Pursuer vs. Distancer

hand holding

I fight with my husband from time to time. It happens because conflict happens. We disagree, but then we figure it out and move forward. Sounds easy, right? Not exactly, but it is easier now that he and I understand more about ourselves and our relationship.

Until just recently, every time we disagreed, we would find ourselves frustrated and in this cycle. I’d move closer, he’d move farther away. Thinking he needed space, I’d reluctantly back off. He’d feel comfortable again and move closer. Just as I’d warm up to being close again, he’d start to retreat, needing more space. We stumbled in and out of this pattern for years. Not entirely understanding why, but understanding this was us.

Though remember, I said it’s easier now that we understand more about ourselves. It changed about a year ago when I found an anger management style guide developed by Dr. Harriet Lerner in which she defines five anger management styles: Pursuers, Distancers, Underfunctioners, Overfunctioners, and Blamers.

  • Pursuers seek to create connections so they can become more intimate and close. Talking and expressing feelings are important to pursuers, so they tend to feel rejected if their partner wants more space. When a partner withdraws, a pursuer pursues more intensely.
  • Distancers tend to be emotionally distant and have difficultly showing vulnerability and dependency. They are less likely to open up emotionally when they feel they are being pursued.
  • Underfunctioners have several areas in their life in which they just can’t seem to get organized. They tend to have difficulty displaying their strong and competent side in intimate relationships.
  • Overfunctioners are quick to advise and help others out. They seem to always know what is best for others and themselves. They often have difficulty showing their vulnerable, underfunctioning side.
  • Blamers tend to reach with emotional intensity and combative behavior. They like to try to change others and put others down in order to make themselves look good.

If you didn’t figure our styles out from the pattern I described earlier, I am a pursuer and my husband is a distancer. What helped us was the ability to read through the defined styles and identify the way each of us manages our anger in relation to one another.

Over the last year, this awareness has allowed us to have greater understanding each time we recognized ourselves getting into that cycle of moving closer and retreating. We’ve also learned a few things. First, pursuers and distancers have a hard time finding a balance between separateness and togetherness. We struggle with this because my husband and I both want to be the balance to be in our favor, when really, it sits dead center between us. We also learned that the ebb and the flow of our anger management isn’t the worst thing for our relationship. What’s important for us is to minimize the range of how extreme each ebb and flow is. And lastly, we’ve learned that taking time to work on understanding aspects of our relationship is a process and the process itself helps us identify more constructive ways to resolve future issues.

Source: Olson & Olson (2004). Empowering couples program workbook. Minneapolis: Life Innovations, Inc.

5 thoughts to “Pursuer vs. Distancer”

  1. Thank you for sharing this. It really helps as my husband and I are struggling with these ebb and flow of issues and arguments.

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