distant relationships

Tips For Dealing With Pursuit-Retreat In Distant Relationships

Lisa McKay Advice, Communication & Conflict 14 Comments

Distant relationships have their challenges, don’t they? And anyone who has been in a long distance relationship can tell you what some of those challenges are: loneliness, trouble connecting, doubts, jealousy, and sexual frustration. To name just a few.

Long distance relationships are not impossible. Plenty of them work out (including mine), and many couples credit their time in a LDR for making them stronger and closer. However, there are lots of complicated dynamics at work in distant relationships that make it harder for couples to get a clear picture of each other and communicate well.

Take, for example, the halo effect. When you are getting to know someone across distance—via letters, texts, and talking—it’s easy to make all sorts of idealistic assumptions about what the other person is like. And in distant relationships it takes a lot longer before you start to see the differences between the perfect person who lives in your imagination and the living, breathing, decidedly-less-than-perfect person who lives on planet earth.

Today we’re going to look at another dynamic that often complicates things in distant relationships—pursuit-retreat.

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What is pursuit-retreat?

I often get emails or blog comments that go something like this:

“When I text my boyfriend, it takes him a long time to reply. When I call, he doesn’t pick up. Later he says his phone was off, or he left it in the car, but I don’t believe him. I texted him 15 times yesterday and he didn’t answer me for nine hours. Who doesn’t check their phone for nine hours? When I called this morning he only picked up the third time I rang. He told me he might be too busy to talk to me tonight. He never calls me anymore—I am always the one who calls or text first. Something’s wrong. Is he cheating on me? Please help.”

OK, whatever else might be going on for this couple, pursuit-retreat is clearly at play.

Pursuit-retreat is exactly like it sounds—one partner pursues (reaching out to connect or to control) and the other person feels hunted, smothered, or judged, and pulls back to create some distance.

Pursuit-retreat tends to happen when there is a mismatch between one person’s desire for intimacy and closeness and the other person’s desire for independence and space.

You often see pursuit-retreat at play during conflict. You might get upset and annoyed about something, for example, and your partner might withdraw and shut down. In that moment, the harder you try to get them to respond to you the more firmly they may shut you out.

In distant relationships, pursuit-retreat can be triggered when there is a mismatch between when and how partners want to communicate. This mismatch in hopes or expectations can trigger feelings of frustration, resentment, and desperation on both sides of the equation (and the equator, in some cases).

Let’s look at an example from my life…


Hey, do you want 10 questions you should talk through to make sure pursuit-retreat isn’t a problem for you?

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Pursuit-retreat: A long distance relationship case study

A couple of years before I met the man who would become my husband, I met another man long distance. Let’s call him Jason.

Jason and I met via an online dating service. We emailed for a week or so before we started talking on the phone. Within another week we were talking every night.

In the beginning it felt wonderful to know that I fascinated Jason and that he wanted to spend all his free time talking to me. But about four weeks after we started talking on the phone, I began to feel less good. Jason was coming across as needy. I began to feel smothered.

Instead of being open with Jason about my need for more time and space, I started to withdraw in more subtle ways. I delayed answering his calls and returning his texts. Sometimes I’d answer the phone, but then I’d be frustrated and wouldn’t tell him the real reason for my bad mood. In turn, Jason didn’t ask me directly about why I was pulling back; he just redoubled his efforts to reach out to me. And so the cycle continued.

My inability to be open and honest with Jason about how I felt was my problem, of course. I should have been more proactive and courageous about establishing (or re-establishing) healthier boundaries around our communication. However, if Jason had backed off and called me less during this stage, then I may have called him more. I would definitely have felt more attracted to him.

It’s a funny thing, but we tend to want to pursue that which retreats from us. And we respect people more when they want us but don’t need us.

In saying this, it might sound like I’m advocating “playing games”—that you should “strategically retreat” at times to cause your partner to be more attracted to you and to “pursue” you.

That’s not the take-home lesson I am aiming for! Deliberate game playing damages trust. It is rarely a good option in committed relationships. I am simply describing this common dynamic so that you can figure out whether pursuit-retreat is a problem in your relationship

What should you do if pursuit-retreat is a problem in your distant relationship?

If you think pursuit-retreat might be a real problem for you and your partner, it’s not just a matter of changing behavior. You must first figure out what emotions and choices led to that behavior in the first place. It’s what’s going on underneath the surface that is really important.

If you are usually the “pursuer”

Are you the one who initiates the majority of calling, emailing, and texting? Do you ever sense that your partner is withdrawing and keeping you at arms length? When this happens, Do you tend to feel more and more unsettled and desperate until you establish contact and receive reassurance?

If any of this is you, ask yourself why you’re pursuing. Is your pursuit coming mostly from your own neediness, insecurity, and desperation? Or is your reaching out generally coming from a more balanced and self-confident desire for connection?

If you are pursuing mostly because you feel needy and insecure, then you have some things to work on.

  • Look for ways you can pull back and put some more energy into your own life and separate interests.
  • Accept a lower level of contact in your long distance relationship for several weeks. Use this extra time and space in your life to confront and sit with your feelings of uncertainty and insecurity. Don’t rely completely on your partner to soothe those feelings and make you feel OK about everything. Figure out some healthy ways you can soothe

If you are mostly reaching out because of a healthier desire for connection and communication but your partner is not responding the way you want them to:

  • Ask yourself whether your expectations of connection and communication time are reasonable.
  • Then, have an open discussion with your partner about your hopes for how you two will connect (how regularly, how long, etc across the distance).

If you are the distancer (the person who is often retreating)

If you are the person who is feeling hounded, you also need to try to figure out what you’re feeling and why.

Sometimes (as in my case) “distancers” or “retreaters” pull back without adequate explanation because they are trying to avoid conflict and confrontation. In these cases retreaters need to face up to their fear of rocking the boat or hurting the other person. They need to sort out what they want or need, and then practice being more open and honest in how they communicate those things to their partner. They need to learn to say things like, “I need some time to think/to myself. Can we talk tomorrow, after dinner?”

In other cases, distancers retreat not because they’re trying to avoid conflict, but because they have a sense of power in the relationship that they quite enjoy.

Consciously or subconsciously, a power-tripping distancer knows that they hold most of the cards in this domain, and that they have a choice about whether to respond when the pursuer reaches out. They can get a bit of a kick out of holding someone at arms length for a while.

Does that sound mean? Well, it pretty much is. At best, it is immature and selfish. At worst, it is cruel. And by exercising that power (and consequently fostering greater fear and weakness in your partner) you are losing the opportunity to have a more fulfilling, more balanced, relationship.

So if this is you, stop it. Answer the damn phone, and find better ways to get your kicks.

Your turn:
Has pursuit-retreat ever been a problem in your relationship?
What helped?

Comments 14

  1. Jenny

    My boyfriend and I have been saying for 2 months now.. we met at varsity now I’ve been home for almost a month on holidays and his behaviour has changed..I asked him about it and he didn’t answer me. He would read my texts and not reply.. if I don’t text him he would not text me first.. we usually communicate through whatsapp and he would be online till midnight without even texting me.. I think he found someone new and I should just move on?

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  2. Pixie

    This is bang on! I am a total Retreat. But I can be an aggressive retreat, not only do I retreat but when he Persues, I get very defensive and angry. I don’t silently retreat I feel like I literally push him out the door and slam the door shut!! The weird part is, I get so over whelmed with how much I love him & im not used to somebody being SO in love with me, I totally freak the fuck out and try to push him away for a while. We do discuss it frequently and things change but he’s such an amazing loving person, after a while it goes back to how it was before. See, when he temporarily retreats, I want him so bad! I tried to explain to him… I physically miss him but verbally and visually, we speak EVERY day, several times a day so I don’t miss him, miss him. I need him to – kind of, neglect me? Just so I can realise I miss his voice and his face too. We left each other in Jan & won’t see each other till Dec, after that we will live together. Sometimes I just need space to miss him

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  3. Christie

    Hi Lisa, thanks for your great article, it represents much help for me right now. I started a LDR 18 months ago, we met in real a year ago. I live in Colombia he lives in Norway. I can say we get along with each other, but he is a difficult person, imagine a relationship between a Cancer (me) and a Scorpio (him) 😛
    He is a busy person, but in a normal period he calls me every two days for 15 minutes, good morning messages every two days more or less. Very seldom he answers my calls but he calls me back. The thing is, sometimes he seems to be playing this game pursuit-retreat, he suddenly stop sending msgs or making phone calls, or he does not answer my msgs. Very often he gives me the silent treatment when he gets mad (usually for no reason). I am sure I am very active at making contact with him, but he says that I am not. We have talked about this situation and we try to fix our behavior, but this is a pattern, he withdraws more or less every three weeks. When I retreat, then he appears to be more interested, and he says I am different now, maybe because I don´t go along with this pursuit-retreat game anymore. I have been thinking that he probably has a relationship going on or maybe he is married. I have decided to wait few more months whether I put an end to this LDR, because he is planning to invite me to Norway and meet his family before this year ends. I want to see if he is being honest or not. I hope you can understand because my English is not so good, and thank you so much in advance for your answer.

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      Lisa McKay

      Hi Christie,

      Your English is excellent!! And, yes, I understand. It sounds like you have good insight as to what MIGHT be going on. At best, this pursuit retreat cycle you guys are experiencing over and over again is an undesirable pattern that’s not healthy in the long run. You will both need to work on it and make changes to strengthen the connection, especially when you’re at a distance. At worst, however, his attention is really elsewhere and he’s in another relationship or married, or just doesn’t give you the time and attention and responsiveness that you need in a good long term relationship. All the best with being wise around your decision making about the future of this relationship.

      Cheers, LIsa

      1. Christie

        Hi Lisa, thanks for your comment. I just wanted to let you know that my LDR has finished, by him. We spent two months of happiness, actually he had bought me a flight ticket to visit him in his country, and I was supposed to meet his family. As he did not answered my message or called me on Christmas day, I asked him why. And surprisingly, he answered in a very bad mood, he also called me childish and arrogant, but he did never answered why he did not call on Christmas day. After that, he asked me to cancell the flight ticket because he couldn’t do it himself (I bought the ticket with my travel agency in my country, with his credit card), and also finished the relationship with a whatsapp msg, not even a phone call, with the excuse that he can not be with someone who does not trust him. To make it short, my LDR story was a fail, and honestly, I don’t think I can do this anymore. Thanks for your nice advices Lisa, Happy Holidays!

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          Lisa McKay

          Oh, Christie. I’m so sorry. That sounds really painful. If it’s any consolation, you don’t want to be with someone long term who would act in such an immature and hurtful manner in how they communicate their feelings and wants about ending the relationship. All the best moving forward. Lisa

  4. Anna

    Hi,

    Unfortunately I am the pursuit one.
    We are having a big problem with trust issues related my past. I told him every detail related my past and he just doesn’t believe that I told everything. he Is very sure that there are more things to tell. We are in a paradox. He doesn’t trust me at all about my past. But he trusts me with everything I do today. That mistrust is keeping us beck all the time. Even when we are face-time talking laughing and being happy, it just kicks in out of nowhere and then we have an argue that lasts with days without communication. I love him so much, and I can feel he loves me beck. So how can I convince him that I told everything about my past. and there is nothing else to tell. Please help…

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      Lisa McKay

      I have a couple of reactions to this. First, why does he feel like he needs to know every little detail about your past?? Why is he so focused on this?? That makes me curious. Secondly, the next time this blows up I would tell him that you feel helpless when this comes up because you feel like there’s nothing that you can say that will make him believe you. ASK him, actually, what you could say to help him believe you. Then ask him why he’s so focused on this anyway. The fact that this is such an issue for him actually says more about him than you. What is it about your past that he thinks happened or didn’t happen that worries him about your relationship now? If you can get him to talk about that then you’ll be on more productive ground.

  5. Gene

    Hi Lisa-

    I am the pursuer, but at first I did nit think I was. I am in my early 40s, she’s in her late 20s. We started talking online, and then she suggested texting and phone. We did that for a month, and then just text. During one good text date she said she loved me after I surprised her with something nice, and I said it too. But after we don’t text as much, I haven’t spoken with her on the phone for weeks, and I am the one who initiates the text conversations. I try to space them out so I am not sending more than a couple without a response. She’s told me I need to be pushy with her, but when the few times I either asked to call or called she says she is busy, does not answer, or declines. And, to be honest, I don’t want to be a pushy person :).

    So, I am getting frustrated and am on the verge of just cutting contact entirely for a while. I haven’t even had a chance to talk with her about maybe setting up regular weekly or bi-monthly dates or calls. I have my own business and have to push things there, and I’d rather not have to push someone who I think cares for me into contacting me if they don’t want to. Any advice welcomed.

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      Lisa McKay

      Hi there. Ugh, Tough!! It’s not nice feeling like you’re in the pursuer role, especially if that’s not a role you want to play!! Look, I don’t think it’s being pushy to ask for and expect to talk to the person you’re dating at least once a week. If she can’t handle that, then I don’t think she really wants to be in the relationship. So I’d start by honestly saying that you’d like to talk at least once a week and see how she reacts. If she can’t handle that, then you’re not going to be meeting each others needs in ways that are important. All the best.

  6. KC

    Hi Lisa,

    Your advice is so refreshing! I just started a long distance relationship about 3 months ago. He looked lost outside a bookstore with all his luggage and I helped him find his ferry in my city. We exchanged information and couldn’t stop talking for weeks! Only 3 weeks after our brief encounter, he visited me for 5 days, and then invited me to visit him in Germany. Well, my visit to Germany is happening in 4 days and I’m a nervous wreck.

    After he left, everything was fine. We tackled the 9 hour difference (Canada/Germany) and tried to talk whenever we could. But I started to feel like I was becoming the pursuer and quickly became insecure about the relationship and what it meant that we weren’t talking as much as we use to. The more I pursued, the more he retreated. We use to call each other cute nick-names and that went out the window about a month ago.

    I asked last night if he was having doubts. He didn’t respond. So to take the pressure off, I said that I would understand if he did because it has been a while since we’ve seen each other. I told him that I didn’t have high expectations and I wanted to see Germany and get to know him more. And that we’d figure out the rest later – whether that’s going separate ways or seeing other again. He responded that he was having doubts and he was glad that i understood why and that he thought I had high expectations and he was glad what I had written to him and that we’d figure it out later when I’m there.

    So, naturally, I’m terrified of heading over and getting my heart ripped out. We are exclusive, but haven’t defined the relationship yet because we haven’t spent enough time together to know how serious it is.

    I’ve retreated since he responded because I really want him to have his space because it sounds like he needs it. Do you have any advice on how to get over the nerves? I’ve had my heart ripped out once, and it hurt so much. I’m terrified of this happening again. I clearly like my German guy a lot since I agreed to the distance, but now he’s having doubts and being less affectionate and I don’t know how to handle it. Please help me. I have 4 days left until my trip.

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