Skip to content

Therapy and evolution explain love story as old as time

It’s the universal story. Two people fall in love, but over time, things change: One person wants to be closer, the other wants more space. One person pursues, the other pushes the person away.

It’s a dance of intimacy that the ancient Greek poet Sappho wrote about (“One who flees is verily turned pursuer”). So did Shakespeare (“Love’s Labors Lost”), Austen, Proust (“Swann’s Way,”) and Hemingway. It’s the plot device of hundreds of movies (“Fatal Attraction” being the most notorious) and the subject of thousands of songs (Bob Dylan’s “I Want You”).

And recently, this timeless relationship has become the subject of psychological and therapeutic studies, with titles like “The Longitudinal Impact of Demand and Withdrawal During Marital Conflict.” Now it is referred to with the more prosaic phrase as the “pursuer-distancer” dynamic. Psychologists say it can manifest itself in relationships of all stripes, in families, friendships and between loves. But it is in marriages where the detrimental impact of this dynamic can be best measured.

In a comprehensive 2003 study on divorce in America, marital research expert E. Mavis Hetherington identified five problematic dynamics between couples. The pursuer-distancer dynamic was not only the most common problem in the hundreds of marriages she studied, but also the most likely to result in divorce.

In a book based on her findings, co-written by John Kelly, entitled “For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered,” Hetherington described the “tug-of war over communication and intimacy” in pursuer-distancer relationships that eats up so much goodwill that “the marital bank account goes into overdraft.”

The common indicator of the dynamic is when one person brings up things to talk about, in an effort to experience emotional intimacy, while the other person runs away, said John Gottman, author and founder of The Gottman Institute for couples therapy in Seattle.

“This is about ‘meta-emotion,’ or how people feel about feelings,” said Gottman. “There are generally two different patterns. The dismissive pattern, which minimizes talking about emotion and being introspective. The other pattern is really ‘emotion coaching,’ they really want to talk about feelings and they see it as a way of being intimate.”

Oftentimes, the more someone pursues, the more the other person moves away. Jonathan Kandell, a therapist at the University of Maryland Counseling Center in College Park, Md., called it "being attached by a ten-foot-pole"

However, the dynamic may not necessarily be a bad thing in and of itself, according to psychotherapist Lois Braverman of the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in New York.

“In certain kinds of tasks, you want someone to take the lead. There are certain kinds of situations where it works. It only seems to be a problem when it becomes exaggerated or fixed,” said Braverman.

“Anybody in any kind of relationship does this,” agreed Stephen Betchen, author of “Intrusive Partners, Elusive Mates.” “The problem is when it becomes chronic. It’s amazing how difficult it is to change. People have a stake in maintaining the conflict because they resist intimacy due to their own family history. Couples collude to keep things the same.”

In earlier incarnations this give-and-take was called the “cold-sick husband and love-sick wife,” “rejection-intrusion pattern,” “nag-withdraw” or “close-far polarization.”

The general prescription for couples is role reversal. The pursuer stops pursuing and eventually the distancer will move closer. “You pursue a pursuer and distance a distancer,” said Braverman.

But other approaches exist. At Betchen’s private practice in New Jersey, he sees approximately 30 couples a week, with 20 percent to 30 percent demonstrating a chronic pursuer-distancer pattern.

“The traditional model is to back off the pursuer and bring in the distancer,” he said. “The idea is that the pursuer wants intimacy and the distancer doesn’t.” But Betchen believes both individuals have intimacy issues, and he asks them to examine their individual family backgrounds to locate where these may have originated.

Although psychologists have estimated that 80 percent of pursuer roles fall to women, many say the ratio has shifted in recent decades. The role of pursuer and distancer often transcends gender, race, sexual orientation and age, and an individual can take on either role depending on the circumstances.

“In different contexts you may be a pursuer and in another you are a distancer,” said Braverman of the Ackerman Institute. Furthermore, “Sometimes men do it, sometimes women do it.”

So why do so many real-life relationships fall into this potentially destructive pattern? The answer may be found in the field of evolutionary psychology, which studies human psychological behavior through the lens of biology and natural selection.

“You can think of each person as having a mate value, which is the overall degree of attractiveness physically, mentally, economically and socially,” said Geoffrey Miller, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of New Mexico and author of “Mating Intelligence.”

According to Miller, couples generally form when their mate values are equal. But more often than not, there are power asymmetries that lead to one person with the lesser mate value to put more effort into the relationship and pursue, while the other person with the higher mate value not reciprocating the same time, affection or attention.

"Typically in early courtships," said Miller, "the male is the pursuer and the females are distancers because females have to be careful who they are impregnated by. Later, you typically get a role reversal. She's pursuing not in the sense of sex but attention, commitment, investment."

“I think the most similar thing is the power dynamics in monogamous birds,” said Miller. “What that means is you’re not seeing much particularly deep psychology here. Birds have very small brains.”

Despite the growth of information in therapeutic literature and the evolutionary psychology field about pursuer-distancer dynamics, there isn’t much available on the subject in the popular book market.

Unless, that is, you read romance novels.

In 2001, Israeli researchers Daniela Kramer and Michael Moore selected 100 Harlequin romantic fiction novels at random and found that nearly 3 out of 4 demonstrated pursuer-distancer “courtship dynamics.” Readers of romantic fiction, Kramer and Moore wrote, “can only conclude that ... spousehood is built on this theme of pursuing and evading, without any other healthy role option of two equal partners.”

E-mail: mo2305@columbia.edu