We all hold certain roles in our relationships that can shift. I’m not talking about who takes out the trash or who puts the kids to bed. I’m writing about a deeper relational dynamic. As biologically-programmed social creatures, we seek and crave connection to an other. True connection requires a certain level of intimacy. Yet our fear of intimacy can drive us to create relational dynamics that defy our very goals for emotional and physical closeness.
Do you remember the honeymoon stage of your relationship? You probably couldn’t get enough of each other. Through total immersion, you temporarily became one. Initially blissful, this immersion may have also suffocated you. So you came up for air and began to differentiate, meaning, you began to identify and express your differences. Why? You needed connection and some autonomy. The balance is delicate and essential for individual and relational health.
Moving toward and away from your partner is a natural state. In Gestalt therapy, we refer to this as contact and withdrawal. We have moments when we can meet our partners fully (contact). We also step back (withdrawal) and come forward again. Like ocean waves that roll in to meet the shore line and recede back into the great seas, we too, ebb and flow.
What would happen if the waves didn’t recede from the shoreline? What happens when your partner (or you) keeps coming forward (pursuer) without ever withdrawing? Usually, the receiving partner withdraws or distances from the pursuer. This withdrawal prompts the pursuer to press harder and the distancer to withdraw further.
Psychotherapist and author, Steve Betchen D.S.W. identifies the pursuer-distancer dynamic (or p-d) as a natural dynamic of relationships. In his book, Intrusive Partners, Elusive Mates, he writes that when these incidences are isolated, the relationship might not necessarily suffer. He adds that if this dynamic is chronic, fixed and crosses across multiple contexts, trouble may be inevitable.
If you identify with the p-d dynamic, what motivates you to stay in your relationship? If your needs are chronically not met, why keep pursuing? Why keep distancing? Why stay with a partner who does not meet your needs? Perhaps you both have an underlying fear of intimacy.
Betchen paraphrases psychiatrist Thomas Fogarty, M.D.:
He contended that all people want closeness; they want to be cared for, to be accepted. However, he felt that people took the ability to become close too lightly. In fact, he suggested, when two people begin to move toward one another with the expectation of closeness, the emotionality or intensity that accompanies this process may result in fusion followed by desperate need for space and distance. To achieve this degree of space, one partner may become the pursuer and the other distanced. In this way, the couple fixes the distance between them with the pursuer pursuing and the distancer distancing. The more the pursuer pursues, the more the distanced distances and vice versa.”
Read his statement again. I read it several times. It says that as much as a couple might claim to want greater closeness, they simultaneously create dynamics that prevent true intimacy from occurring. They co-create this process.
Intimacy is defined as the ability to be open and honest with someone, free from judgement and criticism. Difference and conflict may exist but does not prevent you both from engaging in the discussion. Intimacy allows you to discuss even the most controversial, uncomfortable subjects with open, fully present exchange.
In Gestalt Therapy, healthy contact reflects intimacy. In her book, The Wounded Healer, author Mariah Fenton Gladis writes,
Healthy contact functioning is perhaps the single most important capacity we possess. It is what makes or breaks relationships, binds or destroys families, and allies or alienates nations. It is what enables you to get your love across. To not have this capacity is to be emotionally and interpersonally disabled”.
You may say that you want an intimate relationship. You may identify the p-d dynamic in your relationship. This means that although you want intimacy, you put up roadblocks to have it. You connect at a distance.
I ask you, “What are you afraid of?”