The Pursued-Pursuer Cycle in Relationships

In the initial, 'infatuation' stage of a relationship, both people are showing their best selves to the other. Each creates a fantasy about the other, and the other unconsciously tries to live up to that fantasy. There is lots of energy and optimism during this stage, a feeling of oneness, 'we can conquer the world,' emphasis on sameness and 'how much we have in common.' Neither can believe his or her good fortune in being able to find such a compatible mate, and neither wishes to do anything which might threaten the relationship:for instance, show parts of the self one fears the other would not approve of. As a result, much of each person's personality is actually being hidden at this stage. Although people in the infatuation stage typically tell each other their 'secrets,' these secrets are edited and have usually been mostly worked through before now. Both partners feel they are revealing their 'true selves.' What they are doing is establishing a joint vision of their future, the remembrance of which, should the relationship progress, will help them to overcome difficulties.

At some point during this stage, the couple often switch roles. The person (usually the masculine partner, "Bob") who initiated the relationship by pursuing, now begins to back off, and the person who was pursued (usually the feminine partner, "Betsy") begins to chase him. The pursuer and the pursued can change places through the course of a relationship because each position is the opposite side of the same coin. (Often, though, you will find yourself in a similar role much of the time in most of your relationships.)

Betsy is attracted to the adoration and 'love' of Bob, which is often romantically expressed early on in courtship: He comes on strong. Rather than getting to know one another slowly over time, once the two begin their dance, the relationship moves quickly. Betsy desperately needs this 'love,' having experienced serious and repeated losses during childhood. Bob makes her feel wanted and worthwhile and sometimes even redeemed. She believes that since he loves her, she is special and okay. She matters, she is no longer alone, she feels safe and valued and lovable. During this period, Betsy is attracted to Bob's vulnerability and neediness and her responses to his relentless approaches make him feel powerful, safe, and needed.

Between approximately 3 and 6 months into the relationship, as Betsy begins to feel safer, she begins to show more of herself--what she needs from Bob, how lonely she feels--and she may begin to request more involvement from Bob as she becomes even more emotionally vulnerable. In response to these first requests, Bob changes his behavior in very subtle ways. He may not initiate contact with Betsy quite as often, he may begin to appear preoccupied when they are together, he may drop hints about his attractiveness to others. In short, he begins to distance himself in order to avoid his greatest fear--becoming trapped and losing his sense of himself, which is fragile. He feels an increasing sense of being controlled. At this point, the pursued­pursuer cycle is established.

Betsy is sensitive to these early cues and instead of confronting him about them (which might justify her fear and 'cause' her to be abandoned), she looks for cues of impending rejection. She becomes jealous, frightened, panicked, and angry. She feels out of control and prepares to be left and increases her contact with Bob. She invests even more energy in the relationship, while he invests less and less. While a person not caught in this cycle would back off, saying something like, "You seem to want to spend less time together, and that hurts my feelings. It's also not very attractive! Of course you're not obligated to spend time with me. I just want you to know I'll be spending more time on my own now," Betsy tries to make herself 'better,' to change herself into the sort of person she imagines Bob wants her to be, to manipulate him into becoming the way he was (but never really was). This does not work. She is now addicted to Bob as if he were a substance. She needs him to feel okay about herself. She becomes increasingly despondent and reexperiences long-ago feelings of loss and rejection.

Bob pulls away from Betsy in order to feel safe from his fears of being rejected (usually unconscious) or 'engulfed' or smothered (usually more conscious). He judges Betsy as unstable, needy, dependent, and 'less than.' This matches her internal judgment about herself. She obsessively thinks about him and may engage in addictive behavior (such as drinking or drugs) to avoid the pain, may fantasize self-destructively about how to get revenge (through involvement with another man, for example), or how to get Bob back. If she has responded by backing off, he may experience abandonment feelings and will return to seduce her in order to ease those feelings, or feelings of guilt, or he may move on to seduce another woman who will also end up pursuing him.

Betsy's greatest conscious fear--the fear she's aware of-- is that others will leave her. But her unconscious fear is of being close and engulfed by another, and her choice of Bob guarantees this will not happen. The fear Bob is most aware of is that he will lose his identity through being engulfed by another. His greatest unconscious fear is of being left, and his choice of Betsy guarantees this will not happen.

In order to overcome this cycle, Betsy may need to take a step back and consider whether or not Bob's behavior toward her is something she respects and admires. Is Bob behaving like someone she wants to spend time with? Involving herself with friends and activities and not allowing herself to give more thought energy to Bob than he is to her will help preserve her sense of self. Bob may need to face his fears by spending time with Betsy when he feels most uncomfortable, paying attention to the thoughts that go through his mind, asking himself what, exactly, he is afraid of? He may also need to practice assertiveness, taking time for himself each day or week while reassuring Betsy he plans to return. Taking these actions feels counter-intuitive to both partners: after all, they are each being asked to go toward what they are most afraid of. But in doing so, they have a chance to become free of their fears.

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