I often meet couples who feel trapped in a cycle of chronic arguing. Try as they might, one partner can’t get the other to understand their frustration and anger over seemingly straight forward issues, requests or needs. The other may feel battered by relentless harping about those same, old issues. Their disagreements invariably spiral out of control, and nothing ever gets resolved. If this sounds familiar, you may be caught in the “pursuer-distancer cycle”, also called “octopus-tortoise syndrome”.
Strong primitive emotions are in play when couples argue intensely – you may have heard it called ‘flight/flight’. With pursuer/distancer (octopus/tortoise) couples, one partner’s place of emotional safety is radically different from their partner’s.
The partner with pursuing behaviours seeks closeness and bonding during times of stress. They gravitate toward others and desire communication, connection, and resolution. Like an octopus, their metaphorical eight arms keep reaching for the other to hold and bring close. During an argument, the typical octopus will pursue, chase, and insist on connection to as the only way to resolve a conflict. If they don’t feel an intimate connection with their tortoise partner, they can become anxious, frustrated and angry. And this can worsen if their partner becomes evasive or unresponsiveness. Pursuers criticise their partner for being unfeeling and avoidant.
The demands of a pursuer can feel smothering to a distancer (tortoise) partner. A distancer’s mode of attaining equilibrium during stressful moments is to self-protect. They seek a tranquil space to think, or perhaps they engage in a distracting activity --that might include sports, sleep, a trip to the pub, or time alone. Sometimes addictive behaviour is involved. They don’t function well when they feel cornered, in fact they feel worse, and might label the pursuer as badgering and insatiable. “Why can’t you just give it a rest and stop hounding me?” For them, safety is achieved by withdrawing to a private space to think and feel.
So you can see the dilemma – one wants closeness and the other craves separateness. Relationships can implode if couples become entrenched in these roles.
So is it just that opposites attract? In my view pursuer-distancer couples are unconsciously playing out the conundrum that dwells within every relationship – how to be a twosome whilst simultaneously maintaining independence. The amount of closeness and separateness is constantly in flux within couples; sometimes there is too much of one, and not enough of the other. All partnership require both time together and time apart. Yet in octopus-tortoise dynamics, one partner entirely colonizes the togetherness element, and the other wholly regulates the separateness component. These stagnant roles thrust couples into unhealthy extremes.
In order to achieve greater equilibrium and couple harmony, the couple must first realise what the fights are about. They aren’t about the housework, in-laws, time spent apart, the dishwasher, or family vacations. The real is issue centres around core feelings of closeness and separateness – in other words, our overriding human need to feel safe and cared for. For some people that translates into connection and reassurance, for others it means carving out time alone to think and recharge. “What can’t you come closer?” vs. “Why can’t you give me the space I need?”
Couples argue passionately because they feel out of kilter emotionally, they require soothing, and their partner is doing exactly the opposite behaviour of what they crave. Tortoises crave space to think and feel. Octopuses crave emotional closeness. Yet, when tortoises are in an argument, it becomes impossible for them to engage if they feel hounded and criticised by the octopus. Likewise, the octopus becomes enraged by the tortoise’s unwillingness/inability to engage at that moment.
What’s the trick to resolve this?
1) Expressing how you FEEL make a huge difference to couple dynamics. Use ‘I’ statements to say what you need and how you feel. When individuals can recognise the vulnerable feelings behind the arguing, immediate changes can occur within in the couple dynamic. A wife who is a pursuer may be showing anger and frustration at not being heard, but actually feels lost and alone. For a distancer/tortoise husband, he may be feeling frustration and rage, but the underlying emotions are shame and inadequacy -- emotions that can be difficult to express.
2) Develop new actions. The octopus partner needs to find more patience, and step back from immediate resolution. They need to listen, ask questions and create a calm atmosphere to allow the tortoise to think. Tortoises are unable to think when things get heated. Even though tortoises may shout, their shout is a desire for peace, quiet, space, time and neutrality. So tortoises have to become better at saying what’s on their mind, or schedule a time when they will be ready to engage with the octopus partner.
3) Practically you might agree a safe word or hand signal which means the quarrelling stops immediately until things cool down.
4) Some set aside a specific time and space to discuss difficult topics, with rigorous time-keeping and limits. A technique called the ‘chairs’ listed on my website helps organise and moderate discussions so they stay focused and productive. A rule of thumb when arguing is to use only “I” statements which means speaking about your own feelings and not your partner’s inadequacies.
For sustained change, modifying ingrained thoughts and behaviours will take time and patience. This is where an impartial unaligned third eye view is invaluable. A trained professional can help the couple feel understood, see when they begin to go off track, and provide tools and tips to deepen their connection and get back on a healthy path.