The Pursuer-Withdrawer Relationship
The Pursuer-Withdrawer Relationship Cycle
Couples disagree, couples argue. Conflict is unavoidable in an intimate relationship, where feeling emotionally secure and safe with your partner is of paramount importance. The presence of conflict itself is not the problem. In fact, sometimes a total lack of conflict (which we could also call indifference) can mean trouble because it indicates that one or both partners have given up hope—they feel resigned to an unfulfilling relationship. However, for most couples, we argue and fight when are afraid of losing our sense of feeling important, loved, safe and secure with our partner. We fight because our relationship is valuable. What position do you adopt in a fight or argument with your loved one? Are you a pursuer? Or are you a withdrawer?
In a fight or argument, the pursuer protests to be heard or reached for connection by ‘moving towards’ their partner. They usually don’t let things lie or allow time to pass before bringing up a problem. They tend to be more emotional and intense, with a high sensitivity to lack of response or what seems like a rejection. This partner may react with disappointment, fear, or anxiety when their withdrawer partner is unresponsive. When distressed, they can become blaming and critical, telling their partners how to improve or change, making threats, getting pushy, prodding, and even blowing up in anger. If the pursuer is a woman, she may resort to nagging in an attempt to get her husband to open up and share feelings, so that she can feel emotionally connected and feel close to him. If the pursuer is a man, he may move towards his partner, wanting closer connection through touch, or sexual intimacy and if the partner is unresponsive, it can be interpreted as deep rejection causing feelings of unworthiness or shame. On the surface, the pursuer’s behaviour may not seem to make sense because it does not endear them to their partner or solve the problem. However, the pursuer’s behaviour is a desperate attempt to reconnect and feel safe again, because pursuers experience disconnection as distressing, painful, and fearful. Most of the time, the underlying reason is that remaining connected and secure in the relationship is simply THAT important. Over time, a pursuer may feel so fatigue that they experience burnt out. And in those times, this may misinform the withdrawing partner that things are getting better. But they really are not.
Meanwhile, the behaviour of a withdrawer in a fight is to ‘move away’ from their partner by avoiding the conflict, minimising the issue, deflecting, defending, shutting down, clamming up, or walking away. Withdrawers sometimes feel the need to move away to ‘protect’ or maintain the relationship. They also feel the need to protect themselves. Withdrawers tend to have difficulty identifying their feelings. However do not be fooled, withdrawers feel emotions just as intensely except they can't make sense of them as emotions flood them. They tend to feel overwhelmed so they shut down. When asked ‘How do you feel?’ withdrawers will often respond ‘I don’t know’, or offer a totally rational ‘thinking’ response that doesn’t match the emotional query of the pursuer partner. Withdrawers may seem to prefer downtime or their own company rather than intimate time with a partner. When conflict arises, a withdrawer tends to become silent and avoidant. If the withdrawer is a husband who is being nagged by a pursuer wife, he may feel pressured, overwhelmed or not good enough, subsequently he may react by shutting down and turning away. If the withdrawer is a wife and when pursued by the pursuer husband, she may experience feelings of intense anxiety and fear. She may also feel like she is failing as a wife. Feeling connected to their partners and secure in the relationship is equally as important for withdrawers but they need to know and feel emotionally safe first and foremost before they can comfortably connect and remain connected. If the patterns of pursuit continues from the pursuer partner, the withdrawer partner can feel so pressured, unsafe that it may take a while for them to feel safe enough to take a risk, to approach their pursuer partner again.
The pursuer-withdrawer pattern can be found in either heterosexual or same-sex relationships, and these relational styles are not gender specific. Men and women can be either pursuers or withdrawers. Regardless of gender, pursuers and withdrawers are attracted to each other. About 80% of relationships follow this relational dynamic. The attraction between pursuers and withdrawers is understandable. Pursuers tend to initially find withdrawers calm, self-sufficient, even confident. Withdrawers, on the other hand, usually find pursuers to be passionate, confident, ambitious, and driven.
Every couple consciously or unconsciously devises a way of communication with each other, including how to manage conflict. When a pursuer and withdrawer enters a relationship, there is usually an initial period of happy togetherness, the so-called honeymoon period. However, it is at moments of stress, illness, or other significant conflict that the couple’s interactional dance of pursuer and withdrawer kicks in. These two relational patterns tend to ‘clash’.
The pursuer (who tends to react emotionally and immediately) wants to tackle the issue quickly and head on so she/he can feel secure again, while the withdrawer (who prefers to think about things at their own pace or to use compulsive behaviours to avoid emotions) finds the intensity overwhelming and shuts down, which is usually the withdrawers default position. The pursuer perceives the withdrawer’s retreat as inaction or may believe that their withdrawer partner has become disinterested. As the pursuer becomes more anxious, the intensity of the pursuit increases, which leads to the withdrawer feeling more overwhelmed and withdrawing further out of reach.
Pursuers feel unheard and unimportant, and withdrawers feel harassed and misunderstood. The pursuer may feel unloved, abandoned, or lonely, which leads them to amplify efforts to reconnect through affection, sex, intimate conversation, or quality time together; meanwhile, the withdrawer is feeling pressured, smothered or attacked, leading them to close down emotionally and attempt to disengage from interaction with the pursuer. In couples or marriage counselling, this pattern is referred to as a ‘negative cycle’.
Susan and Rick’s Story
When Susan and Rick came to see me, they were both terribly upset. Susan claimed Rick was constantly working late, and when he was at home, he was spending more and more time locked up in the study or on his iPhone. Susan felt Rick didn’t appreciate how much was involved in looking after two young children and running a home. She felt unsupported, not cared for, and lonely, having no immediate family to turn to for help. Susan reported that Rick didn’t listen to her when she talked about her difficult day with the children. She believed Rick did not care about how she was feeling. Rick sat facing away from Susan and spoke quietly, saying that he hated conflict. Rick claimed that Susan only pointed out what he was not doing, all the negatives and never the positives. Rick stated that he went to work to provide income that supported a comfortable lifestyle for Susan and the children, and he said he felt that Susan was bringing up issues that were small and insignificant. Rick claimed Susan had anger issues, and he felt like the target of Susan’s increasing outbursts of anger. He described feeling stressed and unable to concentrate at work, which required him to spend more time there out of worry that his performance might suffer and that his boss would notice. Rick said that he needed to be alone in his study to de-stress, and his iPhone provided relief and ‘me time’.
I counsel couples like Susan and Rick every day. Although the details or situation may differ from couple to couple, the cycle of relating that I described above in Susan and Rick’s story is common in 80% of all relationships. On the surface, it may look like the couple is short on resources— time, energy, money, external help with young kids, etc. However, the true problem is how the two partners relate to each other when times are difficult. In this case, Rick is sensitive to criticism and responds by disconnecting; Susan is sensitive to disconnecting and responds by criticising. These cycles of interaction are painful for both partners and, if left unaddressed, will continue to shape the relationship where both partners are stuck. Many relationships and marriages break down at this point, and it is a common cause for separation or divorce. It is also a common cause for extra-marital affairs. Partners that have been caught in pursuer/withdrawer relationships inevitably repeat the same patterns of interaction in subsequent relationships, thus increasing the number of serial relationships and second or third marriages. In short, if a person’s way of relating is left unexamined, unchanged, staying in a long-term intimate relationship becomes an elusive dream.
Fighting for Connection
As a Relationship Psychotherapist and Marriage Counsellor, I see this negative, destructive pattern play out all the time in our counselling rooms. The pain and hurt felt by both pursuers and withdrawers are real and not to be minimised. The negative cycle impacts the happiness level and quality of the couple relationship. It affects both partners in all aspects of their shared lives—managing stress, parenting, social friendships, sex and intimacy, lifestyle choices, money and finances… nearly every moment of their life together.
Fortunately, we now know how to stop this joyless negative relationship cycle, using the science and tools of attachment and bonding. If a long-term, loving, close, connected, intimate relationship is what you want, take the first active step towards making it a reality for your life. Call us on 0400 999 918 for a confidential discussion or send us an email.
(note: personal details have been changed to protect client confidentiality)