relationship bad vicious cycle pattern

Pursuer Avoider Pattern

When someone moves toward you and you feel threatened, the natural instinct is to run or hide.   If you are the partner in pursuit of emotionally important information from your partner and your partner moves away, avoids or distances you can become more agitated in your pursuit.

The more he runs away or withdraws the more intense and agitated the pursuer becomes.  The more intense the pursuit the more withdrawn and distancing the Avoider becomes.


Pursuing Causes Distancing Which Causes More Pursuing, Which Causes More Avoiding etc., etc.

This is commonly called a vicious circle.  The more you do one thing, the more you get of the thing that makes you do that something.  The harder you try, the farther away your goal becomes.  This is often the nature of attempts to manage or control other people’s thoughts, feelings or behaviors.

This continues until someone blows up!  Usually by saying or doing something so outrageous and often disrespectful.  This can either catapult the argument into something much, much worse; or it can end the pursuit.  Unfortunately, it can also end the relationship.

Our brains and our nervous system have seen fit to hard wire our emotional experience such that if we see our prey escaping, we think we need to run harder.  Similarly if we ARE the prey, our brain tells us to get away from the threat even more if the threat is getting closer.  There’s not a lot we can do about our brain’s hard wiring.  However, we can train ourselves to modify this pattern.

The best way to change the cycle is to see what part you play in the pattern.  If you are the ‘Pursuer’ then back off in the intensity of your pursuit.  Acknowledge that you’ve perhaps been agitated or intense.  Let your partner know that they have time or space to think about things.  If you are the ‘Avoider’ consider answering more directly the questions and concerns of the pursuer.  Or, simply say, “I feel flooded and overwhelmed, and just need some time to think about this.  I’ll get back to you with some thoughts by noon today.”  It is imperative that you actually do come back at noon and have some substantial thoughts.  Or, you lose your credibility.  If you lose your credibility, then your partner will not let you leave the room the next time you say, “I just need some time.”  And, your partner would be justified.

Another way to break the vicious cycle is if we can change the MEANING OF THE CHASE and the MEANING OF THE DISTANCING.   This is known in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as ‘Reframing.’  When you change the meaning of pursuing and distancing/avoiding/withdrawal behaviors it is possible to reduce your experience of threat and danger.   If you knew that the partner pursuing you simply wanted to feel connected to you, you might feel differently.  Or, if you can reframe your perception of your partner distancing as seeing someone who is afraid or ashamed; you might feel differently about continuing the intensity of your pursuit

The best way of minimizing the sense of threat is to get positive experiences with turning toward your pursuer to become interested in what he or she wants.  Or to accumulate positive experiences of slowing down the energy of your pursuit to use some of the skills mentioned in my ‘Power & Compassion Couples Communication’ course.


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