of myself I was lacking before.

Now I know: my pursuing is selfish and fear-based. The behavior only adds to the problem.

Assuming C is a Distancer, which I’m not qualified to determine, it explains a great deal about the inner workings of our relationship. Even now her silent treatment, contempt, and responses are not surprising based on what I’ve learned on this topic. She is responding the only way she knows. It isn’t personal to her, it is how she deals with a Pursuer.

I’m the one that feels it is personal.

She once told me a story of a breakup with her college boyfriend. As she pulled away, her things packed into the car, he pursued her down the street crying out for her. She told me, she laughed and laughed at him as she sped away. Distancers treat emotional vulnerability as a weakness and when they see it in other’s they recoil.

That is if she is a Distancer.

Maybe she isn’t. I don’t actually know.

However, I am definitely a Pursuer and I have a type and now that I know, I have a choice. Making the healthy choice means I will not pursue C – or other Distancers – again.

My goal is not to manipulate the situation but because it is unhealthy for me to invest time and energy in a relationship with a Distancer I’m going to refocus my energy. Distancers will only turn back to the relationship when they are ready.

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However, based on what I know, C will never be ready. Although, based on what I’ve experienced, I’m not sure I want her too.

There are still a handful of reasons to interact with C and if I have to interact with her it will be clear and concise. I will be direct in my intent and meaning until I have completed my commitments.

In the meantime, I will never again make myself vulnerable enough to pursue her. My sense is my vulnerability will only be used by armchair psychologists as fodder for their confirmation bias. It will never be seen for what it is but only for what they think it is.

Actually, I’m finished pursuing anyone.

What has happened since I discovered the Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic is life-altering. I see clearly how being a Pursuer has sapped my life of energy, time, relationships, and loves. I see current and past relationships and the dynamic with a fresh awareness and have already taken actions to stop engaging in the Pursuer-Distancer Cycle with other people.

As such, I have found a new freedom and a new power to choose my relationships. I know now why I am pursuing and I have begun to discover a language that allows me to discuss it honestly and openly with the right Partner and willing friends.

I may not do it perfectly but I will do it. I’m finished pursuing. I’m definitely finished pursuing C.

That maybe what she wants for her reasons – she has never said that to me so I’m still guessing. However, it is what I want for my reasons. Clearly, it is the only thing we’ve agree upon in 70 days.