Sunday, April 17, 2011

Intimacy Tug-of-War: How to Stop a Damaging Dynamic

Ben and Nina take a road trip to a nearby hot spring for their 1-year anniversary. As they wind along the redwood-studded highway toward their respite, they catch up with one another.

Ben falls quiet after mentioning a project at work. Knowing he hasn't been getting along with his boss recently, Nina asks,

   “Is something wrong?”

Ben shakes his head and falls silent again, his eyes fixed on the road.

Nina's anxiety rises.

    Is it something I said? Why isn't he talking to me? He seems so tense – he didn't even look 
    at me when I asked him how he was.

Eventually, she explodes.

    “Will you please tell me what's wrong? I hate it when you get like this.”

Taken aback by Nina's tone of frustration, Ben exclaims,

    “What's with you?”

Nina shoots back,

    “It's you -- you never tell me what's going on with you.”

Ben starts to feel like the car is ten times too small.

    “Why are you being so emotional all of the sudden? I'm just thinking. Back off.”

Nina bursts into tears and Ben sits quietly, fuming. For the rest of the trip, they both wonder whether the vacation -- and their relationship -- was such a good idea after all.

The Avoidance-Pursuit Dance

Ben and Nina illustrate a common dynamic in couples – the Avoidance-Pursuit dance.  Couples who experience this dynamic often feel helpless to stop it. Thankfully, there are ways to interrupt it. The first step in learning a new dance is to understand what causes the Avoidance-Pursuit dynamic.

It Takes Two to Tango

The Avoidance-Pursuit dance has two key players: the Avoider and the Pursuer.

The Avoider:
    • Fears engulfment/intimacy
    • Seeks space and autonomy
    • Rarely knows what s/he's feeling
    • Minimizes the feelings of others
    • Severs connections to manage intimacy anxiety
The Pursuer:
    • Fears abandonment
    • Seeks emotional/physical intimacy
    • May be manipulative or passive aggressive
    • People-pleases in order to maintain closeness
These are descriptions of the Avoider and Pursuer in times of stress. Both possess many positive qualities, including confidence and self-direction (the Avoider) and loyalty and generosity (the Pursuer).

The Dance Steps

In a typical Avoidance-Pursuit dance:
  • The Avoider seeks space
  • The Pursuer notices the Avoider pulling away and draws closer
  • The Avoider feels crowded and pulls away even more
  • Hurt by the Avoider's insensitivity, the Pursuer begins to distance
  • The Avoider realizes s/he is no longer being pursued and draws close to the Pursuer.
  • The Pursuer momentarily rejects the Avoider's attempts at closeness,
    then draws close again
  • The Avoider feels crowded and seeks space
  • The dance begins again
Without intervention, this dance can repeat itself ad nauseam, leaving each partner hurt and resentful. Eventually, divorce or a break-up may ensue.

Dance Lessons

Thankfully, Avoiders and Pursuers can learn a healthier, more satisfying intimacy dance.  

To do so, each partner must:

- Become conscious of his or her part in the Avoidance-Pursuit dynamic
- Get in touch with disowned fears of abandonment or dependency
- Learn how to express his or her feelings and needs without blame or criticism

The best way to do this is to work with a psychotherapist. As a Marriage Family Therapy Intern, I am trained to help you escape the Avoidance-Pursuit dance and find mutually satisfying ways of relating. I've also experienced this dynamic firsthand in my personal life and understand how painful it can be.

Please contact me if you'd like to set up a free 30-minute consultation to discuss how therapy can help you and your partner escape the Avoidance-Pursuit dance and fall back in love.


Middelberg, Carol V.  "Projective Identification in Common Couple Dances." Journal of Marital and Family TherapyJul 2001.

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