Intimate relationships can go south when partners get stuck in a pursue-withdraw cycle. In this push-pull dance, one partner seeks greater connection but grows increasingly critical when connection is elusive. The other partner seeks greater autonomy and increasingly withdraws in the face of complaints and pressure.
Underneath this frustrating cycle lies the differing attachment styles of partners. It’s estimated that half of all adults have an insecure attachment style that can lead to either a pursuing or distancing stance in relationships.
Pursuing partners fear rejection or abandonment, and seek reassurance from their partners through closeness and connection.
Withdrawing partners fear being controlled or crowded, and seek relief through independence and autonomy.
Here is an online quiz to help you identify if you have a pursuer-withdrawer relationship.
On some level, pursuers know that chasing a withdrawer is counterproductive. But pursuers fear that if they don’t try to increase connection it will never happen. This leaves pursuers feeling trapped in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dynamic which can lead them to criticize their partners.
Withdrawers know on some level that the pursuer wants closeness but it can feel overwhelming or frightening to provide it. Withdrawers fear that giving in to demands for more connection will lead to losing themselves in the relationship. The withdrawer, too, feels caught in a damned-either-way dynamic: Give in and feel trapped, or resist and receive mounting criticism.
The result can be frequent conflict, a cold-war atmosphere, chaos or drama. In time, this weakens the bonds of a relationship so much that the relationship may end.
Here are seven effective ways to deal with a pursuing-withdrawing dynamic in your relationship:
1) Recognize That the Problem is the Cycle, Not Your Partner
Withdrawers tend to deny, ignore or distance from relationship problems. Pursuers tend to magnify the focus on problems. Together, they create a push-pull dance that alienates both.
To improve your relationship it helps to recognize that this cycle, not your partner, is the enemy of your relationship.
Focus on changing the dance, not on changing your partner. It helps to view problems as happening to the relationship, not to your personally. This promotes a “we” mindset rather than a “you vs. me” mindset.
2) Reckon With the Costs of the Dance
A pursuer-withdrawer cycle is costly. It leads to stress, strain, alienation, conflict, frustration and a lack of intimacy.
Few withdrawers come closer when they feel pressured or chased. By the same token, few pursuers say positive things to a partner who they feel is depriving or rejecting them. Both stances create a self-reinforcing cycle.
While it takes time and work, you can break this costly cycle. Withdrawers need to soothe their fears of engulfment, communicate and participate more with their partner, and be more transparent. Pursuers need to soothe their fears of abandonment, reality test their worst-case scenarios, and be more self-reliant.
Both individuals need to stop seeing their partners as either the problem or potential solution.
3) Honor Each Other’s Differences and Needs
Pursuers and withdrawers in the same situation can have vastly different experiences of time. For a pursuer who is desperate to discuss relationship issues, an hour talking about a relationship may provide just a taste. But to a withdrawer, an hour may feel endless and overwhelming.
By the same token, for a withdrawer, a day without contact may feel like a breath of fresh air, while to the pursuer it may feel like torture.
It helps if withdrawers reassure pursuers that there will be time to talk and spend time together. That can allow a pursuer to self-soothe.
It helps if pursuers reassure withdrawers that they can have their space, that they won’t be criticized for it, and will be welcomed when they return. This can allow a withdrawer to feel free to move closer without fearing they will lose themselves.
4) Anxiety Is the Problem, So Managing Anxiety Is the Solution
Both pursuers and withdrawers are anxious. Pursuers fear being alone and tend to believe that if only their partner would stop distancing, their anxiety would go away. Withdrawers fear being overwhelmed and tend to believe that if only their partner would stop pressuring them, their anxiety would disappear.
Deep down, both want connection, love, and to be seen and accepted for who they are.
Anxiety can bring out the worst in us, triggering primal fears and primitive coping behaviors. In believing that the solution to the problem lies with the other person’s actions, both partners give up their power.
In truth, pursuers need to calm their anxiety by coming to know they are sufficient and okay on their own. Withdrawers need to calm their anxiety by learning that they can get close without being destroyed. These realizations give both partners the power to manage their anxiety.
5) Share Power
One helpful exercise is to agree to take turns calling the shots. For example, a couple can designate an hour, an afternoon, or a day in which one person gets to decide what they do and whether they do it together. The next hour, afternoon or day, switch roles. This way each partner can experience knowing their time will come to have their needs met.
6) Question Your Assumptions
Over time we create a narrative about our partners and relationships and tend to gather evidence to support our viewpoint.
If we see our partner as uncaring, we may grow self-protective, critical or dismissive. But what we view as uncaring behavior may simply be our partner’s style.
For example, if a withdrawer wears a new shirt and the partner asks, “When did you buy that?” the withdrawer, who may be used to feeling criticized or interrogated, may assume judgment rather than curiosity.
Instead, a pursuer could say, “I like that shirt, is that new?” The withdrawer then knows there is positive intent in the question and can relax.
By the same token, when a pursuer hears their partner say, “I am going for a run,” they may feel rejected or unwanted. But if a withdrawing partner says, “I love you. I am going for a run now. I look forward to our evening plans,” the pursuer can feel reassured.
7) Don’t Forget the Magic of Relationships
An intimate relationship is an opportunity to share your needs, fears and longings. Sharing your vulnerabilities is one of the key reasons we seek a primary partner. Don’t let the pursuer-withdrawer dance get in the way of this.
If you were raised in a dysfunctional family with insecure attachment styles, you may have inherited a win-lose, top-bottom, zero-sum-game worldview of people and relationships.
This may feel so familiar that you know no other model. However, the template for living that you inherited is not one that you must endlessly carry out.
Magic can happen when pursuers can tell their partners: “I feel vulnerable, lonely, and afraid but I know you are not the source of those feelings.”
Magic can also happen when withdrawers can say: “I feel irritable, trapped, and smothered but I know you are not the source of those feelings.”
Your relationship can achieve a much deeper level if you own and express your feelings without making your partner responsible for causing or fixing them.
This is the third part of a four-part blog on the pursuer-withdrawer cycle in relationships. Part One covers why this cycle is a frequent problem in many relationships. Part Two can help you identify your unique attachment style and how it may be affecting your most intimate relationships. Part Four offers eight more ways to get unstuck from a pursue-withdraw cycle.
Copyright © Dan Neuharth PhD MFT