One of the most common problematic dynamics among couples is a pursuer-withdrawer “dance.”
In my 25 years as a marriage counselor I have worked with hundreds of couples to transform this self-reinforcing, negative cycle, which is also termed “approach-avoidant” or “abandonment-engulfment” depending on a therapist’s theoretical model.
Drawing from the work of attachment theorist John Bowlby, many pioneers in marital therapy including John Gottman and Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, have written extensively about this dynamic.
The dance goes like this:
- One partner seeks closeness. The second partner fails to respond.
- After repeated rebuffs, the first partner comes to feel rejected, lonely, frustrated or unloved and ups the volume or ante.
- The second partner then feels crowded, pressured, criticized or unaccepted and shuts down more or withdraws faster or farther.
- If a couple doesn’t attend to this dynamic, this pursuer-withdrawer cycle can become chronic, leading to dissatisfaction that weakens a couple’s connection.
As you think about a current relationship — or as you review your relationship history — do you recognize being in either a pursuer or withdrawer role? You may find a pattern of being primarily in one role. Or you may find that you’ve taken a pursuer role in some relationships and a withdrawer role in others.
Because this is such a painful cycle, many partners tend to see their partner’s part in this dynamic but ignore their own role. For example, the person unsuccessfully seeking closeness may come to see their partner as commitment-phobic, cold or self-absorbed. Or the person feeling pursued views the other as insecure, clingy or demanding.
Both partners can become self-righteous. Pursuers feel they are making a stand for intimacy. Withdrawers feel they are making a stand for independence.
Healthy relationships are a blend of intimacy and independence. Couples have to be willing to make room for both closeness and distance or the result is a stalemate.
Here are two big steps that can help:
1) Recognize that the real issue is connection
We all crave connection. It is a primary need. It’s why we seek relationships in the first place. But each of us seeks connection in different ways.
When you are in conflict with your partner, remind each other that you share a goal of connection. Talk about how and when each person feels most connected.
One person may feel connected through conversation or spending quality time together. Another may feel most connected through a shared activity or physical affection.
One tool to help you identify what helps you feel most loved and connected is the free love languages test.
As you identify ways that make each of you feel closer, incorporate these into your relationship. We naturally do this at the beginning of relationships but over time our efforts to reach out can drop off. Relationships take work and upkeep.
Find ways to include paths to connection that combine both your needs. This requires give and take. If you aren’t willing to give as well as take, you might need to question whether you should be in a serious relationship at this time or with your current partner.
2) Identify the fears and desires underneath the pursuer-withdrawer cycle.
When you find yourself in an argument — whether it is about household chores or how often to visit the in-laws — recognize that many arguments are fundamentally about something deeper than the “right” way to load a dishwasher.
We all have fundamental fears in intimate relationships. These include fears of feeling:
- Unloved or unlovable
- Not good enough
- Not accepted
- Not valued
- Not respected
- Not seen or heard
Many arguments are a reflection of one or more of these fears. If arguments focus only on chores or visits to in-laws, these underlying fears can’t get addressed. This virtually guarantees the issue will resurface in other forms.
When you find yourself locking horns with your partner, stop and ask yourself, is one or more of these fundamental fears being activated? If so, label it and own it.
For example, say “When you leave your dishes in the sink, I feel like you see me as a maid. I feel invisible, not respected and not equal. It makes me feel less close to you. Can we talk about this and find a solution that will work for both of us?” This can open the door for your partner to understand what you are really upset about and respond in kind.
This is the first of a four-part series on transforming a pursuer-withdrawer dynamic in relationships. Part Two can help you identify your unique attachment style and how it may be affecting your most intimate relationships. Part Three offers seven ways to overcome a pursue-withdraw dynamic. Part Four offers eight more ways to get unstuck from the pursue-withdraw cycle.