Healthy Relationships 1.18: Operating Styles, Part 1


Fusion, the opposite of differentiation (see post by that title), is one of the most important variables in the development and course of interpersonal conflict. Let’s look at the three components of fusion: personal boundaries, operating styles of movement toward and away from each other (the subject of the next post, as well), and reciprocal functioning (the subject of the post after that).

Personal Boundaries

Personal boundaries have varying degrees of permeability, which are expressed in two ways: 1) the degree of access a person gives someone else to his or her emotional world, and 2) reactive patterns of alternating cycles of connection and distance.

People experience impulses to both connect and to separate. Connections require emotional exchange, which increases risk and vulnerability, leading to both affinity (during low stress) and repulsion (during high stress). During times of relatively little tension, partners engage in emotional exchange freely. During times of high stress, partners tend to polarize with varying operating styles of pursuit and distance, which can cause even greater stress.

Operating Styles

A person’s operating style originates with constitutional temperament, and is then shaped by the family of origin and the partnership. Although everyone has a predominant operating style, a person’s style can vary from one relationship to another, and from one issue to another. There is a distancer in every pursuer, and a pursuer in every distancer. Which operating style gets more expression depends on the context.

Emotional Pursuers

Emotional pursuers have relatively permeable boundaries to their inner world, sharing their thoughts and feelings openly. In times of high stress, they tend to let their boundaries become overly permeable—they give others access to their anxiety and emotional upset almost at random, to anyone within reach. (Under extreme stress, the pursuer may reverse this movement, closing up emotionally.)

Emotional Distancers

Emotional distancers allow access to their inner world in a safe, warm environment, but only to a select few. In times of high stress, they shut out even the select few. Like the emotional pursuer, there’s an exception to this rule. Extreme stress may cause the tight emotional boundaries of an emotional pursuer to burst, dispelling a rush of emotion, along with long-held personal thoughts and feelings. When relational stability is reached again, however, they will return their boundaries to their former height and depth.

Balance and Conflict

These operating styles compliment each other during times of low stress, providing synchrony, balance and stability in a relationship, and bringing out the best in both. The pursuer’s emotional energy provides a counterpoint to the distancer’s cool, logical steadiness. The pursuer’s impatience provides impetus, while the distancer’s reliability provides staying power to accomplish shared tasks. The pursuer’s intensity fills a perceived lack in the distancer’s life, and the distancer’s calm reasonableness is a reassuring check on the impulsiveness of the pursuer. The pursuer’s sensitivity to excessive distance keeps the relationship connected, while the distancer’s sensitivity to enmeshment acts as a governor to ensure boundaries are respected.

Of course, during high stress, the very styles that provide balance can create conflict instead. That’s the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Common Differences

The following chart summarizes some of the most common differences between emotional pursuers and emotional distancers.

Emotional Pursuers Emotional Distancers
Affinity for relationship time Affinity for alone time and/or activity time
Open expression of personal thoughts and feelings Avoidance of personal thoughts and feelings
Nonselective permeability of personal boundaries Overly selective personal boundaries
Fast personal rhythm (high speed or stop) Deliberate, steady, predictable speed
Oriented to relationship Oriented to productivity and objects
Enthusiastically take on new tasks and adventures Cautiously approach new tasks and adventures
Optimistic Pessimistic
Errors are usually errors of commission Errors are usually errors of omission
Apologize easily Apologies come hard
Explicit expression of thoughts and feelings Implicit expression of thoughts and feelings
Endings and good-byes come hard Endings and good-byes appear to be easy

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