Key points

  • The different ways children are brought up can affect the way they later pursue a partner.
  • Both nature and nurture play into how people adopt styles of pursuit.
  • Once in a relationship, these ingrained styles of pursuit can have unintended consequences.
Nadia Snopek/Shutterstock
Source: Nadia Snopek/Shutterstock

The saga of distancers and pursuers in relationships exists in many different forms. Perhaps the most common version is the man as distancer and woman as pursuer. It would seem that hardly any adult with some experience in the world of romance has not encountered this theme, at least to some degree. It is apparent that, generally speaking, men and women travel a different relationship path. In the United States, most researchers observe that boys and girls are brought up in divergent ways, taught different skills, and rewarded for different acts.

Witness some discriminating reactions to male and female children: A shy little girl is considered cute; a shy boy is admonished to act like a man. Girls are allowed comfortably to kiss each other and to cry openly without shame; boys who even touch each other had better be “horsing around,” and crying is done only at the expense of sheer ridicule.

Lap Time Matters

These behavioral distinctions, which may seem extreme to some, were confirmed in a study commissioned by the United States government. It was revealed that the majority of tested parents would not hug or cuddle their sons (after the average age of five) as often as they did their daughters, regardless of age. They would not kiss male children at all after a certain age (usually the onset of adolescence), and would discourage boys as young as four years old from sobbing by calling them crybabies or telling them to “act their age.”1

Psychologist Carol Gilligan highlights another facet of male/female development. She notes that both sexes were originally symbiotically merged with their mother in utero, and a child’s first bonding was usually with its mother.

Boys Will Be Boys, Sometimes

Thus girls continue their “we” relationship with their mother while boys, in order to be boys, are forging their “I” relationship. Boys distinguish themselves from their female parent while girls identify with her. Boys learn early to separate themselves from women, developing a protective shield against their strong urges to merge with mom, a shield that, for some, lasts a lifetime. In contrast, girls are more afraid of separation, for their feminine identity is founded on maternal bonding.

Of course, to make the entire matter more interesting, the complexities of nature and nurture combine in some unpredictable ways. It is not always the child of the overinvolved, controlling parent who becomes a distancer, and it is not always the neglected child whose hunger for attachment leads to a lifelong pursuit. Sometimes, perhaps due to a temperament that is particularly hardy, neither a pursuer nor a distancer emerges from what appears to be a fertile field. Other times, both characteristics emerge in the same person, and in still other instances the trend is reversed, where the neglected child isolates and the controlled child repeats the pattern of control and engulfment.

Familiarity Brings Surprises

Despite the less-than-exact predictability of nature-nurture interaction, distancers and pursuers abound and like moths to a flame, they often view each other as everything they ever wanted in a lover. This experience lasts until the passion of their honeymoon period has diminished. Then, reality sets in and an unsettling game of push-and-pull begins. Each member of the couple may monitor the balance of separateness and togetherness, automatically, and sometimes unconsciously, making moves to restore separateness (when anxiety about autonomy sets in) or togetherness (when anxiety about attachment sets in). Sometimes, this pattern continues through the course of a relationship. Other times, there is a reversal, and the partner who usually retreats suddenly moves forward.

Pursuer/distancer relationships often follow a cyclical pattern. When the waters are calm, their mistrust of each other subsides, but in times of stress, suspicion and mistrust escalate. It may be an illness, a financial worry, a possible career setback, or simply a vague fluctuation in self-esteem that increases a feeling of vulnerability. Whatever the cause, with greater vulnerability there is an increased expectation to be understood and gratified. If that response is less than satisfactory, if one partner views the other as withholding or demanding rather than responsive, the feeling is likely to be that he or she is an enemy rather than a friend.


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