The Approach-Avoidance Cycle in Relationships

The Approach-Avoidance Cycle (AAC) – also known as the Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic, Push-Pull Relationship, or Engulfment vs. Abandonment – is a pattern that emerges in relationships where one individual wants more of something (or wants the other person to change in some way) – this is the pursuer– and the other individual resists or withdraws – this is the distancer.  It has been often described as two people “attached by a 10 foot pole”.  When the pursuer moves forward, the distancer is pushed back.  When the distancer withdraws, the pursuer is pulled forward.
  • Pursuer – wants something from the other person
  • Distancer – resists or withdraws from the pursuer

While everyone needs a balance of attachment and autonomy in their lives, the ideal formula varies from person to person.  When one person in a relationship wants more attachment and the other wants more autonomy, this is often the perfect storm for an AAC to develop.  At its extremes, the AAC can be quite damaging to a relationship because it becomes a self-perpetuating “war” that is exhausting and builds resentment over time in both individuals.

The AAC can be an overarching pattern in a relationship or it might occur only within certain hot-button issues.  In marriages, these issues often include sex, money or parenting.  For example, one partner might want more frequent sexual intercourse with the other partner or may want them to spend more time with the children, manage the money better, engage in more house work or go out on more dates.  In families or friendships, it can include how much personal contact people engage in or the level of involvement in each other’s personal lives.  For example, how often an adult child visits their parents or the degree to which friends confide in each other.  It is tempting for each person to think they are in the right and the other is wrong, but its really often a matter of personal preference and both people are responsible for their part in perpetuating the pattern.

In the AAC, the pursuer wants more “we” focus and the distancer wants more “I” focus.  The pursuer typically appears to over-function in the relationship and the distancer appears to under-function.  The pursuer’s efforts to get the distancer “on board” feels like manipulation, pressure, control, or smothering to the distancer.  The distancer’s resistance feels like rejection, abandonment or a lack of love/caring to the pursuer.  Each becomes more and more entrenched in their stance and they make increasing assumptions and judgments about the other’s motivations and intentions.  Each tries harder to “win”, thus it becomes a battle with the potential for serious casualties along the way.  Unchecked over time, the damage can become irreversible.

The good news is, if at least one of the partners recognizes and disrupts the pattern early enough, the relationship may be salvageable.  Interrupting the pattern means that the pursuer stops pursuing and/or the distancer stops distancing.  In other words, the pursuer has to decrease the “we” focus and become more “I” focused.  They have to stop expecting the other to change and focus more on what is actually under their control (one’s own thoughts, feelings and behavior).  Or, the distancer has to stop withdrawing/resisting and begin to reach out to the pursuer or make some observable efforts toward change.  Because both individuals are attached by a “10 foot pole”, when one person stops pushing or pulling, often the other will follow suit.

This is not as simple as it sounds as the behavior can be so ingrained, the individuals involved may have trouble identifying which of their behaviors are pursuing or distancing.  It can also be very difficult to let go of these behaviors when there is a strong fear of abandonment or losing ones autonomy.  In these cases, a psychologist with experience in family or marital therapy can help guide one or both individuals through the process.  Of course there is also a risk that even when the pattern is disrupted, one or both individuals may remain dissatisfied with the relationship due to irreconcilable differences in wants, needs or values.

If you suspect you are struggling with an AAC in a relationship, it may be helpful to talk to a mental health professional. A good therapist can help you understand the function of your behavior, identify triggers, and maintain your changes. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy. Please also visit my resource website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.

1 thought on “The Approach-Avoidance Cycle in Relationships

  1. This is a very well written, informative article. I'm wondering how pursuit and distancing behaviors would manifest themselves?


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