Most people have, at some time in their dating past, experienced a pursue-withdraw relationship pattern. This is also sometimes called a demand-withdraw pattern, and it is almost always the female in the relationship that is pursuing as the male in the relationship is withdrawing.
The reason for the pattern is a lack of understanding of the emotional closeness, or the connection felt between the pursuing partner and the one being pursued. The person feeling a lack of connection and intimacy may feel this acutely, even though the other partner does not recognize or sense a change in the relationship at all. This may be due to a lack of empathy or even a narcissistic personality, as outlined in my work on codependency, "The Marriage and Relationship Junkie."
Even with a slight or perceived change in the level of attentiveness, the codependent partner, who is already hypersensitive to any changes, senses the distance or the increasing disconnect. For this person, the relationship is everything, so fighting to hold onto it seems like the only option.
When the narcissist feels the other partner is potentially pulling away, he automatically fears losing the relationship, although it is for different reasons. In order for the narcissist (or avoidant), to feel important, superior and desirable, he needs the pursuer. By withdrawing, this forces the pursuer to ramp up in behavior, ultimately making the narcissist feel that he or she is highly desirable and does not need to take any blame or criticism for the problems in the relationship.
After the Conflict
The most obvious time for the pursue-withdraw pattern to occur is after a conflict. The conflict always causes a disconnection of the relationship, which the pursuer can see as an immediate and permanent issue. She or he stays hyper-focused on the issue, wanting to discuss the issue, to work it out and to somehow correct the problem. To this person, talking to each other, even if it brings about continued or new conflict, is a way of staying connected.
The withdrawer is trying his or her best to avoid more conflict. With a partner who is not a narcissist, this withdrawal can be to preserve the relationship and to allow a cooling off period. Of course, the pursuer sees this as more rejection, and the cycle continues.
Breaking the Cycle
According to Dr. Scott R. Woolley at the Alliant International University in San Diego, there are several options and steps to breaking this pattern. These include:
- Detecting a pattern – often this is done in marriage therapy, but couples may also be able to identify their given roles in the pursue-withdraw pattern.
- Look at the needs – healthy relationships can be scrutinized, where couples talk to each other about where the behavior pattern comes from. They can also share their emotions and what is driving the behavior, but only if this information is not going to be used as a weapon by the partner.
- Outline their desired response – having a plan is the first step in being able to respond differently in an emotionally charged situation. Planning how you want to behave and how both partners can be helpful in facilitating the change is essential.
This is not easy, and it will not happen overnight. Working with a therapist is often the most effective way to identify the pattern, discuss the underlying issues and make positive changes to break the cycle.
Sherry Gaba, LCSW is a Certified Transformation and Recovery Coach and the leading Psychotherapist on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab and Sex Addiction. She helps people find the love of their lives. Take her quiz to find out if you’re a love addict or sign up for a 30-minute strategy session. She is also the author of “The Marriage and Relationship Junkie: Kicking your Obsession.” Sherry maintains a private practice and is a sought after online dating and relationship coach. For more information visit www.sherrygaba.com.