And They’re Off!

The pursuit-distance phenomenon is a concept born out of systems theory and is used to describe a pattern that occurs between two individuals who, as a result of emotional fusion, are unable to gain healthy proximity in a relationship.

The tendency towards emotional fusion is inherited from a person’s family of origin. People who are fused are triggered to emotional flooding by the emotional reactions of other people. This flooding negatively affects a person’s capacity for reason and objectivity. Typically, couples who find themselves in the cat and mouse game (pursuer-distancer) react to this flooding differently. The pursuer seeks stability and connection while the distancer seeks space and isolation. rowing race

Flooding is the force that upsets the ability of members to successfully negotiate the normal tension that is the product of an individual’s desire to belong and his or her desire to act from self interest.

The pursuer tends to value proximity and can come across as clingy and needy. The distancer usually comes across as detached or cold. The manner in which the pursuer seeks proximity from the distancer causes the distancer to move away, frustrating the pursuer who reacts by increasing their effort in the chase. While the distancer appears calm and detached it’s important to understand that he or she is operating from the same “stuff” as the pursuer. It’s also important to note that a pursuer in one context may move to distancing behaviors in another even in the same relationship. A pursuer at home may be a distancer at work; one who distances him or herself when it comes to emotionally supporting a spouse may become a pursuer when it comes to finances or sex.

This chase becomes problematic when the pattern results in a family member escalating to a point where they act in ways that cannot be ignored (screaming, aggression, leaving the house for extended periods of time). It can also be the stuff that triangles (something we’ll talk about soon….I promise) are made of as the distancer will seek a third object to escape to and the pursuer will seek a third object in getting their needs met. It also creates problems for the pursuer as, depending on how the behavior manifests itself, it can create greater vulnerability to be manipulated and controlled. If you come across as needing me more than I need you, I can use that in ways that are less than noble.

One way to break the pattern is for the pursuer to just stop pursuing; this tends to make it safer for the distancer to approach as perceived expectations and intensity are ramped down and the distancer feels that he or she can gain proximity on more mutual terms. Obviously, the other way to break it is for the distancer to remain present and tolerate hearing the pursuer’s needs; this could reduce the pursuer’s need to chase and works to reduce the anticipatory anxiety they experience leading up to the pursuit that can make their presence feel overwhelming to the distancer.

For some folks this is like telling Little Debbie to stop making delicious snack cakes.

Just stopping the pursuit doesn’t mean changes will happen immediately or that the change will be enough for all parties. One reason skills are such a big part of the work with couples and families at my shop is that increased capacity to tolerate the urges or desires that drive maladaptive relationship patterns are many times necessary before people feel change, even small change, is realistic. Thanks for checking in!

Reciprocity, Self-Esteem and Positional Intensity

Reciprocity is often overlooked in family relationships, friendships and romantic relationships until it becomes a factor in a crisis or crises experienced by individuals within the system or the system itself.

Reciprocity is a pattern of behaviors between two or more people that is indicative of mutual dependence. Reciprocity is what drives life, all life- pro-creation, oxygen, food, water-  are all dependent on reciprocal processes.  In human relationships, at least, reciprocity was and is the key to our survival and progress.  Every social framework (real or imagined) deals with the question of reciprocity before it moves on to anything else. Reciprocity allows us to meet our needs by meeting the needs of others; it gives our existence meaning and purpose – reciprocity is concrete evidence that what we do and who we are means something.

We acknowledge this reality in very concrete ways during our day to day lives. Having someone else grow our food, repair our car, cut our hair in return for the product of our labor (money) are all examples of reciprocity. It seems strange then, that all sorts of well-intentioned folks teach us early on that we should strive to “love our brothers and sisters unconditionally”. This idea is both impossible and built on a potentially catastrophic notion of love and fidelity.

Impossible because love is by definition conditional; there are things (roles, qualities, characteristics, behaviors) that lead us to think about and act towards someone in a way that is different than how we think about or act towards most other people.  The validity of those reasons maybe the subject of some debate but these reasons represent a “thing” or collection of “things” that we value, want and choose to pursue.   Viewing unconditional love as a legitimate concept would mean denying everything we know about how people or the world works.

The idea of unconditional love is potentially catastrophic because it puts us in a position to be used or to use others – if there are no conditions then there are no rules or boundaries.

When it comes to relationships, any relationship, most folks have a price.  When we under-value what we have to offer we end up feeling resentment towards the people we are in a relationship with. When we over-value our importance or worth, people may feel we are unreasonable and demanding. Either way the outcome is the same.

So that brings me to self-esteem.

Despite the damage done to our understanding of self esteem by pop-culture, it remains a real and meaningful concept.  Not being mindful of it can lead to some pretty bad outcomes. Self-esteem is critical in establishing reciprocal relationships because it is the value you place on yourself and what you have to offer others.

Self-esteem comes down to four factors:

  • How you feel about yourself.
  • What you say to yourself about yourself and the relationship you have with your environment.
  • Your expectations of others in a relationship.
  • How you react when others treat you in a manner inconsistent with these expectations.

Since self-esteem drives the value you place on yourself, it will largely determine the reciprocal nature of the relationships you find yourself in. So if how your relationships look like indicate that your emotions and beliefs aren’t good guides to establishing value, you may want to consider focusing your efforts on the last two areas.

One of the best tools I use in helping clients develop these areas comes from the DBT camp (modulating intensity).  This skill can help folks with a poor or unreasonably heightened sense of self-esteem stay above water by keeping them focused on reasonable positions (reciprocity is one of them).  My thinking in using this skill centers on helping folks mitigate vulnerability. If how you think and feel about yourself leaves you vulnerable in relationships then it may be better for you to filter your decision making within relationships through a protocol that provides some assurance of fairness.

As we become more skilled in using the protocol, the nature of our relationships will likely change. As a result, we will begin to obtain concrete evidence regarding our worth and value. This evidence can act as a useful resource in challenging the thoughts and emotions that drive us to act in a manner that gets in the way of healthy and reciprocal relationships. What makes this skill so effective, in my opinion, is that it seeks to initiate the change incrementally. It uses individual demands and requests as a means to create a shift in the overall picture; the idea being that consistent changes on small things will eventually lead to the bigger picture looking different.  For this reason, it is also more protective of existing relationships and feels less overwhelming than having to change “everything” all at once.

The benefits we derive from our relationships and how competent we are in using them to meet our needs plays a large part in what we think and how we feel about ourselves; this is why DBT and CBT place such an emphasis on interpersonal effectiveness and assertiveness.