There is a dynamic that happens so often in intimate relationships that we have a name for it: “pursuer / distancer”. This is when one partner is trying to get closer while the other partner is trying to pull away. The specifics can vary a lot. For some couples it is amount of time spent together; for others it is how much they talk about their feelings with each other. Sex often becomes representative of the struggle. Many people assume that this is a gender issue – men distance and women pursue – but this is not always the case.
The pursuer/distancer dynamic can happen in any relationship, but it is especially common in “opposites attract” relationships where one partner is in some way very different from the other.
The original person / peaceful person pair
There is one particular “opposites attract” relationship that is quite common, where this dynamic happens frequently. This is a relationship where a personality type called “the original person”* is partnered with a type called “the peaceful person”**.
There are good reasons why these two types frequently get together, especially when they are more pronounced versions of their personality type. Each sees in the other person something lacking in themselves. The original person tends to be excruciatingly sensitive to their own emotional experience, and sees the peaceful person as attractively calm and stable. The peaceful person tends to be somewhat emotionally numb, and sees the original person as attractively vibrant and alive.
This combination can work very well. The peaceful person is good at focusing on others and understanding them, which makes the original person feel special and acknowledged. The original person has passion and strong opinions, which means that the peaceful person can respond to the original person rather than having to figure out their own wants and feelings “from scratch”, which they find difficult . Both enjoy what they get from the other.
The challenges of the relationship come from the respective concerns of each of the two types. The peaceful person is especially vulnerable to an experience of losing themselves by being engulfed and overwhelmed by someone else’s wants and emotions. The original person is especially vulnerable to the experience of abandonment and rejection by others.
Let’s look at an example of a peaceful person named Bob and an original person named Zoe.
The experience of the “peaceful person”
At first Bob likes Zoe’s flair for the dramatic, which makes him feel energized. Eventually, though, Zoe’s emotional intensity may start to feel overwhelming to Bob, who responds by “checking out” – daydreaming, withdrawing emotionally, or getting wrapped up in distracting activities. Bob avoids conflict as much as possible and is unlikely to risk a fight by telling Zoe what is wrong.
Bob mostly goes along with Zoe’s wants, until one day realizing that he has been giving himself up. At this point Bob may decide that the only way to get himself back is to stop automatically going along with Zoe all the time. Bob sees this change as necessary and perhaps long overdue, and digs his heels in to protect his endangered sense of self.
The experience of the “original person”
Originally Bob’s calm acceptance helped Zoe relax and feel secure in their relationship, but after a while she starts seeing him as passive and uninspired. She starts to notice that Bob is nice and complementary to almost everyone, not just to her. Seeing this, Zoe starts wondering if Bob’s feelings toward her are as special as she thought they were.
Zoe starts yearning for more passion and to feel special again, and reacts by wanting more “proof” of Bob’s love. She tries to get Bob to tell her how he feels, but she doesn’t hear what she wants to hear from him. The less proof she sees, the more she demands. She tells Bob how much she needs him, and as she focuses on her own needs and fears her demonstrations of affection for him decrease.
The negative relationship dynamic
This can turn into a vicious cycle. The more Zoe pulls for what she wants from Bob, the more Bob withdraws. The more Bob withdraws, the more Zoe pursues. They get stuck, each insisting that the other must change their behavior and each refusing to give in.
Couples caught in this dynamic often can’t even fight about it productively, because under stress the original person tends to become dramatic and irrational and the peaceful person tends to give up trying and may even physically leave.
The negative potential of the relationship is that the original person can feel abandoned and rejected because they don’t feel a reciprocity of passion from the peaceful person, while the peaceful person can feel drained and resentful by what they see as the unending needs of the original person.
When caught in this dynamic, couples often stop hearing each other accurately. The peaceful person is trying to say, “let me be myself”, which the original person hears as, “I want to leave you.” The original person is trying to say, “I need to know you love me”, which the peaceful person hears as, “You must be what I want you to be.”
It can be hard to shift out of this stalemate partly because each person has their own patterns and distorted perspectives, and each can see at least some of the other person’s distortions – while conveniently overlooking their own.
The original person’s attachment to emotional intensity can have a desperate quality that appears to indicate insatiable need. Others may feel they must “walk on eggshells” in order to avoid triggering the original person’s insecurities.
The peaceful person’s urge to disappear when faced with conflict can seem like a lack of commitment or dependability. Others may feel they must make a lot of noise to get the peaceful person’s attention and watch them carefully so they don’t slip away.
Breaking out of the dynamic
Developing understanding and compassion for each other is important. The original person needs to learn that what they perceive as abandonment is sometimes only the peaceful person withdrawing to refuel and nurture themselves so they can come back to the relationship refreshed and ready to engage. The peaceful person needs to learn that what they perceive as overwhelming neediness and drama is sometimes only the original person expressing themselves and asking for what they want, which is a legitimate part of being in relationship.
Both these people need to learn to differentiate. The original person needs to learn ways of dealing with their feelings of insecurity other than depending on others for validation. The peaceful person needs to learn to acknowledge their wants and needs to themselves and others, even if they risk conflict or disagreement by doing so. Both need to learn that they can be different from others and still be loved as themselves.
When each person understands themselves and their partner, and learns effective ways to get what they need, the desperate pursuer/distancer dynamic in the relationship can start to relax. The vicious cycle can be replaced by a virtuous cycle.
The more the peaceful person listens to and acknowledges the feelings of the original person, the less the original person demands proof of the peaceful person’s love. The more the original person accepts and encourages the peaceful person’s need for space to be themselves, the less the peaceful person pulls away. They can both get back to appreciating the positive aspects of each other and their relationship that they saw in the beginning of the relationship.