“We Can’t Communicate!”

On this particular point Ted and Tara* were in full agreement. After ten years of marriage they were deeply frustrated that their couple communication was ineffective and insufficient. Tara underscored their problem when she said, “No matter what we try in our communication we can’t seem to get on the same page with each other. What we actually get is more frustration!” As she described her relationship with Ted she added, “When I go to him to talk about a major stress I’m having, he tunes me out or he leaves the scene. He doesn’t care about my feelings.” In response Ted explained his point of view:  “But I can’t handle it when Tara comes at me with so much emotion. I feel like I’m under attack and I max out quickly. Then I just have to get away from her so I can think things through privately.” As we continued talking it became clear to me that Ted and Tara loved each other very much in spite of their communication and problem-solving issues. Yet I could hear a growing sense of fear about their future if they did not find a better way to relate to each other. Ted’s follow-up question echoed their growing concern and stress:  “So, how do we survive in this kind of relationship?”

Excellent question, Ted! You’re certainly not the first person to ask that question simply because many other couples struggle with the same communication stress. The prevalence and predictability of the stress invite us to explain the sequence and to explore a solution.

Explaining the sequence . . .

The frustrating sequence in which Ted and Tara felt so entangled resembles a Pursuer/Distancer pattern. In this interactional pattern one person approaches communication and problem-solving with a Pursuer perspective while the other partner uses a Distancer perspective. Every individual probably uses some of each perspective but may be predominately geared one way or the other. Couples usually adjust fine to a mild level of difference. The main problem results when a strong Pursuer gets involved in a relationship with a strong Distancer. That combination can lead to real trouble! When the sequence is not understood and appropriate accommodations are not made, the usual result is miscommunication and disconnection. In explaining this pattern I will refer to the Pursuer as “she” and to the Distancer as “he” simply because, in my professional experience as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, women tend to be Pursuers and men tend to be Distancers. There are, of course, exceptions to this generalization.

When under stress a Pursuer wife wants to “think out loud” and “talk it over” with another human being, preferably her husband. If she were to select another Pursuer, the approach is welcomed and the ensuing conversation is usually positive and productive. However, if she selects a person who is a Distancer (like her husband), her approach will probably be unwelcomed and she will feel very frustrated. When under stress the Distancer husband does not want to “think out loud” and “talk it over.” His natural inclination is to get off by himself where he can ponder the issue in private. After he has thought through the problem and has developed a workable solution, he might be ready to share his solutions with the Pursuer wife. The desire to “think out loud” is the first preference of a strong Pursuer; however, that desire is the last preference of a strong Distancer!

As this pattern becomes more and more pronounced over time each spouse encounters negative reactions and starts to impute negative intentions or motives to the other spouse. When under stress the Pursuer wife approaches the husband to talk—only to find that the door of communication is tightly shut. The Distancer husband puts up a “wall of resistance” (perhaps by continuing to watch his television program) or by physically leaving the scene (perhaps to work on a personal project). His “wall” is interpreted as rejection and his exit represents abandonment. The wife imputes the motive of rejection and abandonment, and understandably she feels unloved and invalidated. Misunderstood by the wife, however, the husband’s behavior is consistent with his Distancer style. He imputes to her behavior the motive of “attacking me” or “invading my space.” Naturally he puts up a wall of defense or he moves away to a safer place. He feels threatened and disrespected. Unfortunately, both spouses misunderstand each other and they make the mistake of assigning negative motives to each other. This assignment of negative intentionality takes the emotional pain to a higher level, and, as a predictable result, the Pursuer intensifies her approach and the Distancer increases his defense.

After many encounters with each other in which this pattern occurs, the two people often reach a point at which the wife stops pursuing. She gets weary of “knocking on his door” and getting rejected, so she gives up and moves away from him. Now she looks like a Distancer. Her behavior probably alarms the husband so he comes after her with an offer to talk. Now he looks like a Pursuer. If she turns around to talk, he will probably resort to his distancing tactics by pushing his “Shields Up” button or by making a hasty retreat. She responds, “Oh, you haven’t changed at all. You really don’t want to talk with me.” Then she turns and moves further away from him. Back and forth they go with this confusion-filled dance. The mutual frustration escalates and eventually both spouses tire of the dance and make a “that’s enough” decision. This action takes the relationship to a “fixed distance” level in which neither spouse attempts meaningful interaction with the other spouse. Safely crouched behind their respective walls, the two spouses might “shoot at” each other with verbal ammunition, but neither one is willing to lay down a drawbridge to span the great gulf that now separates them. Obviously, unless something drastic happens to revive this couple, their relationship is in deep trouble. The legal marriage might continue indefinitely, but the personal relationship will continue to die a slow and agonizing death. 

Several variations to this basic Pursuer/Distancer theme can be experienced. For example a man appears to be a strong Distancer in his marriage but looks more like a Pursuer in his sales duties at his job. A woman relates to her spouse as a Pursuer but shows distancing tendencies in other settings. The usual pattern may vary depending upon the specific person in question or the particular circumstance in effect. However, while these examples represent possible variations on a theme it seems clear that strong Pursuers and strong Distancers tend to practice their basic pattern in all relationships and in all settings.

It’s important for us to understand that each pattern (Pursuer or Distancer) is inherently fine or okay. Neither one is essentially “wrong” or “bad.” This conclusion seems clear when we observe that two Pursuers usually relate well to each other, as do two Distancers with their communication style. As stated earlier, the real problem arises when a strong Pursuer gets involved with a strong Distancer. The two people do not understand their differences in style and they fail at mutual accommodation. However, with increased understanding and appropriate accommodation the Pursuer and Distancer spouses can learn to relate to each other in a more positive and effective manner.

Exploring the solution . . .

The question Ted raised is important:  “So, how do we survive in this kind of relationship?” As we explore a potential solution let’s assume that we’re currently involved in a Pursuer/Distancer relationship and, like Ted and Tara, we’re experiencing a high level of stress. Let’s further assume that we want our relationship to survive and to grow into a healthy relationship. What can we do to work together with our different styles of communication and problem-solving? There is no simple solution, but there are several actions that could be taken which, when used consistently, could help resolve the negative interaction. I think of these actions as “accommodation tools.” Through the application of these tools we can learn to accommodate each other’s style of communication.
Accommodation Tool #1:  Working on Conclusions
(Goal: Be slow about conclusions. Choose to interpret the problem as a difference in communication style instead of imputing negative motives or intentions to the other person.)
For strong Pursuers and Distancers who don’t understand the differences in style the human tendency is to interpret the other spouse’s communication behavior in a negative way. Rather than acknowledge that the husband is “just acting like a Distancer” the wife imputes a negative intention that “he’s rejecting me and abandoning me; therefore, he doesn’t care about me or my feelings.” Rather than acknowledge that the wife is “just acting like a Pursuer” the husband imputes a negative intention that “she’s attacking me and invading my space; therefore, she does not respect me or care about me.” The remedy is to focus on the stylistic differences instead of the assignment of bad motives. Each spouse could say “This communication work is really hard, but I must keep in mind that my spouse is just communicating according to his natural style. There is no intention to hurt me in any way. I’ll try to find ways to accommodate the difference in style so that our relationship can be protected and so we can work out the issues we have as a couple.”
Accommodation Tool #2:  Working on Coordination
(Goal: Increase the coordination of your communication efforts by creating and using appropriate structure.)

The use of structure could be a valuable resource for the Pursuer/Distancer couple, particularly in regard to issues about “when to talk” and “how long to talk.” It is to mutual advantage that a good time be chosen for any type of heavy or significant discussion. The Pursuer wife could improve the situation by choosing not to “barge in and blaze away,” since she knows from history that an abrupt, unexpected approach will blindside the Distancer husband, causing him to put up a wall or to move away. Instead, she slows herself down and introduces a potential discussion by revealing that she has a stressful issue and needs a few minutes of time for talking. She could show flexibility by saying, “If this is not a good time for you, when would you have about fifteen-to-thirty minutes for us to talk?” She chooses not to force a discussion even though her natural style wants an immediate, positive response, that is, “Let’s talk now. This is a perfect time.” The Distancer spouse should try to make this immediate response, if possible. However, if he is already feeling stressed and the time is difficult for him, he could negotiate by saying, “I understand that you want to talk and I want to hear about your situation. I’m really maxed out right now so the timing is not good at all for me. If you could wait for an hour or so, I’ll be in a much better frame of mind. Could I get back with you in about an hour?” If the wife agrees to the schedule, the husband must take responsibility for monitoring the time and for returning to his wife at the appointed time. This type of negotiation is not intended to serve as an avoidance tactic but rather a sincere attempt to make the discussion a positive, productive encounter. 

A second type of structure involves the issue of “how long.” Most Distancers tend to “max out” or tire much more quickly than most Pursuers. For a Pursuer sixty minutes is like “just getting started”; in contrast, for the Distancer sixty minutes seems like an eternity! Knowing this reality, the Pursuer could break her message down into several “bite-sized” portions. To use a sports analogy, she could envision the discussion as a football game with four separate quarters separated by the quarter breaks and the half-time break. Playing the game in four fifteen-minute quarters usually works better than trying to play the total sixty minutes without any type of break. In addition, each team is allowed several time-outs during each half. A time-out could be called by team “A” even though  team “B” prefers to keep on playing, perhaps because team “B” has the momentum and wants to keep on pushing! Like it or not, team “B” has to accept the time-out and tries to use it wisely. Similarly, the wise Pursuer will train herself in the skill of “pacing.” Even though she might prefer to “keep on pushing” the discussion she will recognize the wisdom and benefit of limiting the time to accommodate the Distancer spouse. Likewise, the wise Distancer will train himself to monitor his capacity and will learn to request a time-out and will negotiate for continuing the discussion at a specific time in the future. Both spouses must remember that these “urges to push on” and these “preferences for breaks” should not be taken personally, but that they are manifestations and features of their different communication styles. For the sake of the relationship they work hard to negotiate out the issues of “when to talk” and “for how long.” 
Accommodation Tool #3:  Working on Clarification
(Goal: Before sharing your message take time to describe your purpose, disclaim negative intentions, and disclose your “bottom line.”)

The Pursuer could help the communication process in several ways. She could clarify that her intention is not to attack him but to discuss a particular issue for the benefit of their relationship. For example, she might say “Our relationship itself is secure; we just need to resolve an issue that concerns us both.” If her stress has nothing to do directly with her husband, she could make that point clear by saying, “This has nothing to do with you, but I’d like to share it with you.” She can also clarify what she wants from him—listening or problem-solving. For example, she might say, “Just to be clear, I’m just wanting you to listen to me and not problem-solve anything. This situation is not something I need for you to fix or solve. I need to talk this stress out, so please just listen to me as I do.” Furthermore, the Pursuer could clarify her “bottom line” at the top of the discussion so that the Distancer listener will know where the message is headed. Many Distancers prefer to know the “bottom line” before hearing all of the “rambling information” that leads to the conclusion. Until he knows the “bottom line” the Distancer typically feels anxious and frustrated, perhaps because he cannot start solving the problem until he knows specifically what the problem really is. By providing the “bottom line” at the beginning of the discussion the Pursuer prevents the buildup of frustration and anxiety within the Distancer husband.

At the same time the Distancer could work at increasing his patience with his wife by allowing more “rambling” than he might prefer. Besides, what he thinks of as “unnecessary rambling” his wife probably views as an important part of openness and sharing. Furthermore, the Distancer could clarify his reluctance to “talk right now” or his tendency to become defensive. He might say, “I think I’m getting defensive because I feel rather maxed out with this heavy issue. I don’t mean it to be personal and I wish I could hang in there with you longer. Please be patient with me. Could we take a brief break and continue our discussion later?” The use of a delay or a “Time-Out” should not be used by the Distancer to avoid or prevent discussions that are important to the wife. He must take responsibility for the resumption of the discussion in an appropriate time frame.
Accommodation Tool #4:  Working on Comfort
(Goal: Determine to stretch your personal comfort zone as you modify various aspects of your communication style in order to increase mutual patience and to improve overall communication effectiveness.)

To make the relationship work more effectively both people must grow beyond their “natural tendencies.” In other words, they must each stretch their comfort zone to allow for additional accommodations and increased tolerance. For example, the Pursuer would prefer an immediate, thorough discussion; however, she practices patience regarding the timing and process of discussions that occur. She values emotional intensity and wants her husband to show a similar level of intensity in his self-disclosure with her. However, she understands that her intensity is very uncomfortable for her husband so she “tones down” her emotionality in order to accommodate his style. As a Distancer the husband would prefer to problem-solve in private; however, he pushes himself to “think out loud” with his spouse and to accommodate her style. Admittedly, he is uncomfortable with her emotional intensity and would prefer that she be more like him—always calm and controlled. His past tendency was to interpret her emotionality as anger and he was always her target. To accommodate his wife the husband now chooses to think of her emotionality as “intensity and passion” rather than “anger and hostility.” He does not jump to the conclusion that “she’s upset with me”; instead, he postpones any conclusion until he listens to her and determines what the specific issues are that she wants to discuss. When each spouse commits to these types of efforts the couple’s mutual comfort zone is expanded and the two different communication styles are mutually accommodated.

These four accommodation tools are not the only resources that Pursuer/Distancer couples can use, but the tools do represent practical steps that can be adapted and applied to improve the communication process. The tools are often more easily used by the spouses when they incorporate positive humor into their struggles to accommodate each other. The Pursuer wife might declare with a huge smile “Here I am again—Mrs. Pursuer! But I promise I’ll keep my verbal guns in their holsters.” In response the Distancer husband might say “Oh, I recognize you, Mrs. Pursuer, and I know what you want. Do you see this big letter ‘D’ on my forehead? Just remember that the ‘D’ stands for Distancer.” Regarding the use of humor please note that I used the term “positive” humor. Negative humor expressed as sarcasm and put-downs is destructive and damaging and therefore needs to be avoided. In contrast, positive humor can ease tension and encourage creativity within the communication and problem-solving arenas. So, add a big dose of positive humor to your accommodation toolbox.

Concluding thoughts . . .

The Communication Highway is not always a smooth road to travel. Any relationship journey requires a great deal of effective communication which certainly can be threatened and thwarted by styles like the Pursuer/Distancer pattern. At the first of this article I introduced you to Ted and Tara* and their struggle with the Pursuer/Distancer styles of communication. Through several months of hard work they have grown in their understanding of their respective communication styles, and they have improved significantly in their ability to accommodate the differences in style. As a result of their efforts their relationship is incurring less damage and is experiencing more growth. Their relationship road ahead will probably be a bit bumpy at times, but at least they have the basic tools needed for preventing major collisions or breakdowns.

Perhaps you feel a connection with Ted and Tara in that you are also in a Pursuer/Distancer relationship. If so, I hope that you will imitate them in that you work hard to understand the communication styles and to equip yourself with accommodation tools that will allow you to survive in a Pursuer/Distancer relationship. I wish you well in your efforts to cope effectively with this troublesome pattern of communication.

And, as always, I wish you the very best in all of your relationship travels.
*Ted and Tara are fictitious names used for representative spouses who struggle with the Pursuer/Distancer communication pattern.

Video:  To see a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses the Pursuer/Distancer sequence and several relevant suvival tools please click on the image to the right or just click here. 

 (To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)


        (Healthy Relationships #113)


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