Interviewed by Kyle Benson
The pursue-withdraw pattern is an extremely common cause of divorce. If left unresolved, it will continue into a second marriage and subsequent intimate relationships.
As Dr. Gottman explains in Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, “This classical marital impasse is all too common—a wife seeking emotional connection from a withdrawn husband.”
How do couples fall into a pursue-withdraw pattern, and why are men usually the ones that withdraw? How can couples break this destructive pattern for good?
To find out, we spoke to Scott R. Woolley, Ph.D., a professor at Alliant International University in San Diego, California. He is a Founder and Director of the San Diego Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy and the Training and Research Institute for Emotionally Focused Therapy at Alliant.
Can you describe the pursue-withdraw pattern?
Distressed couples, and even not distressed couples to some degree, can get caught in a pursue-withdraw pattern. This can happen when one partner wants more closeness or connection than the other.
It can also happen when both partners want closeness and connection, but there is a perceived disconnection and one partner feels like the other person isn’t going to be there for them. They come to believe that “This conflict isn’t going to get worked out,” or “I’m not going to get my needs met,” so they shut down and pull away because it’s safer to do that, or they complain or push for more connection.
Typically, withdrawers in these scenarios have an internal model that says, “If I put myself out there, the other person will leave. I’m going to be blamed. I’m going to be criticized. We’re going to get into a big fight. I don’t want to do that because this other person is incredibly important to me. I don’t want to lose this person.”
So the withdrawer pulls away to maintain the relationship?
Yes. That’s an important thing to understand. It appears to the other person that their partner doesn’t care. After there has been conflicting, misunderstanding, or a minor betrayal and the withdrawer turns away, shuts down, or walks away, it leaves their partner feeling alone and abandoned, unloved, and uncared about.
The truth is that most of the time the withdrawer does care a great deal. Withdrawers typically shut down because they don’t want to make it worse. They don’t believe that there’s any kind of way of resolving it by talking about it. They want to protect the relationship so they withdraw.
For the pursuing partner, typically after a perceived disconnection, their tendency is to ramp up in some way. Rather than trying to ignore their own needs, their own desires, or their own feelings as withdrawers often do, the pursuing partner tends to want to work it out. They want to talk about it, examine their own feelings, and understand their partner’s feelings.
The pursuing partner has an internal model that says talking about this is going to solve it – sharing what’s going on for them and trying to understand what’s going on for their partner is the way to safety.
If trying to talk about it doesn’t work, a pursuing partner may become blaming or critical and pushy because it’s very painful to experience withdrawal. Part of that protests against feeling alone and abandoned, and part of it is the belief that if I push hard enough, maybe we’ll reconnect.
Can you explain why the pursuing partner does this?
Well, any connection – even a fight – is better than no connection. That’s when they’re likely to get critical. A lot of times it’s a “How dare you to leave me,” kind of thing.
The way that’s typically experienced by the withdrawer is, “My partner doesn’t care about me. I’m not important. If my partner cared about me, my partner would not be critical, would not be demanding, would not be insulting me or calling me names.”
It’s certainly not a constructive way of dealing with disconnection, but most of the time the pursuing partner is critical because their partner is important. They’re pushing for connection or protesting the lack of connection.
I think it’s really important for couples to be able to understand that underneath this pursue-withdraw pattern, most of the time both people tend to see the other person as really, really important. But both people end up feeling unloved, hurt, abandoned, uncared about, and it’s very, very painful for them which is why this relationship pattern tends to chew up relationships and destroy them.
How does this cycle of conflict impact the trust and security in the relationship?
It undermines the trust and security in the relationship. Every human being has basic needs for connection. We call them basic attachment needs.
We all long to feel loved, to be cared about, to be respected, to be valued.
Think about it, the universal torture technique in all cultures is solitary confinement or isolation. If you want to break a prisoner down, you put them into solitary confinement and when they do interact with a human, you make sure that the interaction is abusive, unpredictable, and destructive.
A lot of times for couples, particularly in highly escalated situations where they don’t have a lot of support outside the relationship, people feel very isolated. They feel very alone. The only real connection they oftentimes have is fighting, which ends up being destructive.
That’s one of the reasons why this pattern undermines people’s sense of safety, not only in the relationship but in their world in general. It can cause a lot of trauma for people in its extreme.
People can be in this pursue-withdraw pattern for years. Sometimes the withdrawer will get fed up. We call it burning out of being withdrawn. Instead of withdrawing, they’ll come out and they’ll fight. Then you’ve got fight-fight. Or you’ll have a pursuer who gets burned out and withdraws and you have withdraw-withdraw.
Sometimes couples come into therapy at that point because the withdrawer says, “Okay, something’s changed here. Maybe we really do need to go to couples therapy.”
By then it can be very difficult because the pursuers are so hurt and burned out. Part of stopping this pattern is to help couples see and change the pattern before it destroys the relationship.