Tools for Couples Happiness — 05 June 2006
How to balance the isolator/pursuer relationship

Though most couples look forward and welcome their togetherness, there are some for whom close connection is problematic. When one mate needs greater distance and the other wished greater proximity, both partners may feel dissatisfied and bewildered by the other’s style and often suffer silently.

The isolator is an individual who feels more comfortable with spending much of his or her time alone and less time with the partner. The pursuer is an individual who feels safer and more secure being with the mate most of the time and is somewhat uneasy being alone. Neither style reflects the depth of love and bonding they may feel for each other. Both the isolator and the pursuer may be very attached, deeply in love and happy in the relationship, while feeling disappointed that their need for connection is so misunderstood.

So why would two people who are so different in their attachment style select one another?

As usual, it all starts in childhood. Between the ages of 18 months and three years children begin to explore their surroundings. They separate from their parents for short periods of time and then joyfully reunite with the loving adult. This is the period of testing distancing from the caregiver with the hope and trust of being embraced upon their return. They graduate from playing “peek a boo” to straying to the other room, as they develop their autonomy.

How the parents handle this stage of freedom may determine the child’s eventual adult safety with closeness and separation. Healthy upbringing encourages the child to explore the environment, while feeling protected by guidance and limits and by being embraced with love upon his or her return. The child who is given permission to practice separation and reconnection safely learns to be comfortable with it in childhood and in adult love relationship.

Less than ideal parents allow their own fear to cause them to become overprotective, restrictive and possessive. The overprotected child may develop frustration about the limits to his or her natural inclinations to assert his ways. He may feel suffocated by the overly restrictive parent and begins to cherish solo time as a form of autonomy. This individual may grow to prefer isolation due to fear engulfment by a partner.

Under-protective, inattentive or neglectful parenting during the exploration phase of the child is another ineffectual upbringing style. The unattended child may develop fears about separateness as he or she is left to figure out how to stay safe. The child may feel panic and yearns for parental attention and protection. Closeness becomes associated with safety and independence with dreaded insecurity. Thus, proximity to the loved one may continue to be intensely sought in adult relationships as well.

Though they have opposite styles of connection, both the isolator and the pursuer were wounded in childhood by ineffective parenting at the same level of early development. They intuitively connect with their counterpart and quickly realize that their divergent style in seeking safety and protection interferes with their smooth attachment and connection with each other.

It also needs to be stated that the amount of contact wished for in relationships varies between individuals. Personality structure and preference or gender inclinations may be responsible for different connecting styles – not necessarily upbringing issues.

If you experience the polarity of an isolator and pursuer in your relationship:

• Realize that your styles probably originated in early childhood in reaction to parental treatment rather than by each other.
• The love you feel for your mate is separate from the amount of time you share.
• If you are an isolator tell your partner that you fear getting closer because of anticipated restricted freedom. Specify how your mate can help you feel cared for and not suffocated. Watch your distancing behaviors and initiate closeness. Share your feelings and comment about the good times you do spend together.
• If you are a pursuer tell your partner that you need his presence and connection to feel loved and safe. Reassure your lover that
this need is not limitless. Set clear behaviors and frequency as the
standard for greater ease for you and solicit your partner’s
cooperation. Restrain your tendency to demand, devalue, chase and
complain. Replace these with appreciation and gratitude for your
partner’s new behavior. Initiate separateness and develop outside
• Both the isolator and the pursuer want safety in connection that can be mutually created through understanding, negotiation, effort and kindness.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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