When couples have ongoing and repeated conflict that is not repaired, they can get stuck in a pursue/distance pattern. Over time, they can feel increasingly stuck and hopeless.
The pursuing partner will often bring up their concerns and not want to stop talking until they feel reassured, while the distancing partner will tend to avoid discussions or try to look on the bright side of things. Both partners end up feeling misunderstood and invalidated by the other.
While couples might think they are arguing about finances, housework, sex, or parenting, at the root of the negative cycle is the attempt to get their attachment needs met.
Everyone is born with the attachment needs to be loved, to be safe, to be known, to be soothed and to be delighted in. As children, we look to parents to meet these needs. When we are married, we are hoping that our spouse will love us, know us, soothe us when we’re distressed, and delight in us. Underneath most arguments partners are asking, “A.R.E. you there for me?” A=accessible, R=responsive and E=engaged. If the answers are often no, then the attachment insecurity increases, and the pursue/distance patterns can get more entrenched.
Fortunately, couples can learn to focus on the attachment significance of the arguments (the need to be known, to feel heard, safe, soothed) instead of focusing on the content of the fights.
The strategies of pursuing or distancing are learned behaviors that can be changed to a more secure style of relating. Helping partners identify their underlying attachment longings and sharing those with each other can help the couple fight the cycle instead of each other. Together they can learn to address their real needs underneath the negative cycle and create a more secure and satisfying relationship.
Couples therapy can be helpful in exploring these dynamics. Another good resource for learning more about this are the books, “Hold Me Tight” and “Created for Connection”, written by the developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy.