If you and your partner are stuck in repeated arguments that leave you both feeling not heard, it may be because you have different attachment styles.
It’s estimated that half of all adults have an insecure attachment style that can lead to either a pursuing or withdrawing stance in relationships.
Part of the challenge is that people with a pursuing style and those with a withdrawing style grew up with opposite experiences. Pursuers believed that closeness equalled safety while withdrawers learned that distance provided safety.
The more the pursuing partner pushes, the more a withdrawing partner distances. This sets up a cyclical dance that is sustained by both people.
Here are eight ways you can defuse a pursuer-withdrawer dance in your relationship.
1) Stop Doing What Isn’t Working
Pursuers know that chasing makes their partner run away even more, but they don’t know what else to do. Withdrawers know that distancing makes their partner chase them even harder but they don’t know what else to do.
One answer is to stop doing what doesn’t work.
For pursuers this means giving a withdrawing partner space. Chasing or pressuring won’t bring them back. If they do come back because of pressure they will do so grudgingly, which isn’t satisfying to either partner.
Instead, let your partner take space. If he needs alone time, let him have it. While he is gone, do things that take care of you. Meditate, exercise, socialize, work or play.
If your partner is committed to the relationship, he will always come back. If he isn’t committed, he is going to eventually leave anyway. You will never get your needs met in such a relationship, so better to find out and move on.
When you give withdrawing partners space they are more likely to also seek connection — perhaps not as often or in the exact ways you want — but they will come of free will, and isn’t that what you really want?
By the same token, if you have withdrawing style, it tends to be exhausting over time. A new approach may mean allowing yourself to edge closer at times. This doesn’t mean you will lose yourself or that you can’t take time or space for yourself. You may find you actually like the closeness if you let yourself experience it.
Withdrawers often find that the less they pull away, the more their pursuing partners may begin to feel more reassured and, in time, stop complaining so much. That’s a win-win.
2) Acknowledge and Appreciate your partner
In many relationships, positive messages are in short supply. We often are quick to speak up when things are wrong but not so quick to voice what is right.
When you recognize times your partner does something wonderful, how many of those times do you say anything? Acknowledgments and appreciations should be given freely, while complaints and criticisms should be shared judiciously. If the ratio in your relationship is the opposite of this, it is time to turn that around.
3) Take Stock of Your Non-verbal Communication
Much of what we communicate is done non-verbally. If your partner brings up an important topic and you are distracted, multi-tasking or failing to make eye contact, it can send the message that you don’t care.
It helps to give your partner your full attention. Turn and face your partner. Make full eye contact. Try not to fidget. Put down electronics.
4) Know That it Is Not Personal
Attachment styles are formed early in life. You cannot chose your attachment style any more than you can choose your eye color.
What you can choose, however, is how you work with your attachment tendencies and whether you allow them to harm your relationships.
Differing styles can be a challenge in a relationship. Withdrawers tend to dismiss, downplay or walk away from conflict. They may avoid emotional discussions or not even recognize when emotions are present in themselves or their partners. Pursuers, by contrast, are often keenly aware of emotions and are willing to risk conflict to address relationship problems and try to make things better.
Instead of blaming your pursuing or withdrawing partner, recognize that they are just trying to get their needs met. They are not trying to deprive or control you or make you miserable.
5) Reassure Your Partner
The pursue-withdraw cycle leaves both partners on edge. Withdrawers can become gun-shy and suspicious, worrying that they can never win and will always be in trouble. Pursuers can become burned out from feeling neglected and unimportant to their partners.
It helps withdrawers to know where pursuers are coming from. When pursuers tell their partners why they are bringing up a topic about the relationship and what they want, withdrawers can feel less like a deer in the headlights.
For example, pursuers can tell distancing partners that they love and care about them and what to be closer. That is why they are bringing up a relationship issue. It is not to criticize or change their partner.
If you are a pursuer, tell the withdrawer what you want. Perhaps you just want them to listen. Perhaps you are making a request to be considered. Perhaps you want to work together to solve a problem. Each are different conversations. It can be calming to distancers to know what is expected of them.
Similarly, withdrawers can reassure their partners by telling them that they love and need them and are not planning to abandon them, but just need some “me” time and will be back.
Withdrawers can reassure anxious partners that their intention is not to make them feel rejected or alone. They can reassure their partners that after they have had time to themselves, they will make time for their partner and for the relationship.
6) Ask, Don’t Tell
Ask for what you want instead of complaining about what you don’t have. State your needs instead of criticizing your partner for not fulfilling them.
If you lead with complaints or criticism, the conversation often goes in a destructive, fruitless direction. Instead, say what you want and ask your partner what he wants. Then talk about how you both can help each other through compromise and cooperation.
7) Take a Page From Your Partner’s Dance Steps
Pursuers focus outside themselves, seeking soothing from their partner to quiet the panic within. Withdrawers focus internally, taking care of their own needs and soothing themselves through distance from others.
These diametrically opposed styles cause misunderstandings and problems. To counteract this, pursuers can grow by occasionally doing what withdrawers do: Learning to focus inward and soothe their own fears rather than seeking reassurance from another. By the same token, withdrawers can grow by doing what comes easier to pursuers: Staying connected instead of distancing.
In the longer term, relationships can grow stronger when pursuers build a secure base within themselves and withdrawers step outside their comfort zone to connect and communicate with others.
8) Never Forget the Power of Vulnerability
Leading with vulnerability can do wonders. For example, pursuers who are feeling neglected or afraid can say “I feel lonely and want to be closer. But I also know you need your space to be happy and I want you to be happy. I just wanted you to know what I am feeling, but you don’t have to fix it. I will deal with my feelings and I will be happy to see you when you are ready.”
By the same token, withdrawers who are feeling crowded or pressured can say, “I feel scared and overwhelmed and part of me wants to go away. But I care about you and I don’t want to make you feel unwanted. Can you help me?”
Leading with vulnerability can open a constructive, win-win dialogue based in love, not fear.
This is the last in a four-part series on pursuer and withdrawer styles attachment styles in relationships. Part One covered why this cycle is a frequent problem in many relationships. Part Two explored how to identify your unique attachment style and how it may be affecting your most intimate relationships. Part Three offered seven effective ways to make your relationship closer and more satisfying, taking into account the needs of both the “pursuer” and “withdrawer.”
Copyright © Dan Neuharth PhD MFT