By Miriam Bellamy, LMFT

Serving Georgia for 20 years.

Online therapy for couples and individuals now available. Convenient. Confidential. Effective.

Does your husband constantly pursue you for sex? Does it feel like all he wants is sex, and that he’ll take it, even if you’re not interested? Are you wondering where the intimacy went? Do you sometimes wish he would leave you alone? Or maybe you feel guilty and feel like you should be giving it up to relieve his apparent misery. Perhaps you are torn between the resentment and the guilt.

The last post was for husbands who pursue their wives. This one is for the wives they pursue. Are you craving intimacy? Are you longing for an emotional connection with your husband? What do you think gets in the way? Most women feel it’s his lack of communication or his lack of emotional sensitivity or his lack of…you-name-it-he-lacks-it.

After seeing many couples turn this around in my 20 years of doing marriage counseling in Georgia, I’ve found that his lack-of-sensitivity isn’t an adequate explanation. When these couples have turned this painful pattern around, it’s not because he’s suddenly developed some skills he didn’t have before. It seems to be more related to a change they make in a fundamental pattern in their relationship. A pattern in systems theory known as distancing that I believe contributes to the most common relationship problems people have. Distancing is also known as a pursuer/distancer pattern, and it is a pattern that both men and women find themselves instinctively using to deal with relationship stresses and anxieties.

Pursuer/Distancer: Here’s how it goes

Years one to five: Husband comes home from work. He’s tired and preoccupied with a deadline he’s facing. Wife is excited to see him. He’s not responsive. Wife believes it is a lack of interest in her, but doesn’t want to be perceived as too sensitive, so she doesn’t bring it up. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Wife starts not bringing up other things as well. She’s tried to bring up other sensitive topics before, but they always end up in some kind of argument. He seems so offended when she shares her hurt or fear. She suspects he’s missing a few brain cells in the emotion department, so she only brings up topics she knows won’t lead to an argument. She starts to fear she married the wrong guy.

Years six to ten: Both wife and husband have continued down a path of not bringing up what’s on their minds to the point they are not revealing much about what they think from day-to-day, be it feelings or thoughts about their work or excitement about something new they’re learning…certainly not anything deeply personal. They’ve got two kids now, and Wife is busy with them. Husband seems not as involved with or interested in them, and Wife’s fear about marrying the wrong guy increases. As her fear increases she develops tunnel vision. She’s gotten to the point where she can’t see the times when her husband is responsive or attentive. She can’t see that he brings value to her life anymore, despite the facts. As husband’s fear increases, he develops tunnel vision as well. He senses wife’s distance and knows he feels connected when he has sex with her, so growing increasingly desperate, he pursues her. She is wondering how he could possibly think she would be interested in sex. He is wondering what he did wrong.

Years eleven to twenty: The couple is in real trouble now. Their marriage difficulties have started distracting them from work and social life, so they go for marriage counseling. Well intentioned, the therapist guides each of them to tell the other what they feel and what they each need. The therapist encourages the wife to communicate her feelings like this: I feel left out when you don’t tell me what’s going on in your life, and I’d like to know what you’re thinking. Or I feel unimportant when you watch TV when I’m trying to talk to you. I’d like to learn more about your day. They have a lovely moment or two in the therapy session, but the feelings don’t last very long. Somehow they haven’t been able to reliably duplicate the lovely moments at home. Sex is almost non-existent. They both feel hopeless and scared. They’ve tried everything.

In this scenario the husband and wife take turns being the pursuer or the distancer. But the underlying pattern was that of distance. Each spouse was focused on the other. You know you’re in a distancer/pursuer dynamic when you or your spouse says something like this: “I’ve done my part, but we’re still having problems because you haven’t done yours.” It’s a statement that quickly halts open communication.

Some Signs You May be Using Distance

Roberta Gilbert, in her book Extraordinary Relationships, lists some signs that you may be in a distance pattern in your marriage:

  • Excessive periods of non-communication when one is emotionally reactive
  • Workaholism
  • Overuse of substances such as alcohol
  • Excessive time spent on hobbies or religious activity
  • A tendency to be quiet when anxiety arises
  • Talk that includes nothing of personal importance
  • An inability to relate to some of the people in one’s immediate or original family

Gilbert writes, “people who are involved in a distance relationship often see their part in it as an attempt to help the relationship—to give it some breathing room.” She says they could also be using distance in a manipulative manner “in an attempt to draw the other in.” Then there are those attempts to get far enough away from the relationship in order to gain control of one’s emotions. On the whole, distancing seems to be an attempt to find relief from the emotional intensity of the relationship. An attempt that rarely, if ever, works.

What She Did

Wife did what is widely accepted as “good” and “healthy” among marriage therapists: she shared her feelings with her husband with a great deal of feeling. But the more she shared, the more he seemed to back away. Her initial reaction was to conclude what she had from the beginning: that he lacked the fundamental ability to be close. But upon further reflection, and the help of a therapist versed in systems theory, she was able to consider there were other ways to approach him that were both meaningful and calm. She began to notice that the more calmly she approached him, the less he distanced from her. Over time and with a lot of practice, she was able to approach her husband more regularly, even if briefly. He began to do the same. This regular, calm contact freed them both up to focus on their own goals and aspirations and to enjoy the goodness each brought to the other’s life. And this included sex.

Want more information? Check out Roberta Gilber’s book Extraordinary Relationships or give me a call. I’m glad to help you develop your ability to get close to each other.