Thursday Aug 26, 2021
Gottman and Gottman’s research on thousands of couples suggests that partners who get stuck in the cycle of Pursuer/Withdrawer (W/P) have an 80% chance of divorce in the first five years of marriage. Conflict is normal in a relationship. Having the insight and tools to resolve it is what makes the difference. In a sound and solid relationship partners can communicate a need or resolve disagreement with empathy and validation for the other’s thoughts and feelings.
This becomes a challenge for those who may be identified as either a Pursuer or Withdrawer. Key to interrupting the P/W cycle is understanding one’s role in it. Understanding one’s role requires a better understanding of how each partner has come to understand interpersonal relationships.
Several theorists (e.g. Bowen, Johnson, & Scharff) suggest that conflict styles are rooted in early stages of development, such as infancy and early childhood. Stated another way, in a marriage or committed relationship, we respond to each other, based on how we experienced our early relationships with parents or caregivers.
For example, Bowlby’s theory of attachment suggests that how we respond to each other in adult relationships is rooted in how we came to feel a sense of safety and security. If a family environment is stable, predictable, and secure, and a child experiences positive parental responsiveness, more than likely, they will interpret their world and the people in it as safe and secure. But if their environment is unstable, and unpredictable and parent or caretaker’s responsiveness is minimal or inappropriate, then a child may not see their world and the relationships within it as safe and secure.
Mary Ainsworth further expands on Bowlby’s theory by positing that specific attachment styles develop as a result of parental responsiveness. For example, the optimal form of attachment style is Secure Attachment. In secure attachment, partners can trust each other, even when they don’t agree. They appreciate and respect their differences and uniqueness and are able to focus on the strengths of their relationship, even when there is adversity. They can embrace both separateness and connectedness and still feel secure.
Other forms of attachment make it more of a challenge to navigate conflict.
Those who crave emotional closeness and find it difficult to tolerate difference and separateness would be defined as having an anxious attachment style. Anxious partners require a lot of responsiveness and reassurance, most likely because they didn’t receive enough of it as babies or children. Their sense of self and self-worth are usually low and so they seek external reassurance through the lens of their partners. This is difficult to sustain in a dynamic relationship, since we’re all human; and are bound to disappoint or fall short of our partner’s expectations from time to time.
Those who have Anxious Attachment styles are usually the “pursuers” in a relationship. Pursuers tend to lean into the conflict and feel abandoned until conflict is resolved to their satisfaction. They tend to be the ones who are persistent and therefore appear to protest more in seeking a closer connection. Pursuers see their partners as unavailable and not present. They believe their partner is unreachable or emotionally unavailable. While their bids for attention and connection may be seen as criticism and judgment, they are legitimately attempting to find emotional closeness. To them, conflict or disconnection suggests separateness; and Pursuers are not comfortable with that.
Humans are emotional beings – that’s a fact. However, those who have avoidant attachment styles tend to avoid emotional closeness and find it difficult to tolerate intense emotional intimacy, especially during conflict. That’s probably because they learned at a very early age that expressing emotions was not safe or acceptable. Their parents or caretakers may have found it difficult to respond to emotional needs. Or somewhere along the way, they learned that expressing one’s emotions was a sign of weakness or vulnerability. So, in order to function and even excel in life, they learned to shut their feelings down and repress them. Thus, when they feel the onset of emotional pain or discomfort (their own or their partner’s), they tend to pull away, shut down or withdraw into their own worlds.
Those who have avoidant attachment styles withdraw to avoid conflict at any cost. Instead, withdrawers tend to want to fix the problem, and move on, rather than deal with hurt feelings. And when they can’t fix it, they don’t know what to do. They perceive their partners as overly critical and demanding. In viewing themselves through the eyes of their partner, they tend to believe that they never do enough or can never do anything right. This, then, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the more they shut down, the more their partners lean into them demanding closeness and attention. But for withdrawers, little or no connection feels better than walking into the fire of emotions and conflict.
Breaking The Pursuer/Withdrawer Cycle
The good news is it’s possible to end the cycle that is threatening your relationship. Sue Johnson, developer of Emotional Focused Couple Therapy, suggests the first step to ending the cycle is identifying each partner’s role in it. Then, partners must accept responsibility for their part in the cycle. For the Pursuer this involves understanding one’s attachment injuries and learning how to manage emotions. For the Withdrawer this involves becoming more aware of their emotions and learning to feel more comfortable with them. This is achieved in collaboration with both therapist and clients, as they begin to explore core emotions that are maintaining the P/W cycle. When this is achieved, with the help of the therapist, partners can engage in very different conversations, where they feel valued and validated.
[For more information on Emotional Focused Couple Therapy and breaking the Pursuer/Withdrawer cycle, please refer to “Hold Me Tight, 7 Conversations for a Lifetime of Love” (Johnson, 2008).]
Dr. Laura Richter is a licensed Marriage and Family therapist who works with individuals, couples, and families. Her specialties include: surviving infidelity, improving communication, beginning again after divorce and effective co-parenting after divorce. She is also a trained mediator, qualified parenting coordinator and collaborative law mental health professional. For more information, please call or text us today at 561-715-6404 to schedule a consultation to see how we can help.