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.
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…
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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.