“You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”
~ Brené Brown
If you are feeling the pain of pursuing someone who withdraws or you are withdrawing yourself, first let me say I understand.
I have been there, and I’ve walked beside many women who have also been there. It can be an excruciatingly painful cycle that feels like it has no end. The great news is, with a little work, it can end.
The first thing I suggest in struggling with any challenge is to look at yourself.
This is not a way to place blame, but rather a way to change the focus to the one thing we know we always have influence over – ourselves.
I have often said that one could have a relationship with a cardboard cutout.
Meaning most of what is happening in a relationship is the projection of our own patterns onto the relationship.
When exploring why someone is in a push/pull relationship and how to change those patterns, I would ask questions like the following.
1. What are you getting out of staying in this dynamic?
As animals, I believe that we do not participate in behavior unless we are “getting something out of it.” This does not necessarily have to be a perceived positive reward; it can be as simple as any benefit that is reinforcing our behavior.
Examples are the reward of the chase/challenge or it could be familiarity to our family of origin patterns.
2. Is this similar to family of origin patterns you are familiar with and therefore “comfortable” with?
We almost always need to go back and look at our family of origin patterns. We need to explore what programming happened in childhood that contributes to who we are and what we do today.
Maybe we had an absent parent and we were constantly “trying to be good enough” to receive their love or maybe we had an overbearing parent who we were trying to individuate from. Both of these dynamics could cause a push/pull relationship to feel familiar.
3. Is there work to do around your self-esteem that might lead to feeling like you are worthy of a relationship that is more of what you want?
Lastly, most of us are not taught that we have inherent value, whether that is in our family of origin or society at large. We are not told and/or shown that just because we are born we are valuable and worthy of love and kindness. Therefore, when we embark upon a romantic relationship we often do not come from a place of inherent value.
As cliché as it sounds, it is said for good reason, that we need to value and love ourselves first and foremost. No one wakes up and says how can they put you first today, so if you don’t, who will?
Pamela Georgette, LMFT, ATR – www.createachange.net
Sometimes the drama of a “push-pull” relationship is what makes it so appealing.
If you find yourself in a relationship where you never feel quite sure of your partner and worry that things aren’t going to last, it might be helpful to think more about the reasons why you are together and keep either sticking around or getting back together.
Often, the things and people we are familiar with are more comfortable even if they are challenging and we might know in our hearts that they are not “right” for us.
Often, it seems like people have some internal sense or conflict about relationships that are rocky pretty often but struggle in taking the leap away from that relationship as change is truly hard.
Even positive changes can be hard and ending any relationship is really difficult and can be heartbreaking even if it’s the right path in your life and for your future.
Taking some time to truly reflect on what you want in your life and if your relationship is serving you can be helpful.
Here are some journal or reflection prompts to help:
- What are the reasons we are still together or I am still engaging in this relationship?
- What are my needs in a relationship?
- Does this relationship/partner meet my needs?
- Am I worried about being single or losing our shared history?
- Am I trying to stay together for reasons other than feeling that we are truly well-matched partners (kids, job, finances, etc.)? How do I feel about my response to this question?
- Is this relationship representative of who I want to be and what I want my values to represent?
Erica Wollerman, PsyD – www.thrivetherapystudio.com
- How do you approach conflict in your relationship?
- Are you the one to speak up in protest when you feel emotionally disconnected? Or do you find yourself consistently on the other side of the argument, more often feeling like you are being attacked and trying to defend yourself?
In emotionally focused therapy this conflict dynamic in relationships is referred to as the Protest Polka or the pursuer-withdrawer dynamic.
It is a vicious cycle that often leaves couples disillusioned with a sense of no beginning and no end to conflict. One partner’s approach will immediately provoke the nearly automatic response of the other, continuously fueling the cycle.
With unending conflict comes the escalation of emotions. Eventually a pursuer will become extremely frustrated or angry and a withdrawer will become cold, and distant.
Finally, the withdrawer will completely shut down, further frustrating the pursuer.
How do we put an end to the cycle?
Try sitting down with your partner and identifying the role each of you most commonly plays when you are in conflict.
Remind each other that no matter what the subject matter is, the goal in these conversations is always well intentioned expression that leads to deeper understanding. It can also be helpful to assign a name like the “Protest Polka” to your conflict pattern.
By doing so, you create the opportunity to acknowledge the pattern as it is happening, but in a lighter way.
Once you have a name, you can gently or even humorously remind each other in tense moments that even in conflict, what you are seeking is understanding.
Next is using the name of your dance to create immediate accountability.
During this conversation so far you have identified your role in your dance and named your dance, you now offer each other permission to give live feedback. “I’m feeling unheard,” or “It makes me feel scared when you respond with silence…Are we dancing right now?”
Hopefully knowing that your dancing pattern historically leads to pain and frustration will allow you to instead take that moment of awareness to pause and reconsider your communication approach.
It is always helpful to stick to explaining your own thoughts and feelings with “I statements,” while asking questions about your partner’s experience instead of assuming, accusing or placing immediate blame.
Finally, be a good listener and stay present with your partner’s complete thoughts.
Instead of racing ahead to planning your rebuttal, always honor the significance of the relationship by exploring conflict through a lens of empathy and compassion.
If your goal is truly resolution, make sure you really take the time to put yourself fully in your loved one’s shoes. Equally important is to ask for their compassion and empathy in return.
Natalie Davila, LMFT – www.nataliedavila.com
This is such a common dynamic in almost every relationship, yet creates so much frustration for both partners.
Often the pursuer, trying to get some needs met, feels shutdown when their partner distances. They can get louder and more insistent as frustrations build. They see their distancing partner as avoidant and uncaring.
The distancer is overwhelmed by the pursuer’s approach.
The pursuer’s amplified attempt to be heard drives the distancer further into their turtle shell. They see the pursuer as needy and aggressive.
In reality, both parties are probably overwhelmed and emotionally flooded at this point in the conversation. I believe both people are experiencing anxiety and doing their best to manage the reactions in their nervous systems.
I don’t view the actions of either party as good or bad – just different.
When you and your partner fight, there is a small child inside each of you that gets triggered the way that younger self did.
Kids who learned to self-soothe under stress tend to become distancers; those who learned to be soothed with another person tend to become pursuers.
Understanding your own reactions and your partners is an important first step here, but if neither person can show up a bit differently, the cycle still won’t change.
The solution I recommend involves both people taking their partner’s needs into consideration as they also try to get their needs met. Both make decisions that are not only good for themselves but good for their partner because that is what is good for the relationship.
What tends to work is for the distance to ask for a time-out for a specific amount of time, say 20 minutes, to go be alone and allow their nervous system to calm down. The pursuer will need to calm their own nervous system during that 20 minute period, which will likely be difficult for them.
The distancer, knowing this has been difficult for the pursuer, and appreciating the time-out, checks back in to try restarting the conversation from the calmer place both are now in.
If the distance is not yet calm after those 20 minutes, they check back in anyway and request more time, say another hour. They then check back in again after that period of time.
I’ve found that if the distancer keeps their word and checks back in, willing to restart the conversation, this builds trust for the pursuer, allowing them greater ability to manage distress while waiting for their partner’s return. Both parties are managing a bit of discomfort in order to meet both their own needs as well as their partner’s.
Remember, the problem here is not either of you but the different ways you handle stress and the dynamic that creates.
If you name the dynamic, (call it Mayhem for example) that can help. Mayhem is the problem; not either of you. It’s the two of you against Mayhem.
You’re on the same team fighting for the same thing – a great relationship with understanding and connection.
Tracy Askilsrud, MA, LMFTA – www.tracyask.com
All relationships will develop patterns.
Some are overt, like the division of labor between partners, while some are less obvious. The push/pull or pursuer/ distancer relationship is a very common, but less obvious relationship dynamic.
One factor in that dynamic is that most people have a comfort zone when it comes to closeness.
This comfort zone is often based on family of origin dynamics, some families being comfortable with a lot of closeness and others way less.
What feels normal to you is usually what you grew up with.
When “normal” differs between partners, a dynamic can ensue in which the partner wanting more closeness pursues, while the partner comfortable with distance distances.
This dynamic needs to be continually negotiated. It requires both partners to communicate what they are feeling and wanting.
When closeness is too much a partner might say, “I’m beginning to feel a little smothered. I need some space.” When the distance is too much, a partner might say, “I’m missing you. Can we have some together time?”
This negotiating needs to happen with the understanding that people are different and have different needs around closeness.
This is different than an anxious defensive strategy that involves either overwhelming your partner or avoiding your partner altogether to avoid conflict.
Sometimes the pursuer/distancer dynamic is very covert.
There is a concept called homeostasis. This is the normal set point that has been established in the relationship. When homeostasis is disturbed, a partner might take steps to do a reset and bring the relationship back to what has been the norm.
This can occur when something has happened to disturb the homeostatic norm, such as the birth of a child, the launching of a child, a job requiring travel, a return to higher education, etc.
These shifts can create enough discomfort that one partner or the other will try to return the relationship to its former norm. This often happens when inevitable changes occur over the lifetime of a relationship.
Some partners roll with the changes fairly easily while for others it is more difficult.
The attempts to reestablish homeostasis are almost always unconscious making it harder for partners to create positive strategies for coping with the change.
Any significant change either personally or relationally will create some amount of upheaval.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark and timely example of circumstances that are changing the closeness/distance dynamic for everybody. It is a situation that requires both personal and relationship flexibility.
I think the people who can accept the change and work to adapt do better than those who are so unnerved by the changes that they shut down. People need personal and relationship strategies to live with some new and uncomfortable norms.
New strategies require open and resourceful dialogue about what you are experiencing individually as well as what you are experiencing relationally.
It is not a time to go on automatic; it is a time to consciously and creatively negotiate the distance/closeness dynamic of your relationship
Sally LeBoy, MS, MFT – www.sallyleboymft.com
This push-pull dynamic can be so painful for couples, no matter which side of it you’re on!
The partner trying to pull out more affection is likely leaving a lot of interactions feeling rejected, and the other partner who is pushing them away often feels burnt out and manipulated.
The longer this goes on, the more resentful and drained you both become, and that’s not a healthy relationship.
To combat it, you guys can recognize that this dynamic is really just about different connection needs, but it’s driven by fear and shame.
I’ll put it into an example.
Let’s say you’re frustrated by the amount of time your boyfriend/husband spends playing video games. That’s a common one I see in my office and among my friends!
Underlying that frustration is a fear that, for example, your partner would rather play video games than spend time with you.
Voicing that concern is a fear-avoidant behavior and also a pulling one— your hope is for more comfort and/or affection from your person.
But the pusher is not primed to see it this way. They may not realize this goes deeper than the video games and become defensive, or they may be experiencing something deeper as well that the video games are masking, so again, they defend, which pushes away. Either way, they’re avoiding shame.
So basically, this couple can recognize and act on what underlies this uncomfortable push-and-pull.
Rather than the pursuer criticizing the video games, they can directly give voice to the feelings that the video games bring up.
This gives the space necessary for the distancer to comfort their partner rather than defend their behavior. The distancer can also do some internal work to learn more about what makes them want to push their partner away.
Nicole Locorriere, AMFT – www.nicolelocorriere.com
Oftentimes, we get stuck in a pattern with our partners in which one of us pursues (seeks connection, but not always through a positive manner) and the other withdraws or distances due to feeling criticized, overwhelmed, or lacking in personal space.
Women are often stereotyped as pursuers, whereas men are often stereotyped as withdrawers, but stereotypes aren’t always accurate.
Which role do you tend to play?
If you are a pursuer, you may be feeling like you’re never quite getting enough connection with your partner.
You likely do things that signal to your partner that you’re craving connection. However, if you’re consistently seeking more emotional connection with your partner and continue to feel you aren’t getting it, you may begin complaining or criticizing to get the need met.
For example, you may criticize your partner for “never” wanting to spend time with you. Often, using absolutes like “always” and “never” will lead your partner to feeling defensive, as though he/she is always failing.
And guess what?
When we feel defensive, we don’t generally seek more connection—we seek distance from the person who is criticizing us.
Take a moment and think about how you generally react when you want to be close to your partner and you feel rebuffed.
What are your behaviors when you feel this way?
If you generally respond by criticizing or clinging, try expressing that you’d love to spend some quality time together when your partner is ready.
And then give your partner some space!
Do something for yourself, spend time with friends, and try to forget about it.
It may take longer than you’d hoped, but try hard not to keep pursuing. The more you pursue, the more your partner is likely to withdraw.
If you are more of the withdrawer in the relationship, you may be feeling like your space is regularly encroached upon and you just want some time alone.
You may feel overwhelmed at your partner’s need for more connection when you feel like you give plenty of yourself.
If this is the case, instead of distancing or shutting down completely, try asking your partner for some space in that moment.
You might say that you had a rough day and just need a little extra alone time to decompress.
Let your partner know that it isn’t personal, and that you’ll join again in couple time after you’ve had a little time to fill your “solo” cup.
In any case, whether you’re a pursuer or withdrawer, respectful communication and putting yourself in your partner’s shoes are both key to escaping the cycle.
Jennifer Meyer, M.A., LPC, NCC – www.jenmeyercounseling.com
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