Healthy Relationships 1.19: Operating Styles, Part 2

Steps of Pursuer and Distancer in Conflict

When partners are in conflict, their behavioral operating styles (see yesterday’s post)—of emotional pursuer and emotional distancer—also come into conflict and do their own war dance, with very distinct steps.

Step One

In step one, stress, such as a cluster of situations and transitions that threaten the status quo, derails the feelings of well-being. Both partners react in their default operating style, one seeking emotional connection from the other to restore inner calm (usually the female), and the other moves away toward objects or activities, also in an effort to restore inner calm (usually the male).

Step Two

In step two, the intended outcome of the moves in step one fails to occur, and instead raises the level of anxiety or upset in the other. What they both need most from the other, they are unable to give in the moment, and the tension increases.

As stresses come and go, these two steps happen over and over in most partnerships. The cycle beings, intensifies, and subsides, after which the couple may re-establish stability by reconnecting in their dyad, or by triangulating with a third party, object, process or activity. If the tension remains high, however, the pattern recurs more quickly, and the disappointment, anger and hurt begin to accumulate.

Step Three

This leads to step three, in which the emotional pursuer gets tired of seeking connection from a non-responsive partner, feels a loss of self-respect, and begins to reactively withdraw. When the emotional distancer senses this withdrawal, he or she will move back toward the emotional pursuer to find out what’s wrong.

At this point, the emotional pursuer can: 1) re-group and adopt a self-focus with a self-imposed experiment of planned, non-reactive distance, in an effort to address personal emptiness and to effect fundamental personal change; 2) reactively close the distance to get the feelings of anxiety to subside, losing an opportunity for greater awareness; or 3) retreat behind a wall of hurt, attacking the distancer with criticism.

Step Four

If the emotional pursuer chooses the third option and the emotional distancer responds with a counterattack, the couple moves to step four, in which it becomes difficult to identify who is the pursuer and who the distancer.

Step Five

When the partners become worn out by the attack-counterattack pattern, or when the emotional distancer moves away, the sequence moves to step five, which is marked by a fixed distance and no attempts at resolution. Over time, emotional numbness and indifference replace the anger and resentment. (See the table below for easy reference to this cycle.)

Here’s a quick reference to this pattern:

Emotional Pursuer Emotional Distancer
Step 1 Moves toward the distancer Moves away, usually toward objects
Step 2 Pursues more intensely Distances more intensely
Step 3 Tires of pursuit, reactively distances Moves tentatively toward pursuer, then away
Step 4 Attacks distancer, defends self Attacks pursuer, defends self
Step 5 Remains at fixed distance Remains at fixed distance

And I Quote

In The Evaluation and Treatment of Marital Conflict, Thomas Fogarty explains this pattern:

When problems arise, the pursuer tends to blame, accuse, and attack, and the distancer to defend. The pursuer is invariably avoiding an inner emptiness, and can be taken for granted, since he is always moving toward his spouse. A pursuer has to be taught the operating principle, “Never pursue a distancer.” The more anyone goes after a distancer, the more he will distance. The therapist should take the pursuer into his own inner emptiness by asking him questions like, “What would it be like inside you if you lost your spouse?” In effect, the pursuer must learn to get from himself many of the things he is hoping to get from his mate. In other words, the pursuer must learn to distance; and since he is living with a walking textbook on the subject, if he can stop complaining about the distancer long enough to study her, he can learn from his spouse and stop trying to change her. The therapist will do well to keep his own prescription in mind, and not pursue the distancer in the family. The distancer must come in under his own steam. Eventually, he must learn that distancing is a useful way to get his head together, but that it never solves a problem. When the distancer sees that nobody is chasing him, he will get in touch with his own loneliness and his fears of losing his spouse. Ordinarily, the therapist uses his time most productively if he concentrates his efforts on the pursuer. The pursuer is the one who is most anxious and uncomfortable, and therefore most apt to change.

When the pursuer gets tired of chasing, he will often stage a revolution. He comes into therapy saying, “I have no feelings for my wife anymore. The marriage is dead. I want a divorce.” At this point, the distancer suddenly comes alive, grows frantic over the impending loss, makes every effort to appease, and to do what the other wants. The therapist will want to work mainly with the rebellious party, since he or she has the power in the family. The one being moved toward is always the effective person.

It is a waste of time to try to abort the revolution. The therapist has to expose the emptiness in the rebellious person, show that he or she is only reduplicating patterns that existed in the extended family, and that getting a divorce is not changing anything. If both people played a part in the development of the problem, then the one who leaves the marriage will carry his portion of the problem with him. The one who is rebelling must learn about his past mistakes before he leaves the marriage. This also affords the distancer a chance to change, so that perhaps the marriage can reform on new ground. Once past a certain point of frustration, bitterness, and resentment, the revolution will be unmanageable; the marriage will inevitably break up, and the therapist can only hope to salvage as much of each person as is possible” (326-327).



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