Distance Pursuit games are dysfunctional patterns caused by impaired abilities to maintain a healthy separatness and connectedness in relationships. If we get this right, everything else about the relationship will be right. Healthy intimacy flows from the healthy boundaries that separate us and the ability to connect, sharing our lives and who we really are with each other.
Any expert on healthy relationships will spend time assessing the separateness and connectedness of a couple who comes in for help. The ability to maintain a solid sense-of-self (separateness) is critical to being able to co-create a healthy relationship.
Likewise, the ability to bond with another person (connectedness) is also a requirement for true intimacy. To get an idea of this concept, bring both of your hands together touching only at the finger tips and thumbs. Here you see two parts creating one whole (connectedness). However, you can also see where one part begins and the other ends because there is a healthy boundary between the two (separateness).
Now, interlace your fingers as if you are folding your hands. This is all connectedness and no separateness. Two terms used in family therapy for this dysfunctional connection are fusion or enmeshment. The couple has become so tangled up with each other emotionally that it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins - they have lost their healthy boundary.
Enmeshment may look equal but it is not. One person gets "swallowed-up" or engulfed by the other, losing their autonomy and sense-of-self. An Externalizer usually does the swallowing and the Internalizer usually gets swallowed-up (See internalizing and externalizing).
Now separate you hands by about 6 to 8 inches, here you can see all separateness and no connection. Family therapists call this a disengaged relationship. The wide boundary between them is created and maintained by distancing behaviors such as physical absence, emotional withdrawal, retreating into an activity such as work, television, reading, or busyness. Extra-marital affairs, frequent bursts of rage or anger, and disappearing on an addictive binge for days and weeks at a time are the more severe forms of distancing behavior.
Distance pursuit behaviors are programmed strategies used to control or regulate the safe-distance between each other in a relationship. As already mentioned, it is healthy to have some separateness in the relationship in order to preserve a sense-of-self. The healthy way to regulate that distance is to set healthy boundaries by saying, hearing and accepting the word "no".
In a dysfunction family or relationship saying and/or hearing the word "no" is usually a no-no. Externalizers (Distancers) have difficulty hearing and accepting the word "no" while Internalizers (Pursuers) generally have trouble saying the word "no" because "If I say no you might leave me" - fear of abandonment.
From a TA perspective, impaired regulation of separateness is the function of the Angry/Defiant Child ego state while impaired regulation of connectedness is the function of the Vulnerable Child ego-state.
The Vulnerable/Needy Child ego-state develops in the earliest years of life when experiences in our parental relationships impact the development of our ability to trust, nurture, and connect with self and others. This is the time in life when we are the most vulnerable and defenseless.
We need this vulnerable ego state in order to connect with others as well as ourselves. If our family is healthy and provides a "safe container" in which to grow and develop then our ability to be vulnerable and connect with others is likely to be whole and intact.
On the other hand, if we are not protected in the safe container of a healthy family then we are exposed to experiences that create the original wounds of abandonment - our abilities to connect are then impaired by fear of abandonment and/or fear of intimacy.
We need the Angry/Defiant Child ego-state in order to separate and develop an independent sense-of-self. This part of us also begins to develop in the first years of life. Consider what is commonly referred to as the "Terrible Two's" - this is when the child makes his/her first bid for autonomy or separateness by saying the word "no". How that developmental task is tolerated and responded to will set the stage for the official debut of the Angry/Defiant Child ego-state at 12 to 13 years old. Puberty is the onset of adolescence when separateness is the major theme.
It is by the end of this developmental period that the young person must become a fully-functioning adult human being capable of separating from the family and making their own way in the world. The harder that parents hold on, the more defiant and rebellious the teenager will be in order to break the "apron strings" and strike out on their own.
Again if all of this plays out within the bounds of a healthy family unit then the transition to adulthood and happily-ever-after relationships are possible. In a moderate to severely dysfunctional family children are not allowed to separate in healthy ways...so their "Little Professor" helps them to separate in other ways through the use of survival strategies and the fight-or-flight reactions described here as distance pursuit games.
The Distance Pursuit Game is frequently the result in a dysfunctional relationship because Distancers & Pursuers attract each other - they are extremely compatible. The Distancer has a conscious fear of losing control by getting swallowed-up. The Pursuer has a conscious fear of losing control by being abandoned.
When the Distancer gets too close in a relationship they subconsciously slide into a distancing behavior. This causes the Pursuer's fear of abandonment to be triggered so they begin to pursue the Distancer...which causes the Distancer to distance even more...which leads the Pursuer to pursue even harder. This eventually ends up with the Pursuer giving up the chase and turning away.
When the Pursuer gives up and begins to distance, the Distancer's fear of being swallowed-up subsides and is replaced by a fear of abandonment which puts them into the role of Pursuer as if to say, "Hey, where are you going?"
When the Pursuer-turned-Distancer realizes they are being pursued by the Distancer-turned-Pursuer they turn back and begin to move closer, perhaps thinking, "Maybe there is a chance for us after all!" Everything is fine for a moment - until the original Distancer's fear of losing control or being swallowed-up resurfaces leading to another round of cat-and-mouse.