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How Does the Purse/Withdraw Cycle Begin?


What does it have to do with avoidant or anxious attachment?

People usually don’t enter their relationships with anger or emotionally shutting down. Couples fall in love with hopes for acceptance and safe connection. If they have not had a secure attachment relationship that has given them a sense of their own lovability and competence and others’ emotional accessibility and responsivity, they are likely to develop avoidant or anxious ways of relating when the attachment bond is threatened. In other words, they don’t know how to appropriately reach and respond to each other.


Previous experiences in close relationships– parental relationships and previous romantic partners – contribute to the development of common strategies for meeting attachment needs and managing emotions. Quite often, cultural messages or past relational learnings keep them from sharing their attachment needs and longings in congruent ways with their partner. For example, this can from messages such as, “real men don’t cry”, or “don’t act too needy”. Or maybe, they weren’t taught the emotional intimacy skills of validation, listening, reflection or emotional intimacy. Unfortunately, by not recognizing or clearly communicating their fears and longings, people unwittingly deprive themselves of a chance for comfort. And they deprive their partner of an opportunity to provide comfort. Without knowing how to create bonding moments around their attachment needs and fears, partners show their love in the avoidant or anxious ways they developed to navigate previous relationships.

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Soon-to-be withdrawers channel their love into providing, pleasing, placating, and fixing. Their main mission seems to be making sure that they don’t let their partners down. Soon-to-be pursuers channel their love into attending to their partners’ emotional needs or seeking assurance that they are loved. Their main mission seems to be making sure that the relationship remains a significant focus of attention. There is of course nothing wrong with these behaviors, except that these behaviors will not lead to the reciprocal satisfaction of attachment needs and provision of comfort.


Over the course of time, pursuers start becoming more and more aware of feelings of disconnection and emotional deprivation. When they start voicing these needs in a soft way, their message is often not clear enough and so their partners do not get a clear sense of how to meet their needs. What withdrawers start picking up at this point are signals of unhappiness and dissatisfaction and that they are letting their purser down, which they don’t know how to deal with. Eventually withdrawers start feeling more and more helpless, uncomfortable, and tense in their partners’ presence, which often makes them less active and then they start to retreat, avoid, or withdraw to feel better. When pursuers notice this increased inactivity, their alarm bells go off, and they become more overt and can even be forceful in expressing their deprivation. And in response, withdrawers start feeling more helpless, unsafe, and inadequate; they start turning more to outlets outside of the relationship, where they can feel relaxed, effective and accepted. This turning away, signals to the pursuers that their partner has stopped caring and so they start getting louder and louder. This escalates until withdrawers can feel nothing or numbness, but discomfort when they get close to their partner, and pursuers feel so hurt, neglected, and deprived that they snap at every little signal of not having their partner’s support and caring. This is what happens prior to when a couple enters therapy, they arrive in this state of escalation and it may have been this way for years. In the long term, couples have moved beyond that state of escalation to the point where the pursuer has started burning out and shutting down and in response, the withdrawer may have started to become pushy and demanding of attention.


Therapy can help an insecurely attached relationship move into security

Securely attached couples have these attributes:

  1. They reach and respond to each other; they know how to provide comfort and connection instead of protesting and withdrawing.

  2. They have Emotional intimacy skills, which are made of:

  3. Validation

  4. Listening

  5. Reflection

  6. Empathy

  7. They know how to create bonding moments out of conflict

  8. They have problem solving skills-they can handle conflict without it destroying each other.

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