Jason and Sally are having a conflict. Jason hasn’t said much for the last few days. Sally, his wife, has talked quite a bit. Sally processes life by commenting on it verbally as it passes her by. Jason does his reflecting internally. He shares when asked, although sometimes Sally has to drag it out of him. Such is the normal ebb and flow of Jason and Sally’s marriage. It works quite well. Mostly.
This pattern gets Sally and Jason into trouble when they deal with conflict. Sally expresses a concern and Jason makes a gesture or verbal remark that says, “Do we have to talk about this?” Sally feels misunderstood and tries harder to get her point across. Jason, dismayed that the hoped for return-to-harmony has gone up in smoke, tries to ease the mounting tension with a face that looks to Sally like a stone wall. Sally feels ignored and slighted and so she takes up the chase again. Now Jason feels under attack. He’s thinking, “Can’t we just be warm and comfortable with each other?” Sally is stewing. “He doesn’t care what I say!” Sally says something critical. Jason withdraws further. It’s a pursue-distance conflict pattern that soon has Jason accusing Sally of “nagging” and Sally pleading with Jason to “just listen to me.”
Thankfully Sally and Jason are able to speak together about how they alienate each other at times. Sally expresses an irrational fear that “chasing” Jason could drive him out of their marriage. Jason reassures Sally. Jason shares with Sally, not for the first time, how he learned to shut down long ago in order to deflect his father’s never-ending criticism. Recognizing the pursue-distance dynamic of their relationship helps Sally and Jason reconnect before the withdrawal and nagging spiral out of control.
Follow these steps to keep this conflict pattern from taking over your relationship
In my work as a couple’s therapist I regularly see the pursue-distance pattern at work. It can so completely take over a couple’s relationship that neither partner feels safe or loved enough to speak honestly about their vulnerabilities and fears. Do you ever experience this dynamic in your closest relationship? Follow these steps:
- Own your role in the pattern
- Stop questioning your partner’s motives
- Wonder how you impact your partner. Ask him or her.
These steps, practiced regularly, are an excellent way to ensure that the pursue-distance does not take over your relationship.