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Negative Patterns in Relationships: Pursuer-Withdrawer

The most common negative relationship pattern has one person who is in pursuit of an emotional connection and the other who is withdrawing from that emotional connection. Both people have reasons for their part of the pattern. It's helpful to understand both sides and then put the two together to see how partners impact one another.

The Pursuer (Chaser)

Pursuers are often seeking connection and often say.... "He is never there, even when he is present. He never looks at me. I am not a priority." Pursuers often feel...unloved, lonely and desperate. Pursuers often want... accessibility and responsiveness.

The Withdrawer (Runner)

Withdrawers often withdraw because they don't think they can please their partners. Withdrawers often say..."I never get it right. I don't know what I feel. She never comes near me. She takes things out of proportion." Withdrawers often feel... Lost, overwhelmed, afraid, inadequate, Rejected and undesired, especially when not having sex.

In order to resolve the pursuer-withdrawer cycle the withdrawer needs to re-engage and the pursuer needs to soften.

The way the withdrawer copes triggers the pursuer's danger response. The withdrawer therefore often feels that they can never get it right. The Withdrawer copes outside the relationship (as in Pornography use) as contaminated air is better than no air at all.

Research shows when someone leaves a relationship, they seem to repeat their side of the negative pattern in their new relationship. This points to the importance of recognizing both partners are participating in continuing the negative pattern.



This model shows the most common negative pattern that a couple struggles with. These patterns are based from Sue Johnson's Emotional Focused Therapy (EFT). As a relationship therapist, the training in EFT helps uncover the deeper emotions and help the couple create a safer place to share and support each other in their hurt.

Other Forms of the Negative Cycle

EFT founder and practitioner Sue Johnson outlines four other ways that the negative cycle manifests:

1. Attack-Attack: This is typified by escalating aggression and critical blaming, called "find the bad guy" since the struggle is always about who is to blame for the relationship distress or who is the more unlovable of the two partners. To define the other as at fault offers an illusionary moment of control in the wave of distress that engulfs a couple's relationship.

2. Criticize-Withdraw: This is the most common cycle and predicts relationship dissolution. This is often called the "Protest Polka" since on person is explicitly protesting disconnection, in an aggressive way, that disguises separation distress.

3. Freeze and Flee Cycle: Both partners, burnt out and discouraged, retreat and stonewall each other. For the previously pursuing partner, this is often the beginning of grieving the relationship and moving toward detachment.

4. Chaos and Ambivalence Cycle: One partner demands closeness, but when it is offered, the threat involved in being vulnerable with a needed other triggers reactive defense and distance, which then pushes the other partner into frustrated withdrawal.

This cycle most often reflects a fearful avoidant attachment style, in that the most active partner makes anxious bids for connection, but then switches into more avoidant mode and retreats.

So now what?

Creating a New Healthy Cycle

The goal is to understand why you and your partner are stuck in a negative pattern, and find exits out of the pattern. Then the couple discovers a new healthy cycle and practices a new way of communicating and connecting.

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