It’s the oldest plot in the movie business: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl. Variations of this story show up in romantic comedies (or heartfelt dramas) all the time. Something happens to derail the joy the happy couple found in each other, and it often involves a communication gap – or a misunderstanding – between the main characters.
This plot can play out in our own lives too. Every relationship has a story that takes twists and turns along the way. You may have told the story many times about how you met your mate, what drew you together, and the experiences you’ve shared. You may remind each other about the memorable moments of your life together – and the things you value about each other. These are the elements of your history, your story, that is unique to your relationship.
At some point in this story, however, something may begin to feel “off.” The couples I see often have at least a sense of uneasiness about the direction their story is taking. Or they may be downright unhappy with their tale and wondering, “How did we get here?” And even more to the point, “How do we get out of this?”
Each time a couple begins to bravely relay the turns and twists in their relationship, themes begin to emerge. There are a few common patterns that the story may take, yet the most common pattern can be seen in the interaction between a pursuer and a withdrawer.
Pursuers and withdrawers each play a relationship role that is helpful to understand. Pursuers take on the role of initiating emotional connectedness. They are known for asking questions, scheduling activities, and petitioning for closeness. They feel responsible for keeping the relationship on track. Withdrawers, on the other hand, attempt to keep the relationship in check by slowing things down and preventing conflict. Withdrawers generally enjoy more quiet time which can feel uncomfortable to pursuers if they sense the silence indicates a threat to their relational security. When couples get caught in their pursuer-withdrawer cycle, the partners may become so entrenched in their emotional responses that instead of working together in harmony, they begin to disconnect. Disconnection can feel and look quite scary when someone you love is involved.
As things begin to go awry, pursuers and withdrawers tend to respond in fairly predictable patterns. Pursuers pursue more. They pick up the pace on questions. They send more texts – maybe several in a row. They may yell, cajole, jab, criticize or complain. Why? Because they are looking for interaction. They are seeking anything that says, “I am still here with you.” On the surface, it doesn’t make sense that someone who wants more connection is yelling or criticizing. But what they are trying to say through these actions is, “I’m hurt. I’m afraid. Please let me know you are here.”
The predictable pattern of a withdrawer, however, does not provide what the pursuer is seeking in these situations. When faced with multiple petitions for closeness – especially those that involve criticism – withdrawers pull away. They grow quiet. They are slow to respond, if they respond at all. To stop the pain, they may stall, procrastinate, minimize, defer, distract or otherwise shut down. They appear to be disengaged and uncaring. However, they often care very much, and their behavior is trying to say, “I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know what to say. I am afraid if I respond I will only make it worse.”
Ironically, each partner could be trying to help in the best way they know how, but both end up feeling hurt.
When a marriage faces stresses like I’ve described, the first step in creating a better, more fulfilling storyline is to get a better understanding of how the roles of pursuer and withdrawer play out in a cycle that keep couples locked in repeated conflict. Once couples are able to identify their cycle within the context of their relationship and hear their partner’s heart in the process, they will be able to view their partner’s and their own responses from a new perspective.
Supported with new understanding, couples are then able to begin reshaping their interactions with each other and growing their relationship through experiences that lead to relational repair and intimacy. The book Created for Connection by Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), and Kenny Sanderfer, EFT Trainer, offers couples a way to both understand and discuss the dynamics within their marriage. It’s a good resource, and we recommend it. However, if you’d like help navigating the twists and turns in your story, please remember that we’re here for you. Complete the contact form, and let’s schedule an initial consultation. (Couples living outside of Georgia may search the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy website for therapists in their local area.)