The Intimacy Tug-Of-War

How couples can resolve their struggle to get close.

What is the Intimacy Tug-Of-War?

After a time most relationships settle into the following pattern: – one partner seeking more closeness and the other partner seeking more distance. This is often called the pursuer-distancer pattern; sometimes it is called the “blamer-withdrawer dance”.

You won’t see these patterns early in a relationship, during the honeymoon stage. In this phase people are too focussed on how wonderful and ideal their partner is, and are themselves working hard at being the ideal partner for the other. But pretty soon, probably even from the beginning, couples start to shape each other into these roles, leading to a perennial tug-of-war over intimacy.

Remember Goldilocks?

The reason for this is that even before we meet our spouse, we all have a preferred level of closeness to a partner; a kind of a goldilocks distance that we like to have between us and our partner. Remember Goldilocks? She needed her porridge to be not too hot yet not too cold. Just like Goldilocks, too much intimacy and we become uncomfortable, too much disengagement and we become anxious. We are in a perpetual struggle to get our partner to be “just right”. This is our goldilocks distance – our preferred level of closeness to our partner.

This tug-of-war may be over the physical distance between partners or it may be over the quantity and quality of physical affection. It may be over how much attention partners are getting from each other. Or how much conversation is going on. It may be over how much emotional attunement and empathy is happening between them; how much they feel they can go to their partner and confide in them about their troubles. This struggle may be over how much couples set goals or plan things together. It may be over sex.

If our partner prefers more distance or closeness than we do, we will have discomfort. It is inevitable. How big that discomfort is depends on how different our goldilocks or preferred level of closeness is from our partner’s. This struggle can be overt or it can be unspoken. It can result in loud fights, or in quiet desperation.

Here’s the rub!

I’m going to tell you why things can get a whole lot tougher in a relationship than you imagined.

Why does it have to be so complicated?

Most couples, particularly when they are young, form complementary relationships. In other words we tend to choose partners who have a characteristic, or way of being in the world, that we are not as strong in.

You see it all the time in young couples. One person may be outgoing and the other may be extroverted. One partner may be more spontaneous while the other needs to plan and consider things more. One may be emotionally stable while the other has large peaks and troughs of emotions. One can be calmly determined and persistent while the other has bursts of enthusiasm

success_kidOf course we match up like this unconsciously, and we tend to do it more when we are young. Ninety years ago, Carl Jung called this “borrowed functioning”. He meant that we tether ourselves to someone who has functioning, or a way of being in the world, that we are not as strong at. There are all sorts of reasons why we might do this, but one of the unfortunate side-effects is that our goldilocks levels for closeness are already mismatched at the point of getting together. Our relationships have an inbuilt time bomb of frustration and longing embedded from the very beginning.

While we are in that early honeymoon phase (in which we idealise the other and we behave in a way that matches our lover’s ideal), this problem is kept at bay. But slowly, slowly, we begin to feel discomfort if our loved-one seems too demanding or too needy. (Or if we feel they are not needy enough!) We might look to have more time to ourselves. We might get uncomfortable and look at our phone when our partner wants to talk about their troubles at work again. They might feel sadness and anxiety when we pull away or distract. They might become upset with us and criticise us for being selfish or disrespectful if we don’t listen and attune to them. We might get defensive and tell them they are over-reacting, that they should stop being so needy. Before you know it we are in a pursuer-distancer pattern. We have become blamer and withdrawer. We are in a tug-of-war for intimacy.

I want to tell you about Luke and Sonia.

Luke and Sonia got together when they were both 23 years old. Luke was outgoing, bombastic, highly intelligent and given to big mood changes. Sonia was introverted, cautious, and more stable in mood. Luke liked the way she had a constant circle of friends and close family. He liked her stability. Sonia liked the way Luke thought about things differently, and the way he was always trying new things.

After six years of being together, Luke complained that Sonia never wanted to explore new things. He felt constrained, even in the kind of restaurants they chose. He said she was constantly getting cranky at him for saying the wrong thing. He felt claustrophobic by her preference for doing the same things and seeing the same people. He was in a constant tug-of-war to have sex. In recent times he had started doing things on his own, and had just taken up rock-climbing. He felt as if he couldn’t say what he felt to Sonia anymore.

Sonia, on the other hand, felt pressured to be somebody she wasn’t. She felt she was always being pushed to do things, to eat new food, and meet new people. She felt sex was something to be dreaded rather than anticipated. If she did say yes to Luke, then she feared it would still not be good enough for him. When he said outrageous and bombastic things, she felt annoyed, like he was trying to win all the time. Though she was saddened by his going out by himself, a part of her also felt relieved that she could get back into her own space a bit more, free from Luke’s demands and disappointment.

I’m not going to kid you.

I’m not going to kid you. This tug-of-war for closeness is at the heart of why people split up. When couples break up, one person gives up the struggle and stops trying to improve things with their spouse. They may or may not have met somebody else, but they usually start to imagine being with somebody different – somebody with whom they might feel less helpless and depressed by the gulf between their goldilocks levels of closeness. Sometimes people just want to be single again, even imagining a kind of monastic existence, which feels free of the despair and the depression that comes with this tug-of-war over intimacy.

The Gottmans are currently the world-recognised authorities on researching and treating marital discord. They make the point that in the vast majority of cases, affairs are not driven by lust, but by the desire to have closeness that feels more like their preferred internal goldilocks levels of intimacy. People who have affairs, in the main, feel blocked from achieving this with their spouse.


So what can couples do?

So what can couples do about this?

Believe it or not


Here are a few broad brush strokes.

First Step: Stop! Don’t Do What You Would Normally Do Next.

When You Are in a Tug-Of-War that is not getting anywhere, stop pulling.

In other words, stop doing what you tend to do to solve this problem of closeness. Do something different.

People who blame, criticise, or have an edge of contempt in their voice, need to learn to talk about their feelings and thoughts without clobbering their partner over the head. They need to say clearly what they need from their partner so their partner can respond easily. Most people think they are already asking but don’t realise how they are coming across.

This is what Luke had to do. Instead of getting angry and frustrated about sex, he had to first work hard at providing the conditions by which Sonia would feel more loved by him. He had to first allow Sonia to experience touch without strings attached; affection for its own sake. He had to take more interest in her and in what made her wheels spin. He then had to create the right conditions for sex:- low-level flirting and casual admiration. He started to put out there what he felt and what he wanted without it being a demand or an expectation. He had to quarantine his disappointment when she said “no”, so that next time Sonia felt free to truly consider his proposal. He had to create an air of possibility for them both to share in. Slowly Sonia joined him in this. Once Luke changed his goal to having more eroticism rather than more sex, it felt better for both of them.

listeningOn the other hand, if you tend to look for distractions when your partner is unhappy (especially unhappy at you), or you stonewall when they want to talk to you, then instead you will need to learn skills to manage your anxiety and stay engaged and actively listen to your partner, even if you don’t agree. Empathy is not a policy it is a skill that requires eye contact, words, and understanding.

Cut Some Slack

One of the hardest things for couples to do is to come to an acceptance of each other’s goldilocks distance. Once you understand that you are both different and that fighting over closeness is just making it worse, then you can have a meta-conversation.

A meta-conversation is one where you both acknowledge this difference and validate it. Both people in the relationship can finally feel understood and accepted. Instead of having a tug-of-war, this opens up warm feelings and a willingness to meet each other halfway.

Through counselling, Sonia realised that Luke was crying out for more companionship, a partner he could share adventures with and bounce things off. Once he started becoming less angry and critical, she validated his need and joined him more often in things like rock-climbing and trying new restaurants. At the same time, Luke accepted her need to do these things at her own level of comfort.

By becoming more accepting of each other’s differences, they both started feeling more loved and even began valuing the differences between them. I remember Luke telling me that after watching a movie he now started looking forward to hearing Sonia’s appraisal because it was so different to his. Six months earlier, he would have seen it as evidence that she just didn’t get him.

The mistake I have seen many times in marriage counselling is when one person’s goldilocks distance is promoted by the therapist over the other person’s, usually because it is the one that the therapist is more comfortable with. This only leads to one person feeling ganged-up on and blamed.

By Tungphoto,
By Tungphoto,

Become an expert at being able to make your partner feel loved

When you read this sentences, it seems pretty obvious doesn’t it? And yet you would be amazed at how often when I see couples, they have little or no idea of how to make their partner feel loved.

If I ask someone, “What do you do that makes your partner feel loved?” I usually get a blank stare, followed by a vague, general statement of how they feel about their spouse. Then if I ask, “What behaviour do you actually do?” I usually get another blank look.

Having a conversation about this was revolutionary for Luke and Sonia. Luke had spent so much time being preoccupied with his own disappointment, and Sonia with her own self-protection, that they had not asked this question much at all. It was foreign even to think about what they themselves would want from their partner in order to feel loved.

Luke realised he had not given Sonia much in this way. He learned that what she most wanted was to hear that she was good enough for him, to feel that she was accepted and good-enough as a spouse. More than anything she wanted physical affection without strings attached.

Luke found that there was more to feeling loved than having sex. He wanted someone to talk through his thoughts with. He wanted Sonia to be interested in what he was into, and to even join in. They both discovered that doing these things for their partner was not a cost, but rather something they looked forward to doing.

Alternate between self-soothing and soothing through your partner

If there is one skill I would recommend for couples, it would be neither self-reliance nor leaning on the other. Instead it would be the flexibility and wisdom to do both of these things at the right time.

Some people want self-reliance in a marriage – that way they can feel free from too much clinginess and from feeling pressured and demanded of. You can see this in the way Sonia was dealing with Luke’s goldilocks distance. She would distract herself, look at her phone, or just make herself busy when Luke seemed demanding. She would admonish him for being too “needy”.

Other people rely too much on soothing and reassurance from their partner. You can see this with Luke; the way he would pursue Sonia for sex, and then feel great dismay when she wasn’t interested.

couple_sofaThrough counselling, Sonia opened up to not just meeting some of Luke’s needs for closeness, but also she explored accessing Luke as a confidante – for her own soothing and closeness needs. Meanwhile Luke learned to self-soothe when his partner was not syncing with him. He learned not to sink into feelings of helplessness and dismay, and keep in mind that this was just a temporary state of separation.

Relationships are the hardest thing we will ever have to do. They are also the most important thing we will ever have to do. We may as well learn to do it well.

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