The Most Common
Cause of Breakups
Consider whether this sounds familiar: during the first few months of your relationship, things are going well. The flowers are flying, the words are sweet, and the breathing is heavy. Then something starts to change. He—and usually it is a he, though it also happens with women and in same-sex relationships—starts seeming more aloof. He isn’t as interested in talking, or holding hands, or even making love. He is more often grumpy around you, though as soon as his friends show up, he brightens and seems his old self again. He spends more time away than at home. You begin to wonder what happened to the man you fell in love with.
Irritated and confused, you begin to feel needy. More needy, in fact, than you think of yourself as normally being. Yet the more you reach out to him, the further away he seems to move. This causes you to feel even more abandoned. Over time, he reacts to you like you are a nag, or worse still, his mother! You react to him with confusion, “Did I do something wrong, or is he just selfish and immature?”
Before you know it, both of you are engaged in the “pursuer-distancer” dynamic. This occurs when one partner feels emotionally abandoned and the other feels emotionally suffocated. The more the pursuer tries to get close, the more the distancer moves away. So around and around the dynamic spins. Often the pattern only ends when the pursuer feels that they can’t take it anymore and threatens to leave or actually does end the relationship.
Suddenly, the distancer stops putting energy into making sure he doesn’t feel suffocated and sees how much he longs to be with his partner. In short, he realizes what he has had all along and behaves like he did at the beginning of the relationship. He does this just long enough for the pursuer to recommit, and then for the pattern to start over.
Though dramatic, and sometimes kind of exciting, this is not exactly a healthy relationship pattern. If this is sounding familiar, there is both good and bad news. The bad news is that research shows that the pursuer-distancer dynamic is the most common dynamic that leads to the end of a relationship. The good news is that couples therapy can help.
In my years of working with pursuer-distancer couples, there is no one formula that fits every couple. Yet there are core components to each couple’s healing process.
The most important piece of the healing is to get couples curious about their patterns in the relationship. Once a couple is equally curious, they can begin to align against the problems, instead of blaming each other for the difficulties they face. Another important element is for each member of the couple to begin to look at how their own behavior furthers the dynamics in the relationship. This combination of aligning against the problem and taking responsibility for ones own contribution to the issues very often puts couples onto the road of healing.