The Relationship Dance


Couples find themselves dancing with each other – often in a counterproductive manner.  One partner seeks connection, being demanding and critical…..“You are never there for me”…. “You always leave me when I come to you.” This style of relating is called pursuing or clinging. On the other side of this dance is a partner that feels suffocated and evades the other with “you are too much”, “give me space” and “leave me alone”. This energetic style is called distancing or avoiding. The more the partner pursues, the more the other partner distances, and the dance continues with more pursuing and more distancing. The result….a painful, defensive, exhausting attempt to have connection and separation needs met. This leaves both individuals feeling frustrated and hopeless.

Why does this happen and is there an understanding and awareness that we can bring to this dance?

First, let’s examine these two energetic styles and their differences. On the surface, the pursuer looks needy and clingy; however, underneath is a wound or an injury generated from childhood. Growing up, she may have received safe, reliable and warm contact from one parent. The other parent, however, was distant, either physically or emotionally or both. Like a desert, this style of parenting created an injury, an insatiable hunger for connection. Not having this need met, it still lives in her psyche today. When her partner appears distant, this old childhood memory is activated and her survival strategy for acquiring love and attention reappears. In an effort to feel connected and get her needs met, she resorts to the clinging, pursuing and demanding behaviour.

In contrast, the distancing partner appears self-sufficient, not needing anyone, and presents himself as an island on his own.  What appears to the partner is a cold, detached demeanor, yet underneath lives a desire and a yearning for connection that is mixed with a hidden terror of pain and hopelessness.  The hopelessness of “not getting his needs met” was initiated in early childhood in response to contact that was too painful or intrusive. To avoid the pain, he learned to pull away and distance himself. The early contact with his parent was perceived as smothering and the intrusion felt like an annihilation of oneself. When his partner shows up with a similar energy style, his avoidant attachment survival strategy is ignited, triggering the distancing and avoiding response.

Having reactivated the old childhood memories in both individuals, this evokes the “stepping on each other’s toes”, re-igniting the pain from the past. To have a corrective experience, a new relational dance, they will need to learn some new steps. What can they do differently?

Compassionate awareness of how the attachment style has originated will bring understanding to these adaptations. Each reaction is a protest against the loss of connection and is a signal for the disharmony.  Knowing and caring that your partner is re-experiencing a painful interaction from the past will allow you to look beyond their reactivity with empathy. Transforming this “enemy” image to seeing your partner as needing reassurance and caring – something that they didn’t get in early life offers a new perspective.  Let’s see how a new “step” in this dance will elicit a different outcome.

The pursuer seeking connection now understands that her pursuing behaviour aggravates her partner’s defense against pain. Her growth challenge is to allow her partner to re-connect on his own time. Letting go of the need to control the situation and trusting his return will evoke a relaxed response. With his amygdala (the attachment alarm centre in the brain) no longer engaged and sighting danger, he returns and offers connection that the pursuer is asking for.  When ready and not defended against her pursing behaviour, he can give his full engaged attention, thus aiding her desire for connection.

If however, the distancer is not ready because of activation in his brain, he can reassure his partner of his return in a reasonable time. This offering of willingness to hear her concerns at a mutually convenient time relaxes her amygdala and allows her to attend to other soothing and fulfilling activities in the meantime. This re-negotiation and being allies for each other will produce the safe connection that each of them are looking for.

When you change the dance – the relationship changes!

At different points, it may be you who initiates the new step to change the dance. Don’t wait for your partner. Safe connection is different for the pursuer and the distancer. What the distancer needs is a safe place to show up, a place to be met with curiousity and have his opinion and point of view expressed, giving time to speak without pushy, critical demands. What the pursuer needs is reassurance, an engaged listener who will hear and validate her concerns while being fully present and attentive.

To avoid the relationship dance of disconnection, take time to be curious about your partner and learn what triggers their defensive patterns. Move in opposition to your own patterns of defense, overriding the habits of retreating/avoiding and pursing/clinging. By doing so, you will create a safe reliable connection. It is the commitment to these respective growth challenges that creates a foundation of empathy – a formula for a lasting loving relationship.

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