The Dance of Intimacy

by

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, the more difficult the relationship. There is less anxiety, and hence less demand on the relationship to accommodate a narrow comfort zone.

Origins

Attachment theory has determined that the Pursuer has an anxious attachment style and that the emotionally unavailable partner has an avoidant style. 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, he or she doesn’t develop a healthy sense of self. Instead, the child discovers that love and approval come with meeting the mother’s needs, and tunes into the mother’s responses and expectations. This also leads to shame and codependency. 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 codependent 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 of 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. It may involve changing “Your Attachment Style.” 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’re 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. Real intimacy 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. Get Conquering Shame and Codependency to overcome early conditioning that stands in the way of intimacy.

Copyright, Darlene Lancer, MFT, JD 1992

 

 

Share with friends
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

34 Comments
Newest
Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Lupe Flores
Lupe Flores
1 year ago

The reason I read your article is because I feel my marriage lacks passion. Sometimes I am the pursuer, most of the the the distances. I tell my husband I need to spend time together, he takes me to eat, walk but no social stuff as a couple. We do social stuff with our adult children & the grandkids, we have fun together. He is a hard working man, I understand he is tired from working outside in the sun/cold weather. To not feel lonely I do my workouts, volunteer work, babysitting, cook ( lately not been cooking). I have… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
Reply to  Lupe Flores

Spending time together is good. But couples counseling would be the way to increase your intimacy.

Morita
Morita
1 year ago

I would love to work on myself because I only had two relationships in my life and both ended up as me being too controlling or me being emotionally unavailable or emotionally insecure. I have a hard time expressing my feeling, yet loss for words when it comes to being vulnerable and say what I feel. I don’t think I have experienced a real intimacy either. I lost interest in people easily (in term of dating). Please help 🙁

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
Reply to  Morita

I suggest doing the exercises in my books. Start with the paperbacks and then How to Speak Your Mind. Ideally, attend CoDA and work with a counselor to develop an intimate relationship.

Adrian
Adrian
4 years ago

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… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
4 years ago
Reply to  Adrian

You’re describing symptoms of codependency. Your loneliness, shame, and needy behavior stem from that. Go to CoDA.org or SLAA.org meetings and do the exercises in Conquering Shame and Codependency. Also see my blog post, “How to Change Your Attachment Style.

Adrian
Adrian
4 years ago

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?

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
4 years ago
Reply to  Adrian

The Dummies book is an overview of codependency. Conquering Shame and Codependency addresses the deeper issue of shame and how it causes codependency and wrecks havoc on relationships. You can read all the reviews and decide for yourself on My Books page.

Lan
Lan
3 years ago

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?

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
3 years ago
Reply to  Lan

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.”

Jay
Jay
4 years ago

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.

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
4 years ago
Reply to  Jay

Sometimes, when one partner changes, the whole dance can change. We all have needs for closeness and separateness. There’s a reason she hasn’t left.

sheeks
sheeks
5 years ago

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… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
5 years ago
Reply to  sheeks

You can attend coda.org meetings in person and by phone. Do the exercises in my books, and I also do phone coaching that would be helpful.

What about violence?
What about violence?
5 years ago

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… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
5 years ago

It’s interesting that your seeking intimacy with a violent person. Intimacy first requires safety. (See my blog, “Your Intimacy Index – How to Have More Intimacy.” Examine deeper reasons why you’re in this relationship.

Anna
Anna
5 years ago

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… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, MFT
5 years ago
Reply to  Anna

As I wrote attachment style can change in a relationship with someone more stable, and that includes a therapist. What would be important now is developing more self-acceptance and compassion to heal your shame. See my blog on self-love and compassion and do the exercises in Conquering Shame and Codependency, plus work with an individual therapist.

Ginger
Ginger
5 years ago

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

Ginger
Ginger
5 years ago
Reply to  Ginger

Very “spot on”!

Maria
Maria
6 years ago

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… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, MFT
6 years ago
Reply to  Maria

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.

Tina
Tina
6 years ago

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… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, MFT
6 years ago
Reply to  Tina

Sounds like you tried.

lauren
lauren
6 years ago

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,… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, MFT
6 years ago
Reply to  lauren

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.

lauren
lauren
6 years ago

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??

Darlene Lancer, MFT
6 years ago
Reply to  lauren

I suggest reading chapters 3 and 6 of Conquering Shame and Codependency. I cannot diagnose someone without interviewing them. Also, focusing on your feelings is more important and useful than diagnosing someone else.

Ahmad Nieves
Ahmad Nieves
6 years ago

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.

Darlene Lancer, MFT
6 years ago
Reply to  Ahmad Nieves

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.

Derek
Derek
6 years ago

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… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, MFT
6 years ago
Reply to  Derek

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.

Recent Posts

JOIN MY MAILING LIST RECEIVE “14 TIPS FOR LETTING GO”

To get your Free “14 Tips,” please provide your name and email to join my mailing list and monthly blog.

Check your spam folder, and email me if you don’t get an email confirmation. (See our Website and Privacy Policies)

Menu