The Dance of Intimacy

Couple in Formal AttireThe relationship duet is the dance of intimacy all couples do. One partner moves in, the other backs-up. Partners may reverse roles, but always maintain a certain space between them. The unspoken agreement is that the Pursuer chase the Distancer forever, but never catch-up, and that the Distancer keep running, but never really get away. They’re negotiating the emotional space between them. We all have needs for both autonomy and intimacy – independence and dependency, yet simultaneously fear both being abandoned (acted by the Pursuer), and being too close (acted by the Distancer). Thus, we have the dilemma of intimacy: How can we be close enough to feel secure and safe, without feeling threatened by too much closeness?

The less room there is to navigate this distance, more difficult the relationship. There is less anxiety, and hence less demand on the relationship to accommodate a narrow comfort zone.

ORIGINS: Research suggests that intimacy problems originate in the relationship between the mother and infant. Babies and toddlers are dependent on the mothers’ empathy and regard for their needs and emotions in order to sense their “selves,” to feel whole. To an infant or toddler, emotional or physical abandonment, whether through neglect, illness, divorce or death, threatens its existence, because of its dependency on the mother for validation and development of wholeness. Later, as an adult, being separations in intimate relationships are experienced as painful reminders of the earlier loss.

If the mother is ill, depressed, or lacks wholeness and self-esteem herself, there are no boundaries between her and her child. Rather than responding to her child, she projects, and sees her child only as an extension of herself, as an object to meet her own needs and feelings. She can’t value her child as a separate “self.” The child’s boundaries are violated, and its autonomy, feelings, thoughts, and/or body, are disrespected. Consequently, the child does not develop a healthy sense of self. Instead, the child discovers that love and approval comes with meeting the mother’s needs, and tunes into the mother’s responses and expectations. The child learns to please, perform and/or rebel, but in either case gradually tunes out its own thoughts, needs and/or feelings. Later, intimacy may threaten the adult’s sense of autonomy or identity, or he or she may feel invaded, engulfed, controlled, shamed and/or rejected. A person may feel both abandoned if his or her feelings and needs are not responded to, and at the same time, engulfed by the needs of his or her partner. In co-dependent relationships where there aren’t two separate, whole people coming together, true intimacy isn’t possible, because the fears of nonexistence and dissolution are strong.

COPING STRATEGIES: We learned defenses as children in order to feel safe. As adults these behaviors create problems and result in miscommunication. For instance, if you repress your anger to ensure closeness, you stand a good chance of alienating your partner, unaware that you may be expressing your anger indirectly. If you ignore your partner in order to create distance, you inadvertently devalue him or her, creating another problem.

Change and growth come in discovering your coping strategies, and learning new responses and behaviors. Ask yourself: How do I create space in my relationships? How do I protect my autonomy? Do you criticize, blame, emotionally withdraw or use substances (e.g., food, drugs, alcohol) to create space, be left alone, or lessen intense feelings. Or do you avoid closeness or openness by joking around, showing off, giving advice or by talking about others or impersonal subjects? Do you get overly involved with people outside your partnership (e.g., children, friends, affairs), or activities (e.g., work, sports, gambling, shopping)? These activities dilute the intimacy in the relationship.

On the other hand, ask: How do I create closeness? How do I ensure that I will be loved and not abandoned? Do you try to create closeness by giving up your autonomy, hobbies, friends or interests, by never disagreeing, by being seductive, or by care-taking and pleasing others?

When these behaviors are operating without awareness, you are not coming from a place of choice. When this happens you cannot communicate effectively, nor take into consideration your needs and the needs of your partner. Instead, the relationship is based upon unconscious manipulation of one another, and can trigger your partner’s defensive reactions.

DISOWNED SELVES: Relationships can serve as mirrors for unacknowledged or “disowned” parts of ourselves. Often people attract their opposite into their lives to make them whole. The Pursuer is unconscious that s/he is also afraid of closeness, but relies on the Distancer to achieve enough space for the Pursuer’s needs for autonomy and independence. Similarly, the Distancer is afraid of abandonment, but cannot experience the wish for emotional closeness as his or her own. S/he would feel too vulnerable, so s/he needs a Pursuer to satisfy her or his intimacy needs.
The Distancer says of the Pursuer: “She (or He) is too demanding, too dependent, too emotional, or too needy.” And wonders “Can I love? Am I selfish? What I give seems never enough.”

The Pursuer says about the Distancer: “He (or She) is selfish, inconsiderate, inflexible, emotionally withdrawn, has to have things his way.” And wonders “Is there something wrong with me? Aren’t I lovable (pretty, thin, successful, smart) enough?”

They each blame one another and themselves. The Distancer feels guilty for not meeting the other’s needs, and the Pursuer feels angry for not getting his or her own needs met. In reality, the Distancer judges the part of him or herself that is needy, dependent and vulnerable, and the Pursuer judges the part of him or herself that is selfish and independent, but each sees the part they don’t accept in themselves projected onto the other. Both need to embrace the dependent and independent, feminine and masculine, parts of themselves.

CHANGE: The key to breaking this polarization is by becoming conscious of our needs and feelings, and risking what we fear most. It requires awareness of our coping behaviors and resisting the impulse to withdraw or pursue. It takes tremendous courage not to run when we feel too close, and not to pursue when we feel abandoned, but instead, learn to acknowledge and tolerate the emotions that arise. This may trigger very early feelings of shame, terror, grief, emptiness, despair, and rage. With the help of a therapist, these feelings can be separated from the present circumstance, in which as adults our survival is no long at stake. As the feelings are worked through, a less reactive, stronger sense of self develops, one that is not easily threatened or overwhelmed.
Partners can learn from each other and embrace their disowned needs. The Pursuer can emulate the Distancer’s ability to set limits, to take care of his/her own needs, to prioritize, to be less personally involved. The Distancer can learn from the Pursuer’s flexibility, ability to reach out and ask, to feel others and to blend boundaries. Each person must take responsibility for him or herself, rather than relying on their partner to take care of his or her needs for closeness or distance. The Pursuer must risk saying “No,” and tolerate the anxiety of separation, saying, “I can’t help you – I need to be alone.” The Distancer must risk saying, “I miss you, I need you.” In the movie, “The Doctor,” William Hurt plays a busy, successful doctor, whose wife feels neglected and abandoned. It’s only when Hurt gets brain cancer that he telling his wife that he needs her.

Each must learn to ask for togetherness and space directly, without feeling guilty, or controlling or blaming each other. When each is able to say, “Yes” and say “No,” without the fear of being overwhelmed by intimacy or abandoned by separation, they won’t trigger each other’s defensive reaction. When they are conscious of their individual needs, they can acknowledge their partner’s needs with respect. They can empathetically hear each other, and wait to have their need satisfied: “I understand and hear your need and its importance to you, but this is also important to me — can we find a way to compromise?” As couples do this, they will have more authentic intimacy, instead of being locked into an unconscious duet of approach-avoidance.

Relationship can be an exciting path to the unknown. But it requires courage – courage to open yourself up and to experience pain. The rewards are worth it, because it is a path of self-discovery and ultimately the divine as we open ourselves to one another. Just as the transition from dependence to independence can be frightening, so is the transition from independence to interdependence. Yet, it is an essential process in order to heal our wounds, become free of our past conditioning, and to allow us to truly live in the present.

Copyright, Darlene Lancer, MFT, JD 1992

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30 thoughts on “The Dance of Intimacy

  1. Hi Darlene,
    I think I might have an issue with relationships… Well I am men in his 20s and when I meet someone who is in my type (and I think I am quite picky anyway) I totally loose my mind and become extremely clingy and needy with pushing things forward definitely too fast. In return the other person is loosing attraction even faster. But always at a first date there is this kind of spark in the eye of the other person it disappears so fast after I am showing this behavior. How to unlearn this? I am doing this completely unaware during this moments. In exchange I am lonely most of my adult time which makes me think that I am unloveable..

      • Thank you Darlene, I suspected this from long time. Tell me if the book Codependency For Dummies you wrote is also helpful (I like this series of books) or is it better to stick with Conquering Shame and Codependency?

          • Hi, Thank you for your question Adrian,so that I don’t need to post the same one. And thank you a lot Darlene Lancer for all the writings.
            I’m just wondering, what if two needy people are in a relationship?

          • Just because someone is a distancer doesn’t mean him or her is not needy. However, if you mean two people who need a lot of closeness, it could be heaven or hell, depending on their emotional health and self-esteem. Usually, they wouldn’t last and one might be repelled by the other’s neediness or not feel worthy of his or her love. Low self-esteem and codependency might lead to conflict and high reactivity. See “Self-Esteem Makes or Breaks Relationships.”

  2. Excellent article. Im in a 50 year marriage with a wife who has become a progressive emotional abuser. I am slowly but surely healing with a good therapist over the last few years and ‘working your book.’ I am the accomodator and she is emotionally and physically distant. She will not go to therapy. I have, of course, done my part to contribute to this ‘dance.’ I see no choice but to leave.

  3. This is a great article. I was in the same kind of pursuer-distancer relationship until about 2 weeks ago. I’m 32 and I dated my gf for 3 months before we broke up. I’m the distancer here and I felt that she was constantly pressuring me to the point of engulfment, in a hurry to love, travel etc, not appreciating of the time I spend with her which I felt was a lot. She has her insecurities due to her family which I feel are being thrown at me with no remorse. I l have my insecurities as well as you mentioned (people pleasing, poor boundaries, control) I don’t have easy access to therapy where I live and was hoping you can give me some advice.

  4. You write about the need/fear of closeness and need/fear of distance, and suggest to the distancer to have courage and stay close and face his childhood feelings as they re-emerge. ok. But what if the reason for his wanting distance is the chaser being violent in the here and now? At what personal cost should he still stay there and suffer the wrath courageously? Fear of abandonment is very likely to evoke violence in attempt to prevent distance, yet somehow I couldn’t find reference to violent situations in your article. I’d love to hear what you have to say about what’s the best reaction to violent pursuing? When should one NOT stay there?

  5. I was both abandoned by mom and engulfed by dad. So I feel shame about being needy/ dependent/ vulnerable (“Suck it up – no one is going to be there for me except me”). But I’m also ashamed of the part of myself that is selfish/independent as well (“I don’t know how to take care of myself”). I judge myself for being “needy” and for being “independent.” Have you heard of people being both simultaneously? I know I have the disorganized attachment style (fearful avoidant). Is this the same thing?
    Do types like myself need to heal first before getting in a relationship? Or do we have to get in a relationship first in order to heal?

  6. Very insightful! I found it definitely relatable! Proceeding to continued progression of countermeasures for health & betterment!

  7. This is a very good article. It has opened my eyes and put in order lots of thoughts that I had myself, about the patterns of my relationships. I’m 30 years old and in a Pursuer – Distancer relationship, me being the pursuer. The article describes perfectly the situation. Up to now I believed that I’m the “normal” one and my bf the “weird” one but now I realize that I need to work on myself as well. Do you believe that by working on yourself to become more secure that can help the distancer change as well? Or is a Pursuer-Distancer relationship always a dead end?

    • Every relationship is different. One person changing changes the relationship, but how is unpredictable. “Acting like a distancer” is still not letting go or being more autonomous. It’s a manipulation and usually won’t work for long. See my blog on Changing Your Attachment Style.

  8. This is a great article and goes more in depth at the actions needed to be taken to get to the bottom of this situation.
    When my boyfriend started taking more time to do his own thing and suggested I try being less available, it made sense to me, but when I felt I didn’t see him enough I stopped feeling the need for independence and became anxious.
    Anyway, we recently broke up after this sort of dance started taking up much of the relationship after 10 months together. He was recently divorced and afraid of recommitting, so he realized he needed to be on his own to work things out and grieve. Should we have tried working it out together?

  9. i find this very interesting, i feel it is so much what has gone on between myself and my now ex- boyfriend for the past 3-1/2 yrs. i am definitely the pursuer and he is the distancer. i feel exactly what you said about him being -” about the Distancer: “He (or She) is selfish, inconsiderate, inflexible, emotionally withdrawn, has to have things his way.” And wonders “Is there something wrong with me? Aren’t I lovable (pretty, thin, successful, smart) enough?”
    While he will say that I am ” of the Pursuer: “She (or He) is too demanding, too dependent, too emotional, or too needy.” And wonders “Can I love? Am I selfish? What I give seems never enough.”
    Now i am confused – it seems as he is a narcisstic personality type – i felt as i was in this back and forth drama, or co-dependent dance, for over 3 yrs, and i am trying to break the cycle. i do see him as the distancer, and he does create anxiety for me and frustrates me in that he tries or makes false promises of change, yet he doesn’t follow through. I think what created in me this anxiousness is that i have caught him in lies and shady situations – where he had met another woman on several occasions that i knew of, yet he continued to tell me he loved me and wanted to only be with me. we are both in our late 40’s and divorced . we didn’t live together , but we were supposed to be in an exclusive relationship.
    i recently, ended this on-again -off again relationship 3 months ago, when i discovered another woman at his house – this was the same woman i had been suspicious he was involved with on various occasions during our yrs together. i was hurt to the core and shocked to find this woman answer the door at his home, after she had spent the night there with him. I asked her if she was his girlfriend , she told me yes, i told her , well guess what ? so am I . she told me she had known him as long as i did. I
    am very sure he hurt her too, as i know she blocked him after that, and had no contact. So my question is – he lied and cheated, and i was very in love with him, like no one else. We were together almost everyday, and he was always telling me he loved me, and someday we’d put our stuff together, and eventually move in together. yet he would get moody and distance himself and tell me he needed to be alone at times and quiet.
    my gut feeling was he was up to no good, yet many times, he was were he was supposed to be. do you think he has narcisstic traits and is a distancer ?? am i really a pursuer, or has he just played mind games on me for 31/2 yrs and made me lose self-confidence and feel anxious about if what he’s telling me was true. let me add that my ex- husband cheated on me , so how i didn’t run at the first red flag this man showed, is beyond me, and how i kept allowing myself to get sucked back into any type of relationship with him?? also, this ex- boyfriend, cheated on his wife and that was why they divorced. the sick part is- i felt like this man was my soul-mate, and he always told me it was like we felt like we knew each other for 20 yrs, after only a few months of dating. he was my best friend and lover – or so it seemed. I am trying to be strong and not communicate any longer with him, as it only ends up with me getting frustrated by him not acting the way i want – its like he wants me and loves me but is afraid of the closeness, the distancer – as you described. I really know i should not go back with this man, as he cheated on me and hurt me horribly – yet it is a struggle for me to not allow him back into my life .any insight would be greatly appreciated-
    ps-i have been seeing a therapist for the past few months since i found out about this other woman.
    thank you

    • These are all good questions to take up with your therapist who is more familiar with you and the dynamics. Also working on yourself will give you clarity. Join a CoDA meeting. Some clients get a lot of benefit from Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) meetings and literature. Do all the exercises in my books. As you build your self-esteem, you won’t tolerate bad behavior and expect more than words and empty promises from your partner.

      • thank you – i am working on these issues and will check out our books. i was just wondering, with all your experience, would this man be a narcissist and a distancer?? are these interrelated? i understand i cannot be with this person , but am curious as to why i was drawn to him and he to me? do these personality traits usually tend to be people who look for admiration and attention of more than on person??

  10. I find myself in this situation but this is just confusing me more. I was certain that i need to leave my fiance in order to find myself… but in reality im guilty and shouldnt leave because my feelings are wrong? I dont understand. Ive reached a point where my way of thinking is ill be in this relationship until i cant take it anymore and probably kill myself when its too much. Ive accepted this because i cant see a way out and apparently i shouldnt get out.

    • You don’t say your age, but I’m not sure why you feel you must leave to find yourself, rather than go inside. Perhaps take some weekends off by yourself, and practice setting boundaries to spend more time alone and/or with other friends or doing activities on your own. Learn by trial and error what you want and like. Read some of my other blogs and do the exercises in my Dummies book. Journal and attend CoDA meetings.

  11. Such a insightful piece, my fiancé an I have been on this roller coaster for over ten years. Never really understanding what we were doing. Eventually we accepted that we were just plain incompatible. But we have always loved one another and even reunited after a two year split. Now we are seperated again and she has reached the end of her rope. I’ve always, subconciosly, known she was the one for me. But being the distances I have rationalized her persuit as needy.
    Reading your article has really opened my eyes to the core of our experience. Thanks so much for your insight.

    • Thank you. Knowing this has helped me also. I’ve lived both sides of the equation. More information and the seeds of this dynamic are in my new book, Conquering Shame. I devote an entire chapter to being with emptiness and another on the underlying causes relationship conflict.

  12. Darlene,
    Insightful article about a common pattern that is a leading cause of divorce. I appreciated your insights – particularly advising the pursuer and distancer to adopt each others behaviors to improve coping.

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