Calling Off the Chase: Stopping the Pursuer-Distancer Cycle in the Bedroom

A few months ago, I wrote about a common relationship pattern known as the pursuer-distancer cycle. Pursuing occurs when one person in a relationship (usually the woman) seeks togetherness and more contact with her partner. Her partner feels overwhelmed by her pursuit and relieves his anxiety by withdrawing. When he distances from her, she pursues harder (commonly with criticism and anger), creating a cycle of pursuing and distancing. When her efforts to bring him closer continually fail, she eventually withdraws in reactive anger.

The dynamic of the pursuer and the distancer results when a couple is not able to find a good balance between the two primary human needs of togetherness and separateness.

Nowhere is the pursuer-distancer dance more keenly (and painfully) felt than in the bedroom. This is because the pattern develops often as a by-product of desire discrepancy. After the honeymoon phase of a relationship is over, differing levels of sexual desire or interest between partners inevitably emerge. Some couples work out helpful ways to get their needs met despite a desire mismatch and, as a result, manage to keep their relationship relatively harmonious. However for many couples differing sex drives lead to misunderstanding, bitter disputes and ongoing unhappiness.

Typically the partner with the higher sex drive interprets the other’s lesser desire as indifference while the less interested partner interprets the other’s stronger desire as selfishness and insensitivity.  If not managed well, what might have begun as a small difference in sexual interest develops into an all out power struggle which puts the relationship at stake.

Men are often (though not always) the pursuers for sex, just like women are often (though not always) the pursuers for talk. It is not uncommon for even couples who are happy in other areas of their relationship to find themselves locked into a tussle between one person’s need for emotional connection and the other person’s need for sex.

The sexual pursuer
The more sexually interested partner becomes the sexual pursuer. Pursuing behaviours usually take the form of frequent sexual initiation, nagging and relentlessly pressuring for sex. When their sexual demands are not met, pursuers typically become upset and resentful, often complaining angrily about the lack of sex. Some sulk or have tantrums, while others react with hostility. In extreme cases, emotional and physical abuse ensues.

Pursuers typically blame their partner for the problem, regarding her level of sex drive as abnormally low and labelling her as “frigid”. Pursuers usually believe that the problem can be solved by their partner providing more sex. Underlying much of a pursuer’s behaviours are feelings of hurt and rejection as many equate sex with love.

The sexual distancer
Distancers find ways to avoid having sex and end up also avoiding their partner. They are careful of physical contact and affection just in case touching is perceived as an invitation to have sex. Distancers will go to bed earlier or stay up later than their partners and also avoid being seen naked in order to sidestep anything that might be viewed as a sexual opportunity.  Another common way for distancers to maintain distance from the pursuer and his demands is to immerse themselves in work, hobbies or other activities.

Compared with the emotional reactivity of pursuers, distancers usually display a calmer exterior and appear to be in more control. Yet distancers are also undergoing emotional turmoil. Although they typically feel resentful and angry by their partner’s sexual demands, they may also feel inadequate, guilty, and anxious. Many long for affection and physical closeness but are unwilling to take the risk of initiating touch in case it’s misread as an invitation to have sex.

'Mercy sex'
Sometimes, in response to the persistent pressures of being pursued and the stress and strain of reactive distance, distancers will engage in sex even though they don’t really want to. This is known as ‘mercy sex’, sex which is not fully consensual because it has been agreed to under some degree of coercion.

The end result
When this struggle between partners for emotional and sexual intimacy becomes an entrenched pattern with neither person being able to validate and accept each other’s needs, couples reach what Dr David Schnarch calls in his landmark book Passionate Marriage, ‘an emotional gridlock’.

Stopping the pursuer-distancer cycle
Now that you are aware of pursuer and distancer behaviours that fuel this destructive pattern, it’s time to take the steps to break the cycle. To stop, you must begin to recognize your own pursuing or distancing behaviours and choose new, more helpful strategies.

There can be no improvement in your sexual relationship until you begin to empathise with your partner. With this in mind, the following steps will help you to neutralize the pursuer-distancer cycle and get you back to working as a team.

-        Stop blaming your partner and take responsibility for how you have contributed to the problem.

-        Recognize and acknowledge that you are not the only one who has been suffering.  Your partner has also been experiencing pain and distress.

-        Cease all judgement about your partner’s level of sexual desire. The distancer should never be labeled as “frigid” or “controlling”. Likewise the pursuer should not be labeled as “selfish” or “a sex maniac”.

-        Focus on repairing the damage caused by the pursuer-distancer cycle by working on creating a shared sense of goodwill. Your relationship needs to be functional again before using negotiation to resume your sexual relationship.

What the pursuer can do:

-        Stop trying to get your partner to give you sex.

-        Cease all reactive distancing.

-        Understand that sex is always a matter of compromise and negotiation between two people and not a relationship right.

-        Be aware of, and acknowledge the uncomfortable feelings that arise whenever your partner withdraws.

-        Instead of acting out your negative feelings (of anger or rejection), talk to your partner about how you are feeling and what triggers your urge to pursue (e.g.“When you turned away this morning, I felt like you were shutting me out and it makes me feel hurt and angry”.).

-        Put your energy into improving the non-sexual aspects of the relationship by behaving in ways to make your partner feel loved, supported and cherished.

-        Re-establish communication, emotional connection and comfort with affection that doesn’t lead to sex.

-        Be patient and don’t get angry and frustrated if your partner is slow to respond and you don’t see immediate results for your efforts. Getting your relationship and sex life back on track takes time and effort.

What the distancer can do:

-        Cease all mercy sex.

-        Consciously stop yourself from reacting to your feelings in the usual way. When your partner does something that makes you feel pressured or anxious about sex, tell him in a calm, non-blaming manner (e.g.“Today I felt the urge to pull away when you hugged me as this is the sort of distancing behaviour I use to do to avoid getting into a sexual situation with you.”).

-        Stop avoiding affection and make an effort to be more physically loving.

-        Show your partner that you are willing to make changes as this will encourage him to do the same.

The good news
When the pursuer-distancer cycle has taken over your relationship, the importance of restoring goodwill cannot be emphasized enough. Goodwill is what motivates each partner to set aside his or her own needs or desires, to make compromises and to tolerate minor disappointments in relationships. 

Once you have broken free of the pursuer-distancer cycle and goodwill is re-established, you can work with your partner on resuming sexual activity through sexual negotiation. This process entails learning how to negotiate sexual activity where both partners have a say in how often sex happens and what type of sexual activity occurs.

A tip for pursuers - by finding out what increases your partner’s level of sexual interest and arousal, you will be taking steps to not only increase her willingness to engage in sex but to also ensure that the sex you are offering is as enjoyable as possible.

If it all seems too hard…
If you feel stuck and believe that your efforts to stop the pursuer-distancer cycle have not produced any changes to the way you are relating, it is a sign that you need to seek professional help. Even if your partner is unwilling to work on the relationship, you will still benefit from getting individual counselling to move things forward.