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4 Most Common Couple Dynamics


*Based on the work of Dr. Sue Johnson, Emotionally Focused Therapy.

It’s the same old fight over and over again. What are the most common couple dynamics?


In Emotionally Focused Therapy we call this distressed dynamic your negative dance or cycle.


  1. Pursue/Withdraw –This is by far the most common cycle, characterized by a demanding partner interacting with a withdrawing or distancing partner. The pursuer approaches discussions, conflicts, asks for time together, and wants to connect and fight for the relationship when it’s struggling or when there is disconnection. The withdrawer seems less concerned about the relationship, might appear more independent, and avoids the conflicts or tensions, often believing that hiding will keep the relationship from being destroyed. The withdrawing partner might engage in conflict to defend, or attack back, before withdrawing. The problem with this pattern is the more the withdrawer distances, the more the pursuer feels alone, AND the more the pursuer seeks, the more the withdrawer hides. You can see why this leads to a rigid pattern.

  2. Withdraw/Withdraw: In this pattern both partners are hesitant to engage in an emotional way and, when faced with conflict, both will further withdraw. This can feel like living with a roommate and being of detached from each other. Couples with this pattern share responsibilities, but don’t have a close emotional connection. Both can feel lonely and distant. This pattern comes from a out of a pursue/withdraw pattern that underlies it. In these cases, the pursuer may be a gentle pursuer because he or she does not show his or her overwhelming anxious energy to their withdrawn partner. The other possibility, which is more common, involves a “burnt out” pursuer who has now given up reaching for the other partner. Withdrawal then can be the beginning of grieving and detaching from the relationship.

  3. Attack/Attack:  This is a quick active type of pattern where both partners get into blaming each other. Sometimes couples even call themselves “The Bickersons.” Couples with this pattern are expressive with frustrations and arguments and get caught in who is right and who is wrong with a lot of blame. They tend to feel lonely and disconnected and the anger serves a purpose to connect them. It doesn’t work though. Typically, this dynamic is a deviation from a pursue/withdraw pattern where the withdrawer when feeling provoked turns and fights, erupts in anger at specific moments. After the fight, the withdrawer is likely to soon revert back to withdrawing until he/she feels provoked again. 

  4. Complex and reactive dynamics: These patterns are chaotic. Partners are changing and alternation positions, sometimes this is a new cycle in reaction to an event, such as discovery of an affair, death, threat of divorce or when there has been a history of trauma. These tend to be complicated situations and therapy is often indicated.

It is important to remember that both partners in the relationship are attempting to bridge the distance and disconnection, though they have different strategies. The pursuer tends to be more active and verbal in his or her attempts and the withdrawer wants to calm things down to protect the relationship from more anger and fighting. Both partners are coping with the disconnection and loneliness though.


Did you see your own relationship in these patterns?

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