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How to break the typical pursue-withdraw cycle

All couples get into disagreements and arguments. Conflict is a normal part of every relationship, it is because the relationship matters so much. How partners handle the conflict or negative patterns is what matters and makes the difference. Does one of you feel cut off from the other? Does one partner try to get away to avoid the criticism? If so, your couple relationship distress pattern may be one of pursue/withdraw.

The pursue-withdraw interactional pattern (sometimes called a pursuer-distancer pattern or dynamic) is the most common type of negative interactional cycle, about 80% of couples fall into this dynamic. This happens to both heterosexual and queer relationships. This pattern is born out of fear of the loss of emotional connection with the person that matters most. Both partners want to feel loved, important, respected and secure. The problem is that partners manage this emotional disconnection in different ways.

What is a Pursue-Withdraw Pattern? What is underneath this negative cycle?


With this pattern, one partner is more outwardly upset by the negative cycle and is pursuing for connection. The pursuing partner can't let things go and wants to handle problems right away. Pursuers tend to be sensitive to the lack of response from their partner. The lack of responsiveness can cause them to feel disappointed, anxious and fearful and create raw spots in the relationship. The distress then turns into behavior that can look like blaming, criticism, telling, prodding, and pushing. This is all for the goal of trying to encourage their partner to engage with them on an emotional level. It is their hope for change and a difference. This behavior has the feel of criticism or complaining.

Pursuers can be male or female. If the pursuer is a woman, the behavior takes on the feel of pushiness or nagging to encourage her partner to open up and share so she can feel emotionally connected. Typically, male pursuers, use physical touch to close the distance. They may reach out through general touch or sexual intimacy. If rejected, it can set off a chain of behavior caused by the shame of rejection. Male pursuers can be critical and blaming as well.

This pursuing behavior does not look very pleasant to others and, in fact it can make the problem worse. That said, it is important to remember that it is caused by the desperation to reconnect and feel close. The reason for the pushing and demanding behavior, at its core, is because the emotional disconnection is painful. The relationship and the emotional attachment matters THAT MUCH.

Long term, pursuers can burn out from these behaviors, because they are so tiring. The withdrawer might feel better, but things are not better, they are actually worse. Even longer term, pursuers can eventually totally detach and then the relationship is over.


Withdrawers or distancers tend to feel overwhelmed by emotion and intensity, so they shut down or wall off. This shut down behavior looks like moving away, avoiding, minimizing, deflecting, joking, rationalizing, defending, silence or simply walking away. Sometimes people call this passive-aggressive behavior. As you can imagine, this is exactly the worst thing to do to the purser. Withdrawers feel like they need to protect themselves and protect the relationship from conflict. These partners feel emotions as intensely as the pursers do, they just manage the disconnection differently. Withdrawers may not have the emotional language for how they feel, but they certainly feel the disconnection.

If the withdrawer is a male, he tends to feel nagged, pressured, overwhelmed and not good enough. His solve is to shut down and avoid. If the withdrawer is a female, she can feel anxious, fearful, and like a failure.

The relationship is also important to the withdrawer and feeling close and connected matters to them as well. The big issue for withdrawers is to feel emotionally safe from blame first, and then they can connect. If the withdrawer feels so pressured and unsafe it can take a while to break this relationship pattern and engage the withdrawer.

Feeling connected to their partner 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 critical 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.

This back-and-forth dynamic is harmful in either situation, neither person is receiving what they need from the relationship. In order for both partners to feel loved and appreciated by each other, they need to learn how to communicate more deeply and openly enough to understand their partner better.

How does this happen?

This negative cycle makes sense. Pursuers initially are drawn to the calm, confident and self-sufficient nature of the withdrawer. Withdrawers love the passion, drive and complicated parts of the pursuer and find them attractive.

After the honeymoon stage, the work of the relationship begins and couples need to learn to manage their conflicts in order to have a healthy relationship. Conflicts are inevitable in relationships, because life will present problems that need to be solved. These different relational styles then can show up.

The cycle begins when the pursuer moves quickly to manage problems and the withdrawer wants to go more slowly or gets overwhelmed at the intensity and shuts down. The purser understands this slow down or shut down as inaction and disinterest and then it causes anxiety in the purser which leads to more pursuit, and then the withdrawer feels more overwhelmed, and withdraws further. The cycle starts spinning at this point.

Eventually, the pursuer feels unloved, alone, unimportant which leads them to increase their efforts to reconnection emotionally by talking, seeking time together, affection and sex. On the other hand, the withdrawer feels pressured, nagged, smothered, attacked, harassed and misunderstood which makes them close down emotionally to disengage from the negative interaction with the pursuer.

How to break a Pursue-Withdraw Pattern

The first step is to recognize that you are both playing a role in the negative communication patterns of your relationship. This means that both partners are responsible for contributing to the health of the dynamic or adding to the conflict.

Seek out Emotionally Focused Therapy

This negative, destructive pattern shows up often in therapy. Both the purser and withdrawer are hurt by this pattern. The negative emotions affect the emotional response of both parties. This negative dance is pervasive in the relationship and affects all areas such as stress, parenting, socializing, sex, intimacy, money, finances.

Fortunately, we now know how to stop this joyless negative relationship cycle, using the tools of Emotionally Focused Therapy.

The benefits of breaking the pattern

You deserve to feel happy and fulfilled in your intimate relationship. Everyone wants to have a secure relationship. If you or your partner are ready to start implementing constructive tactics, we would encourage you to contact Evolve Therapy. We offer in-person sessions in the Minnesota area as well as convenient online tele-therapy counseling. Reach out today.

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