A very common negative interactional pattern in heterosexual couples is known as the pursuer-distancer pattern. In this pattern, it is most often women who pursue their male partners, seeking greater emotional connection and intimacy, and men who become polarized in the role distancing. This pattern is generally dissatisfying to both partners and often leads to significant marital conflict and unhappiness.
Some people believe that gender differences in this pattern attributable to individual differences between men and women. Men are more physiologically reactive to stressful stimuli, so when there is conflict in the relationship they may use withdrawing as a way to soothe themselves. It is also true that women are more socialized to be affiliative and are more likely to pursue, and men are more socialized to be independent and self-reliant and more likely to withdraw.
The alternative explanation is that these gendered roles in heterosexual relationships are more attributable to the social structure of a traditional marriage. We know that women seek change in their marriages more than men do. Since men are the primary beneficiaries of the inequitable distribution of power in a traditional marriage, they are less likely to seek change in their relationships, and to see their wives’ requests for change as threatening to the preservation of that status quo.
There is evidence to support both of these theories. Regardless of the explanation, it’s clear that this is a pattern that escalates between men and women and causes significant relationship distress. Because women are more affiliative and seek more closeness with their partners, they are inherent at a disadvantage because they rely on their partners for what they need in a relationship. Because men are socialized to be more autonomous and less dependent, they are less dependent on their partners because they can achieve what they want in a relationship unilaterally by simply withdrawing. As a result, whatever compromise the couple works out is likely to favor the man because he needs less, is less dependent on his partner. This leaves the woman wanting more and with little recourse but to pursue her partner for what she needs, which he often experiences as critical and intrusive, and responds by withdrawing further.
Women can interrupt this escalating pattern by lowering their hopes and expectations for the marriage, and either turning elsewhere-most often to other women-to meet their emotional needs. This leads to increasing emotional distance in the couple. Hopefully, the man notices this distance, is uncomfortable with it and begins to make his way back towards a greater connection with his partner. Alternatively, men can be more sensitive to the reality that even though they often end up feeling like they’ve gotten a lot of what they need in an argument with their wives, that their wives are often less satisfied with the outcome than they are. Understanding that this is not a resolution that is going to work for either of them in the long term, they can proactively push on their comfort zone in order to meet their wives in a place that is more genuinely the middle.
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