How to Understand a Pursuer – Distancer Relationship
Scene from a Pursuer Distancer Relationship:
Partner 1: I wish you would pick up your stuff in the living room!
Partner 2: Yeah? Well, between walking the dog, paying the bills, and working all day, I didn’t get to it.
Partner 1: But it’s your stuff! I don’t want to pick up after you like I’m your mom!
Partner 2: Fine. Go away. Take the dog out. I’ll do it now.
Partner 1: Hey, don’t get mad at me.
Partner 2: Just go!
Silence follows for most of the day.
What happened in this exchange?
Partner 1 needed to feel cared about. This partner pursued it by complaining to Partner 2.
Partner 2 felt overwhelmed, judged as inadequate, and pushed the other partner away. Partner 2 withdrew.
Both feel alone, hurt, and rejected.
In an intimate relationship, you might think the pursue/withdraw (pursuer distancer) pattern would be the exception, not the rule. Committed partners are supposed to care about each other deeply, right?
Who would get angry or turn away at the exact moment that a partner needs help?
It turns out, such disconnects are exactly what happens a lot of the time.
Why is this, and what can you do about it?
Emotional Raw Spots
Partners who fight over petty things are not hard-hearted or so shallow as they might seem at first glance.
A personal raw spot often plays a part in driving a no-win cycle of pursuit and withdrawal.
What’s a raw spot?
A raw spot is a deep injury to one’s sense of self, based on negative interactions in a close relationship.
It’s unhealed relationship pain. It may come from a past relationship, a current one, or both. The discomfort is so deep, everyday life events can trigger it and flood a person with intense emotion and a sense of being in harm’s way again.
Partners often touch off raw spots in each other, without knowing it. Most people respond by getting defensive, shutting down, or fighting back.
Others — the fortunate couples — learn how to see the deeper hurt in each other, offer soothing and support, and deepen their love.
The healing power of soothing support is huge. By understanding raw spots, couples can learn to change how they respond. They learn to stop hurting each other and start helping each other. Each person — and the partnership — grows stronger.
How Raw Spots Impact Relationships
Emotions behind a raw spot reveal an injured place in your sense of yourself. You’re left feeling invisible, rejected, demeaned, or endangered. Dr. Sue Johnson (in her book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love), gives the example of Steve, who has a raw spot around sexual performance.
Steve has painful memories after gut-wrenching criticism from his first wife, and her disappointment in their sex life. Not only that, as a child he was the smallest in his class, and quieter than his father wanted. His dad frequently humiliated him in front of his brothers, asking, “Am I talking to Steve or Stephanie?”
Now remarried, Steve’s new wife tells him she wishes they had sex more often. His sexual confidence plummets. Her request triggers his raw spot.
How to Tell You’ve Triggered a Raw Spot
A freshly triggered raw spot can escalate an argument, widen a gulf of separation, and make you feel more alone than ever.
When you find anger rapidly rising, and fighting gets you nowhere, it may be that a raw spot is inflaming someone’s pain at a deeper level.
When something triggers a raw spot, you’ll see two signs, says Sue Johnson:
- A sudden change in emotional tone from the person. Your partner, who seemed fine and happy a moment ago, is suddenly filled with rage, or frozen in icy silence. You may feel surprised, confused, or thrown off by the sudden shift.
- An intensity that seems way out of line with the situation. Someone goes on the attack. One of you gets defensive. Or you turn away and clam up. You may tell yourself, or your partner, to calm down. But that only makes things worse. If you’re thinking, “That touched a nerve,” you’re right.
Why Some Partners Aggravate Raw Spots Instead of Soothe Them
One challenge in dealing with raw spots is their intensity. They ignite such strong feelings people react without thinking. They launch into attack or defense mode. That’s the pursue-withdraw cycle on steroids.
It’s natural, human, and unavoidable when it happens. You’re not wrong, or flawed as a couple for experiencing these reactions.
What matters is what you do with them. Couples who seek to build happiness together are couples who make it their job to handle raw spots with the goal of soothing them in themselves and each other.
Many couples we see may not even realize their raw spots exist. They have not recognized when a raw spot gets triggered. So they need a way to find and describe raw emotional spots in themselves. Then they need a safe place and time to communicate what is happening to each other.
Being in the middle of an intense emotional reaction is usually not the best time to say what you’re feeling to another person. When you’re able to manage your emotions enough, and trust each other enough, you can offer words the other can hear.
What is a Better Way to Respond to a Raw Spot?
If a couple has spent a lot of time stuck in a painful pattern, they need to feel safe together before they can trust each other enough to open up about deep emotional pain.
Even if the pain of a raw spot makes it very hard, you need to slow down so you can think and figure out what’s going on.
Learning to open to one’s own pain demands a shift, from the original place of feeling defensive, to a place where you are willing to risk being vulnerable.
Your relationship can become that safe haven. You learn to discover and lift the burden of a raw spot in relationship, under your own power, the two of you working together.
Even if it seems impossible, you can make this shift. We have seen it happen. We believe in you.
How a New Emotional Focus Helps You Heal a Pursuer Distancer Relationship
As your relationship is making the shift, you may find guidance from Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples (EFT-C) is invaluable.
Emotionally Focused Therapy is a framework to tune into your emotions within you and between you with new tools, so you can listen and move with each other better.
Tuning into raw spots is the first step to sharing them in a healing conversation with your partner.
It is one of seven conversations in the EFT-C framework.
Dr. Sue Johnson describes the results when she sees couples learn to manage raw spots more successfully:
“In my sessions with distressed couples, the first time one partner really owns and voices vulnerability, the other usually responds with shocked disbelief. The mate has only seen his or her lover’s surface emotional responses, the ones that cloak and hide the deeper vulnerabilities. Of course simply recognizing and revealing our vulnerabilities won’t make them disappear…. But even just talking about one’s deepest fears and longings with a partner shifts an enormous burden.”
I believe the best source for this guidance is Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples. That’s why we offer workshops for couples to help safely face raw spots and respond in more healing ways.
The next Workshop is April 21-22 and you can find out more by calling us at (703) 768-6240
A healthy relationship is about attending to each other’s needs.
In a healthy relationship you make your partner’s wellbeing as important as your own. By taking care of your raw spots, instead of running from them, each of you finds a safe haven for your emotional needs in your relationship.