Breaking the Pursue-Withdraw Pattern

breaking pursue withdraw pattern

Are there signs to help couples identify if they have a pursue-withdraw pattern?

Well, first of all, if the couple is having problems, there is some kind of a pattern. It may not be in a classic pursue-withdraw pattern. It’s very easy to look at who’s at fault, who the bad guy is, and think about who’s “defective.”

Couples often go to either, “It’s about me. I’m bad. I’m unlovable,” or they’ll see their partner as bad, sick, or evil. It’s really helpful to start thinking about the pattern itself because it’s the negative pattern that is the enemy – not the other person. It’s the negative pattern that they are both caught in, hurt by, and participating in – typically unwillingly and unknowingly.

One of the first things is to recognize there is a pattern. The next one is to identify your position in the pattern. When there is the threat of conflict or disconnection or a misunderstanding, what’s your tendency?

Is your tendency to lean in and try to solve the problem, or do you tend to shut down and wait until the storm blows over? That can help you identify whether you are pursuing or withdrawing.
Most people at some point will withdraw and pursue in one way or another. The label is less important than understanding the pattern and when you’re most likely to do what.

Sometimes people will pursue in one area and withdraw in the other. It’s vital to understand the pattern and start talking about how to stop it. Seek to understand the fundamental needs beneath both partner’s positions that are not getting met.

It’s really helpful for couples to map it out. In my practice, I have couples draw a cycle and write the following:

  • Their Behaviors
  • Their views of themselves and their partner
  • Their reactive emotions
  • Their deeper, vulnerable, primary emotions
  • Their basic needs and longings

Sometimes, just being able to draw it out changes things too, “Okay, what do I really need in this situation? How could I ask my partner for those needs in a way that’s not going to be threatening, that isn’t going to trigger my partner’s wounds or raw spots?”

How can couples start having these conversations?

They can start by talking about their deeper, underlying needs. A lot of times couples will talk about money, kids, sex—whatever the conflict area is. But underneath it’s, “I need to know that you value my opinion,” or “I need to know that you value and respect me.”

Slow down and think, “Okay, what do I want here? What does my partner need? What do I need?”

Maybe my partner needs to know that his or her opinion is important to me, even if I disagree with it.

Maybe my partner needs to know that I care.

Maybe my partner needs to know that I’m not going to get critical as I have in the past.

Maybe my partner needs to know that I’m not going to go away as I have been for years. Instead, I’m going to hang in there and fight for the relationship and against the pattern.

Being able to talk about this in a soft, gentle way is very powerful. It can break the pursue-withdrawn pattern and replace it with a cycle that’s supportive, loving, and nurturing.

Read 12 Secrets To A Successful Marriage (A divorce lawyer reveals from her experience)

Recommended resources

The following books will help you break the pursue-withdraw pattern in your relationship:

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail by Dr. John Gottman

Build a deeper understanding of the conflict styles in your relationship. Learn tools to stop cycles of conflict and start connecting.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by Dr. John Gottman

Learn the two kinds of conflict and how to effectively communicate what you need. This pattern is perpetuated by a lack of fondness and admiration in the relationship.

Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson

Focus on the accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement in your relationship. This book explains the basics of attachment theory and lays out very specific conversations that couples can have that help them identify their pattern, learn about the emotional raw spots that help drive the pattern, learn how to revisit rocky moments, learn how to reach for each other and connect in non-threatening ways, and forgive injuries in ways that will lead to fundamental changes in the relationship.

This article was originally published on The Gottman Relationship Blog.

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