Pursuer – Evader Syndrome

In this all too common syndrome, we are not talking about sex although sexual attraction will often be affected. Instead, we are referring to conflicting levels of desire and tolerance for emotional intensity. Where one partner desires more personal talk about feelings, the other may feel very uncomfortable with such and therefore avoid putting themselves in such a situation. There are several possible causes for this, the most common being the evader’s fear of incompetence and shame when it comes to intangible matters of emotional experience. Very often, such people don’t even have the necessary language let alone the insight for emotional expression.

Another possible cause is that the evader lacks necessary emotional defenses. They may not have adequately integrated anger such that they can easily assert themselves if necessary . Instead, they may only have a limited repertoire of either totally evading potential conflict or completely melting down into a rage. They may have never developed healthy anger to the point that they can respect their own use of it in their own defense. For this reason, they may sense that they cannot risk much vulnerability by getting too emotionally exposed. Such reactions are particularly common among people who were raised in the fearful shadow of a raging parent.

A third explanation may be that the evader has become overly dependent upon their other partner for making decisions. If the first partner was raised in an environment in which they did not receive a lot of positive attention to their desires, they may have accumulated a lot of shame around their need for satisfying self-interest. This can lead them to seek out a symbiotic relationship in adult life. In the symbiotic relationship, they can get their other partner to expose selfish interest while they go along for the ride. For them to be more openly “selfish” would evoke associated shame from their childhood. This dynamic is often seen in therapy as many patients become conscious of anxiety and shame associated with their exposure of self-interest. Unfortunately, a symbiotic solution for this does not work well. Often, the dependent person unconsciously gives up choices to their partner before they are even aware of their doing so. This high level of dependence means that the person already feels “joined at the hip” and too close to their partner. For this reason, they anxiously feel the need to keep more separate. They use emotional distance to try to accomplish this. What they actually need is more distance between their two psychological identities, not a lack of intimacy. However, they don’t know this. Their symbiotic dependence upon their partner (for choice-making) is a loss of psychological boundaries. They have the self interest part of their own identity being vicariously experienced through their other partner. The technical term for this is “projective identification”.

Because the pursuer-evader syndrome has several possible causes, no one single intervention is appropriate for all situations. However, it can be generalized that the pursuer does not necessarily have a responsibility to “tone it down”. The person who has usually pursued does have to be careful to avoid intrusiveness. They should discard any sarcasm and shaming techniques. They also need to be sensitive to their partner’s healthy assertions for privacy when desired. Nevertheless, most of the work is on the side of the evader. It is their boundaries and capacity for intensity that need strengthening.


INTERVENTION #1 (Where a partner merely lacks insight and the language of emotion)

Where a partner may have grown up in a family that did not talk intimately, the person will often lack emotional insight. Intimacy may seem like a foreign language in which they are hopelessly inept. However, this deficit can be overcome with hard work. The following are some alternatives that have been helpful to others:

1) Join a self-help group in which members are discussing emotional issues. It is a less threatening way to learn about your own emotions than being in the company of your own partner. In the Raleigh area of North Carolina, the Men’s Center of Raleigh has historically had some self-help support groups. The Women’s Center in Raleigh may also know of some self-help groups for women. If you came from an alcoholic background, consider ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) groups run by Alanon in your area. These types of groups are excellent vehicles for learning to become more psychologically minded and learning the language of emotion. The local telephone numbers are (919) 832 0509, (919) 829 3711, and (919) 713 1516 for the Men’s Center, the Women’s Center, and Alanon respectively.

2) Join a process-oriented psychotherapy group. This is a much more intensive experience than participating in a self-help group. A psychotherapy group will usually do more teaching in the context of more immediate feelings. In other words, emotional reconditioning usually takes place along with cognitive learning. The result is usually a greater tolerance for emotional intensity. Cary Counseling Center does have such therapy groups available.

3) Explore the possibility of a structured group-based course that teaches intimacy skills. One such course is PAIRS ( www.pairs.com ) which is available in Raleigh, N.C. at the Psychological Resource Center (Tele. # 919 469 0864 ). For other areas of the country, local providers are listed at the PAIRS website. The strength of this program lies in its experiential-didactic exercises and its group dynamic with other couples going through the course at the same time. Individuals cannot “hide out” and remain emotionally uninvolved. The course is more of a workshop in which people will have to learn about their own emotions while they are being stimulated. We recommend it highly.


INTERVENTION #2 (Where a partner has poorly integrated anger and trouble asserting themselves)

This is problem that usually requires intensive therapy. This would usually involve starting off with individual psychotherapy and may later involve group therapy. Because of deep-rooted shame, it is unlikely that a person will make much progress without outside help. The best course of action is to make an appointment with a good counselor or therapist.


INTERVENTION #3 (Where a partner is overly dependent upon their partner for making decisions and expressing self-interest)

1) Obtain Maggie Scarf’s excellent book Intimate Partners. The book goes into much depth about projective identification and its emotional consequences.

2) Read about the Initiator-Dependent Syndrome described elsewhere in this kit. There is much overlap between the two Pursuer-Evader and Initiator-Dependent Syndromes. However, the overlap is not total. You may want to try the suggested intervention for the latter Syndrome.

3) Use a therapy group to reduce the shame issues that are getting in the way of evader’s expression of self-interest. Where expression of will is inhibited, old shame or even developmental issues are often the basis. Group therapy will often detoxify shame as well as help a person develop more internalized permission for making choices.

4) If the evader can agree that they are engaging in avoidance, then they might be willing to try counteracting their compulsion. If so, both of you might be able to negotiate a routine for intimate communication. The keyword here is “routine”. Set up a time and place on a weekly basis when you and your partner will have 2 hours for really focussing on each other’s experiences. If this has not been going on and the relationship has been deprived of intimacy, then set up 2 periods of 2 hours each for a total of 4 hours each week. Make sure that children are not around since dependency needs are not usually met when a person is in “parent mode”. Both of you will need to feel unencumbered. The reason for setting up a routine is that it greatly reduces the chances of unconscious sabotage. Make sure that the location is well planned. Usually, outside of the home works better because there are fewer cues and distractions for other responsibilities. Mark off the dates, locations, and times on your schedule book or calendar. Do not underestimate the power of externally representing your commitment this way. It can have a subtle but powerful emotional effect on your felt priorities.