Anyone who has persisted in a relationship beyond the infatuation phase, especially those in multi-year partnerships, will realize that committed relationships aren’t easy. Once the fires of infatuation have simmered down, simply “living on love” becomes more of a dream than a reality. Some partners may even feel the universe has played a dirty trick on them, leading them to expect more from love than it could actually deliver. Their deep sense of frustration and incredulity toward this turn of events may lead to laments like, “You’re not the man I married” or “You’re not the person I thought you were.”
Those who manage to weather this post-infatuation disillusionment and want to find a path forward eventually realize their need for a reality check. Namely, they need to sort out what’s actually true about themselves and their partners and what are mere illusions built on romantic ideals, fantasies, and projections. Only couples who are willing to get real and honest, open to confronting difficult truths about themselves and their partners, have a fighting chance of crafting a more beautiful union.
Toward that end, this post will explore one of the more useful constructs for understanding relationships—what I like to call the “Pursuer-Avoider” dynamic (a.k.a., “Maximizers” and “Minimizers”). A great strength of this concept is its applicability to different aspects of a relationship—emotions, sex, work, etc. This means that a partner can be a Pursuer in one area and an Avoider in another. For almost every key element of a relationship, one partner will be more of the Pursuer and the other more avoidant. These differing attitudes / approaches serve as a reliable source of misunderstanding and frustration in relationships.
Pursuers & Avoiders
Pursuers invariably feel hurt, frustrated, or short-changed when their attempts to connect aren’t reciprocated by their Avoider partner in a satisfactory way. Pursuers may thus come to see Avoiders as selfish or full of excuses about why they can’t or won’t participate. If left unaddressed, this can fuel deep resentments and relational breakdown.
Avoiders, by contrast, commonly feel smothered or trapped by the Pursuer’s advances. They may see the Pursuer as greedy or never satisfied. Even when earnestly working to meet the Pursuer’s needs, it rarely seems good enough. Feeling suffocated by the nature or frequency of the Pursuer’s solicitations can engender deep frustration and resentment among Avoiders.
Fortunately, given that we all function as Pursuers and Avoiders in different ways, we can draw on this knowledge to better understand where our partner might be coming from. Even if the particular type of pursuit or avoidance is different, we can at least grasp the mindset and experience associated with both modes of operating.
We’ll now turn our attention to the most common Pursuer-Avoider pattern in relationships. Not only with this serve as a useful way of illustrating these two roles, but it will also reveal how they interconnect and interplay with each other.
The Most Common “Pursuer-Avoider” Pattern
Given that the majority of relationships are composed of a more masculine partner (typically a man or Thinking type) and one who is more feminine (typically a woman or Feeling type), our discussion will assume this relational structure. For the sake of convenience and parsimony, I will use men and women as representatives of the masculine and feminine partners respectively, which is not to discount the myriad complexities of personality, gender, and sexual preference.
As far as I can tell, the most common Pursuer-Avoider pattern is one in which women (especially those who are Feeling types) are seen as emotional Pursuers and sexual Avoiders, while men (especially Thinking types) tend to function as emotional Avoiders and sexual Pursuers. In other words, women are Pursuers of emotional intimacy while men focus more on sexual engagement. When these attempts to connect are stifled, rebuffed, or otherwise unsatisfied, relational frustrations can quickly mount. And because of their interconnectedness, deficits in emotional intimacy often means less frequent or satisfying sex, and vice-versa.
This particular Pursuer-Avoider pattern can be understood, at least to some degree, in light of the Jungian functions. If we roughly associate emotions with the Feeling (F) functions and sex with the Sensing (S) functions, we find that women who are Feelers usually have a stronger F than S function (except ESFPs and ISFJs) and men who are Thinkers typically have a stronger S than F function (except INTJs and ENTPs). Given our inclination to reach for the most consciously accessible tool for connecting with our partner, it makes sense that many women default to connecting emotionally and men sexually.
When these connections break down and neither partner’s needs are being adequately met, what Elaine Schallock has dubbed the “Hostage Situation” ensues, fueled by mutual frustration and avoidance. We’ve all heard the trope about women withholding sex and men withholding their feelings. The underlying message which underpins the Hostage metaphor is: “I’m not opening myself to you unless you open yourself to me.” What typically precedes this stand-off is one or both partners feeling shorted, the sense that our partner isn’t holding up their side of the bargain.
Putting an end to this stand-off requires at least one partner to let go of their ego frustration and make a deliberate act of generosity. And while such good faith gestures may temporarily defuse the situation, the real solution isn’t rooted in self-sacrifice per se, but in a new vision for, and understanding of, the relationship.
A New Relational Vision
Let’s face it. Many men don’t particularly relish the idea of discussing their emotions, let alone navigating their partners’ labyrinthine emotional landscape. Likewise, many women don’t relish the sort of direct, predictable, mechanical sex one might encounter in a porn video. Consequently, both men and women routinely feel they must make “sacrifices” to satisfy their partner’s Pursuer needs.
While some measure of self-sacrifice or “fake it ‘til you make it” may be useful in the early years of a relationship when we’re less mature and developed, it’s not an optimal or sustainable long-term strategy. What’s needed is a new understanding in which whatever we’re doing to meet our partner’s needs is also seen as paving the way to our own happiness and wholeness as individuals.
Here’s how this looks from a Jungian perspective. Whether we realize it or not, our partner embodies many of the traits we ultimately want to experience and integrate in ourselves. In fact, this is probably why we were drawn to our partner in the first place. Viewed this way, our partner’s differences shouldn’t be viewed as impediments—as objects of frustration and eye-rolling—but as opportunities for learning and development. Essentially, our partner is our teacher, and we are theirs. They were put in our life to show us a different way of being in the world and to help us become more whole.
Importantly, the “other way of being” pointed to by our partner already exists within us. But because it’s largely unconscious, we can only see it dimly, like a shadowy figure behind clouded glass. We need our partner to help bring this side of ourselves into greater consciousness and fruition. As we work on ourselves and the relationship, there are breakthrough moments that give us a glimpse of the joy and potential of this other mode of being. These “mini-miracles” help us know we are on the right track and spur us forward in our relational journey.
As all of this unfolds, something remarkable happens. What used to feel like a duty or a sacrifice starts to feel more rewarding and less cumbersome. We may even surprisingly find ourselves wanting to connect with our partner in the very way we previously avoided. It can feel as though we’ve discovered a new dimension of life, a new inner capacity we never thought possible. As we wrestle our way forward in the relationship we may also realize that we’re on a path to spiritual awakening. The Pursuer-Avoider dynamic gradually gives way to a mutual desire and ability to connect in all dimensions.
Resistance to Change
Unfortunately, the vision I’ve just outlined is the exception rather than the rule in relationships. There are a number of reasons for this. Unwillingness to change or participate out of ego stubbornness is probably the most common. Other couples may lack the motivation or impetus to change. Still others may lack the requisite wisdom for effectively navigating what can be an incredibly difficult and at times disorienting journey.
Age is another relevant factor. In early adulthood, we’re still trying to get a grasp on who we are as individuals. Establishing a career is often prioritized, especially among masculine types. Growing a career and relationship simultaneously, while not impossible, is rarely easy.
For these and other reasons, the Pursuer-Avoider and Hostage dynamics exist, to various degrees, in most relationships. This produces mutual frustration which is expressed directly or passive-aggressively.
The hard-to-swallow reality about humans is we often refuse to change (at least in any substantial way) unless life pushes us into a corner where we have no other choice. We’re too proud, too complacent, and too attached to our ego’s assumptions and preferred mode of operating. It thus takes a crisis of meaning (e.g., a divorce, addiction, depression, nervous breakdown, etc.) which screams—“The old way isn’t working anymore!”—to break through the walls encapsulating our hearts and minds. This paves the way for the unconscious (or God if you prefer) to come to the rescue, revealing a fresh way of thinking or being which lifts us out of despair and into new life. This is as exhilarating as it is perplexing, yielding higher states of integration and understanding.
Fights and blowouts can at times have similar restorative effects. While obviously not the ideal means of relational growth, there is an element of realness and honesty that can make space for a renewed connection. More optimally, couples would learn to communicate honestly, but also patiently and respectfully, facilitating growth with less collateral damage.
Finding the Right “Frame”
Some may fear that working to resolve conflicts might somehow render their relationship dull or boring. Where will the fire and passion come from if all that conflict and tension is relieved or neutralized? This is a perfectly fair and reasonable concern.
In addressing this concern, it’s important to think carefully about how we frame the aim of our relationship. For some partners, terms like “growth” or “development” might be associated with advancing along a predictable path toward a more harmonious, but ultimately less exciting, union. While finding balance may be peaceful, it also sounds a bit dull.
You might therefore prefer to think of your relationship as an adventure, as an opportunity to explore interesting and unknown territories with your partner. This can make authentic and honest engagement seem less like an obligation (i.e., something “healthy” couples should do) and more like a gateway to greater meaning and new discoveries.
Moreover, we needn’t imagine a fixed end or stopping point for our relational journey (e.g., “After a year or two, they’ll be nothing more to learn about each other.”) since both we and our partner, as well as our life circumstances, are always changing. This means there will always be new challenges to wrestle with that can keep things interesting. Indeed, one might argue that avoiding relational problems and perpetuating the Hostage Situation actually produces a more predictable and mundane type of relationship.
So go forth, fellow journeyers, and see what treasures await you in the yet unexplored territories of your relational adventure!
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