In some relationships, one person desperately pursues a partner who creates distance or is unavailable.
If you are in one of these relationships, you are most likely familiar with the overwhelming sense of despair that this can create. Each partner can be in either of these roles, depending on the circumstances; and each partner may also attack the other, or defend themselves, relentlessly.
This circle of stages may occur very regularly or months apart, however the effect is still the same – ongoing frustration, walking on eggshells waiting for the next “blowout”, wondering whether you are in the right relationship, and feeling conflicted in your feelings toward your partner. You wonder whether all relationships have these very uncomfortable stages and how they recover from the turmoil.
The Distance Pursuit Cycle
The cycle tends to go in phases:
- Pursue-Withdraw: Each partner’s behaviour triggers the other one.
- Attack-Withdraw: The Pursuer becomes frustrated and switches to attacking.
- Attack-Defend: Both partners may attack or defend.
- Withdraw-Withdraw: Each partner feels injured by the exchange, and withdraws to recover.
Couples may go on for years repeating this pattern until eventually they simply both withdraw.
This relational pattern may develop as a result of the way each partner learned about relationships when they were young. In particular, there may be some traumatic events in childhood, so that either partner may have a special sensitivity. If this is the case, the individual may be more easily triggered by their partner’s behaviour. Although we all have fears in relationships, if yours feel overwhelming, causing you to distance yourself from your partner or become demanding, there is help at hand.
What to Expect in Couples Counselling
If you believe there is a recurring pattern in your relationship similar to the Distance Pursuit dynamic, it may be worthwhile consulting a therapist who is skilled in couples counselling.
A couples therapist can assist you to identify your unmet needs, fears, special vulnerabilities, and specific language of love. You will also be assisted to create an “observing platform” in your relationship, a place from which to construct a healthier way to be with your partner, or “engage/engage”.
Participating in a “no blame” therapy session can help bring you and your partner together to work on the difficulty, instead of becoming stuck in anger and resentment. The fears that lead to fight, flight or freeze responses can be identified and reactions managed.
The cycle can then be opened up and explored, putting the reactions of each partner in perspective, and the history of anger and betrayal where it belongs – in the past.
Finally, a plan for acting with clarity and consideration can be made, before the fears hijack the senses and the vicious cycle is repeated.
If you believe you may have other physical or mental health problems you should consult your doctor to rule out other health issues prior to making an appointment with a psychologist. Your doctor will do a thorough history, examination and any appropriate testing before providing a referral to a mental health practitioner.
Author: Mia Olsson, BA Psych (Hons), Dip Nurs, AMAPS.
Registered Psychologist Mia Olsson has had a broad interdisciplinary role in the health industry for over thirty years, including hospital-based nurse training, and an Honours Degree majoring in Psychology. She enjoys assisting clients with depressive disorders, anxiety, acute and chronic complex trauma, and health related issues.
To make an appointment with Loganholme Psychologist Mia Olsson, try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.
- Wile, D. B. (2013). Opening the circle of pursuit and distance. Family Process, 52 (1), 19 (retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1424531366?accountid=166958).
The information on this topic page is NOT a substitute for proper diagnosis, treatment or the provision of advice by an appropriate health professional.