Dating Relationships: When Closeness Is an Elusive Quest

Do you often feel like you are fighting to get close to your dating partner? Do they frequently act distant, preoccupied or unavailable? Do you go through periods of feeling secure in the relationship only to be followed by periods of insecurity? Do you feel frustrated and anxious in your dating relationship? If your answer to these questions is ‘yes,’ you may be involved in a dating relationship with an approach-avoidant relationship pattern.

There are several variations to the approach-avoidant relationship pattern but the most common type of approach-avoidant relationship is one in which one person pursues closeness while the other evades it. In this instance the pursuer feels frustrated, anxious and rejected by their partner’s lack of availability. This lack of availability may be a result of work, school or social commitments.

Typically, the evader is not unhappy with the relationship except when their partner complains, becomes angry or retaliates in some way. The evader may be aware of being distant or they may be somewhat “clueless” about it. Some evaders feel their partner is “too needy” and that they want “too much closeness.” They may blame the pursuer for causing problems in the relationship. And, in fact, pursuers often become clingy when they’re involved with an approach-avoidant partner.

A second type of approach-avoidant relationship pattern occurs when dating partners take turns being the pursuer and the avoider. When one person moves close, the other moves way and vice versa. This may result in both people being frustrated periodically and each may blame the other for the problems in the relationship.

A third type of approach-avoidant pattern occurs when the partners move together and away in a similar rhythm. Each may be aware of the fact that they have times of closeness and times of distance but neither especially blames the other. They both may be confused about why this occurs and uncertain what they can do to change it.

Regardless of which pattern dominates the relationship – all three patterns point to issues with intimacy. In the pursuer/evader pattern -it may seem that only the evader has issues with intimacy. This is not the true. Pursuers typically grow up in families where one parent, usually the primary caretaker, is distant and unavailable. The pursuer often unconsciously recreates this family relationship pattern in their dating relationships. They constantly feel emotionally hungry because they are pursuing a partner who is illusive.

The pursuer is used to longing for closeness. Because there are periods when their partner is available, they feel drawn in and seduced into thinking that they might be able to achieve a steady diet of security, attachment, love and connection. This is unlikely. The pursuer’s issues with intimacy are expressed by choosing someone who’s unavailable. If they truly want closeness, then they need to pursue a partner who’s capable of closeness and who wants closeness too.

In both the second and third types of approach-avoidant relationship patterns, both people have a fear of closeness. There’s an almost unconscious dance between the partners when it comes to regulating closeness and distance.

Couples with the alternating approach-avoidance pattern may be aware of the reoccurring cycles of closeness and distance in their relationship. However, the experiences of closeness may occur often enough to make them both feel that the relationship meets their needs for intimacy. It’s unlikely but if they are both pursuers, each may blame the other for the periods of distance. Periodic conflict may erupt over this issue when one experiences the other as rejecting or unavailable.

In the third type of approach-avoidant relationship, both people operate more towards the evader than the pursuing end of the spectrum. These couples often have poor sex lives and they are emotionally disengaged from one another. It’s not unusual for these relationships to dissolve simply because there isn’t much of a bond between the partners.

Approach-avoidant relationships, especially the first type, can last indefinitely. The person who’s the pursuer may try for decades to achieve more consistent closeness with their partner. The episodic closeness they experience is like a shot in the arm. It keeps their hopes alive that they can achieve this closeness more consistently.

Approach-avoidant relationships usually come to an end when one partner decides they need or want more than they can get from the other. The pursuer may grow weary of chasing after the other and they may finally come to terms with and accept that the other is not going to change.

Couples in the second type of approach-avoidant relationship often seek counseling. They are usually aware of the fluctuating closeness in their relationship and one or both want to change this.

Couples in the third type of approach-avoidant relationship are at greatest risk of falling apart. Emotional closeness is the glue that keeps a relationship together. Often these relationships lack sufficient glue to survive the long haul.

The remedy for each of these approach-avoidant relationship patterns occurs when one or both partners begin to work on their individual issues with intimacy. This may not mean they stay together – especially if one partner is unwilling to pursue psychological growth. However, the work that’s accomplished will help one or both experience greater closeness in the future, whether they stay together or not.