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  • Writer's pictureShaun McMahon

Unpacking the Pursue / Withdraw Cycle

If you’re experiencing challenges in your relationship, it can sometimes feel like you’re the only one having these problems, and that everyone else has a perfect relationship. Yet decades of research has revealed that there are trends and patterns that show up in most relationships. Recognizing these patterns can not only help you to feel less alone, but also to dramatically improve the quality of your relationship.


The most common pattern I see in couples who are beginning couples therapy is the Pursue / Withdraw Cycle, detailed by the late Sue Johnson, creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). Around 80% of the couples that I meet find themselves stuck in this cycle. 


When we talk about a cycle in a relationship, it’s important to note that we’re not referring to a consistent problem or issue that people fight about. A common trap people fall into is focusing on the content of what they’re fighting about; housework, finances, parenting and so on. But if you hope to make any improvements in your relationship, it’s vital to focus on the context that surrounds the argument.


One of the best ways to understand the context is to examine it through the lens of the pursue / withdraw cycle.


The Roles


The Pursue / Withdraw cycle is a dance that happens between two partners who adopt a specific role in order to deal with the inevitable problems that arise in a romantic relationship. Try to think about which of these roles you resonate with more as you read on.


The pursuer is the person in the relationship who is trying to connect with and get the attention of their partner. They pursue in that they’re often the one who is interested in talking about problems, bringing up issues, and dealing with things “right now”. Pursuers might feel they are calm or open when initially expressing themselves, but in times of difficulty or stress their approaches can come out as criticism, nagging or name calling. Their hope is often to get their partner to change or to do something about the problem.


The withdrawer is often the person who is on the receiving end of the pursuer’s initiation. They rarely, if ever, proactively bring up problems in the relationship. Instead of taking the “fight” approach to the conflict, they will adopt a “flight” approach. Initially this withdrawal can look like defensiveness, downplaying, deflecting or minimizing problems. However, if things drag on the withdrawal can reach extremes like stonewalling (shutting down completely and not saying anything), or physically exiting the room or house.


Pursuers and withdrawers are often drawn to each other in relationship, providing some proof to the axiom that ‘opposites attract’. In most cases, the female in the relationship falls into the role of pursuer, and males are commonly the withdrawer. However, these roles can be reversed, and sometimes relationships can feature two pursuers, or two withdrawers. While the jury is out on the reasons why this pairing is so common, I’ve observed that pursuers are often high strung and like to have control over things, and therefore are typically drawn to the calm, easy-going nature of their withdrawer partners. Withdrawers meanwhile find the proactive nature and strong initiative of their pursuing partners appealing as they can struggle to feel important or find the motivation to accomplish their goals in life.


Where It All Goes Wrong


Now that we’ve established our roles, we need to explore how they combine into a predictable, repeating cycle. We can draw on Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion to help us understand what’s happening here:


For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. 

As you might expect, when the withdrawer reacts to the pursuing partner by getting defensive, shutting down, or pulling away, the pursuer intensifies their advance. Angered, frustrated or disappointed by their partner's inadequate response to their attempt to connect, they might become louder, angrier, or more critical of their partner. This is often all in the hopes of getting their partner to wake up, pay attention and actually address the problem they’re raising.


Meanwhile, this heightened response from the pursuer only causes the withdrawer to double down. They might start countering their partner's complaints with complaints of their own, pick apart arguments with logic, or simply say nothing. They hope that their partner will drop it, leave them alone, or calm down so they can take care of the problem in their own way at a time of their choosing.


As the cycle continues, both partners end up feeling more distressed, upset and misunderstood. Whether it takes 5 minutes or 2 hours, eventually the withdrawer will remove themselves from the situation completely, or the pursuer will give up trying to breach their impenetrable shell and withdraw themselves. 


After the dust settles, both partners feel like the problem is the other person. It might sound something like:


Pursuer: “Why can’t he just do what I ask? Then I wouldn’t have to yell so much”


Or 


Withdrawer: “If she’d just stop nagging me I’d want to help out around the house more” 


Unfortunately, this blame game just sets the couple up for another round of the cycle, because both are assured in their belief that they’re doing nothing wrong, and it’s their partner who needs to change.


Digging Deeper


In some cases, couples can endure years, if not decades of going around and around in this cycle and never manage to break it. You might know older couples in your family who bicker like this consistently but never seem to get anywhere. This is because, underlying these roles are deeper feelings which often go unexpressed and unexplored.


On the surface, the pursuer might feel sad, frustrated, irritated or angry. But deeper down, pursuers often fear being alone, unimportant, invisible, or helpless. In some cases they might even feel disconnected from their partner, or unsafe. While pursuers might be voicing complaints or criticisms, underneath they’re really trying to say something else, such as:


“You’re never around when I need you” means “I miss you”

“You never listen to me” means “I want to know I matter to you”

“I have to do everything by myself” means “I want to feel like a team”

“I can’t get through to you” means “I want you to hear me”

“You just don’t care” means “I want to be loved by you”


While withdrawers can appear sad, frustrated, irritated or angry in response to their partner's pursuits, deep down they often feel inadequate, misunderstood, helpless or powerless. They often desperately want to please their partner and make them happy, but feel like nothing they do or say is ever good enough. When they defend or push back, they’re really trying to say something else, like:


“I’ll try to do better” means “I want to do the right thing for you”

“I didn’t mean it that way” means “I want to know you love me”

“What do you want from me?” means “I don’t know what to do”

“I can never get it right for you” means “I feel sad and lonely”


And when they say nothing at all, it’s often because they don’t know what to say. Withdrawers sometimes feel like nothing they do or say will make a difference for their partner. In many cases they intentionally say nothing in order to avoid making the problem worse, believing that any words or sentiments they express will only add fuel to the fire or be used against them.


It’s also worth noting that when withdrawers shut down and stop talking it can be a physiological response to anger and conflict, which causes their system to overload. In this state it can be hard if not impossible to think clearly and string sentences together because of changes in their brain state.


Why People Get Stuck in the Cycle


Underneath the surface, both pursuers and withdrawers are experiencing deeper thoughts and feelings which often go unexpressed. So what stops them from telling their partner?


People generally experience the Pursue / Withdraw cycle worsening several years into their relationship when problems have begun to build up. This might be because of past instances of hurt or disappointment which haven’t been addressed, or mounting stress and pressure resulting from life complications like work, a mortgage or kids.


The deeper feelings often come from a vulnerable part of ourselves. Afterall, it’s hard to admit to feeling lonely, scared or inadequate, especially to a person who seems to think you’re not good enough, or someone who seems to ignore you. In difficult times it can be hard to trust that your partner will respond with care and love when you’re vulnerable with them. Rather than risk being hurt from this place of vulnerability, we generally find it easier to come from a position of strength through yelling or being defensive. However, this seldom achieves the goal we have of feeling more connected, and loved by our partner.


The more disconnected and distant we feel from our partner, the harder it can become to let down our walls and express our true feelings. Sadly, many people would rather stay stuck in the belief that they’re right and it’s their partner who has the problem, than be willing to work together as a team to understand each other and overcome the cycle.


However, not all hope is lost. Working with a couples therapist can help you to beat the cycle. Rather than being pitted against each other, understanding the cycle can help you to unite as a team against it, ensuring that it doesn’t overtake every discussion and conflict you have. Couples therapy can be a safe place for you to explore your vulnerability and express these deeper emotions to your partner, as the therapist is there to guide you both through the process.


If you recognize the pursue / withdraw cycle in your relationship, I can help you and your partner to break the cycle. I invite you to reach out to arrange a free 15 minute consultation by clicking here. On our call we can discuss the ways the cycle is showing up in your life, and how our work together will help you to overcome it.

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