“When we fight, the same thing kind of keeps happening on repeat again and again in different variations—but it’s always the same damn things. I say something totally unintentionally, then she takes it the wrong way and blows up. I try to keep my cool most times or even just take it—and if I’m not exhausted and it’s not midnight already I usually do a pretty alright job—but eventually I can’t take it anymore and I put up my wall, or actually get up and go into the other room. A few times at it’s worst I’ve gotten in the car and disappeared for a day or two, just to clear my head. I try not to leave because it obviously makes her much more upset, but if I don’t get some space to let the pressure out, I just get angry and then we both say awful shit we don’t mean."
Does this sound familiar?
"I can't take it anymore—what's been happening when we fight. It's the saaame thing every time! I end up looking like a crazy person, a person I don't want to be—someone I'm not! Except with him. I turn into this impossible, clingy tantrum. I'm so chill with everyone else, but when we fight I just kind of panic. He'll say something shitty that makes me wonder if he even likes me or wants me in his life, then I get upset and when I try to explain or get him to comfort me, I can feel this icy wall go up. When I can feel him pull back it freaks me out even more, so I think I get more insistent and pushy, which just makes him go farther away. I know he needs space, but it feels like I'm going to die when he leaves or turns his phone off. If I could just behave and stop chasing after him when he needs space, keep myself from sending eight zillion texts when I can just wait to talk face-to-face, but we're just stuck in this evil infinite loop."
How about this?
Together, like perfectly explosive puzzle pieces, that's what a lot of my work sounds like at the start when clients show up to couples counseling for conflict or intimacy that feels deflated.
The short version of the above sounds like: "the more my partner moves toward me, the more I move away, which makes them move toward me more, which makes me pull back even farther until we're caught up in this spiral."
There are so so many articles written on this topic.
I have to admit that most generally leave me feeling a little disappointed and left with some version of, “You have to just stop pursuing when your partner withdraws.”
“Just stop it.” Figure it out. Don't you have any willpower?
Well, that’s a lot easier said than done when you have a nervous system that’s wired to drive you TOWARD your person when you are afraid.
We have cleverly wired bodies which know down to our core that if we're in danger, we’re safer if we’re not alone but in close proximity to others—others we love and who make us feel safe and cared for, in particular. So if you really think about it, it’s quite natural that we pursue.
Point is, that intense emotional movement you can feel in your body compelling you to move toward your partner: it's quite human.
You're not a "psycho" or "crazy person" for moving this way in your emotional dances. I also want you to know that it's possible to shift how you experience yourself in the midst of this dance.
Emotional intelligence, in a sense, is being able to feel a rush of emotion and sort of opt out of natural selection—experience feelings of fear and anxiety, and stay present and grounded without running or receding inside ourselves. This would not have been a wise maneuver back when we were still hunting and gathering, but things have changed.
Lovers can find themselves in an incredibly uncomfortable bind when they get caught up in what Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy calls a 'Pursue-Withdraw' or 'Distance-Pursue' dance; everyone ends up feeling alone and unheard, and usually hurting.
There can be such devastating pain and excruciating hopelessness in this space that everyone in the relationship sort of gives up and the cycle shifts over time into a frigid 'Withdraw-Withdraw,' where a former 'pursuer' becomes a "burnt-out pursuer," and as Sue Johnson says, "There's no one on the dance floor."
No one is reaching. No one is even fighting. Everyone is kind of frozen and running parallel until there's something everyone can agree to blow up over, stuff under the rug, then passively return to quiet tension.
Usually if I ask a couple in this boat when the last time they remember having sex that was really connecting, they laugh. Touch at this point has usually become terrifying.
I suspect that variations on this withdraw-pursue dance actually account for the vast portion of people experiencing the 'sexless marriage.'
If you're a pursuer or burnt-out pursuer, the anticipation and fear around feeling rejection has often grown intolerable; you might find yourself getting snappy about sex when that's never really been your style, but the thought of risking more vulnerability only to get rejected AGAIN? No way. This can be a most heart wrenching type of avoidance to witness because the uncomfortable desperation-fueled desire at the helm gets sooo palpable.
If you're a withdrawing partner, you might have a serious love/hate relationship with the power that you seem to have acquired in the relationship. There can be a lot of feelings mixed with guilt that come up as you're realizing that you're seriously not turned on by your partner's pursuit behaviors; you want to make them feel sexy and desired, but when they seem clingy and desperate, it's just anything but sexy to you. Plus, hearing a partner beg can get one asking, "Am I some kind of monster?!"
I can’t remember who said this, I think maybe Pat Ogden, but I love it and use it like a mantra: “There’s no such thing as ‘difficult clients,’ just people who don’t feel safe enough yet.”
When I'm working with clients doing these kinds of push-pull emotional dances, especially when there's a high degree of bitterness expressed, I remind myself that the dance floor stays empty until everyone feels safe enough to give it a whirl.
Remember that the goal is not to completely eliminate this emotional dance, but to develop more mastery around noticing it and being able to disrupt and eventually avoid it. This dance uninterrupted can be harmful for longterm relationships. If it sounds like you, don't let it go unchecked.
Now, in keeping with the spirit of practicality, here are some of the most useful and workable tips that seem to positively impact clients working on this in my practice.
Tips for Disrupting the Pursuit:
- Rock the neutral language; try to say "move toward" instead of "pursue like a maniac," and "move away" instead of "get the hell out of dodge," for instance. Even pursue and withdraw can feel pretty loaded when things are tense. Keep it simple and focus on describing behavior and emotions rather than assuming motivation or intentions.
- Make an agreement with yourself not to use the phone/text for emotional communication. Face-to-face or bust. If you never see each other, schedule times when you’re together to talk. And within this phone agreement with yourself, I want to offer an invitation for the brave… If texting or response time is part of your conflict cycle, ask yourself: “How am I being called to grow here?” In this case, there might be a lesson about tolerating ambiguity or having to go without knowing or patience and respect for others' process.
- See the dance that’s happening, call it out, and stop it. It takes at least two people together on the conflict dance floor to inspire the band to continue playing that dreadful, alluring music. Especially if we’ve been with our partner/s for a long time without working on disrupting negative patterns, our main conflict dance can actually quite hard to resist.
- Talk to yourself and to the parts of you that are feeling big feels. I mean it! Get in front of the mirror if it helps. I can do this quietly inside me even while I’m in the middle of an intense session, so it’s really practical. What I’m describing is from Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems model, so you can also trust that it’s evidence-based. Everyone will have different language that soothes and reassures them most, but for me it’s something like: “I’m safe. I’ve got this. Sassy protector part, I can tell you’re all riled up, but I can take care of this. I’ve got us.” This works particularly well if your relationship has a history with some relationship norm violations, like ‘affairs,’ or other big breaches of trust. If a suspicious part was born during the hurtful times, it can help to verbally affirm and reassure that part: “You are feeling very suspicious right now because this is reminding you of our big hurt. I need you to trust that I’ve got us. Husband is at a meeting late just like we talked about, and he’s not the same guy who cheated on me back then. I’ve got a lot more information and knowledge now that we’ve been through this, and I’ve got us. As a special treat, we can watch some trashy TV later and you can go wild with the suspiciousness! Right now, we’re trusting and giving him a chance he deserves. We're safe.”
- Language you can use to experiment with disrupting the escalation of your cycle: “We’re doing that thing!” or “I think I’m doing that thing where I start to shut down.”
- Name your pattern! In EFT, clients are invited to give a name to this negative cycle, or “dance.” Tip: pick something that is funny so that it’s a little harder to take yourselves too seriously when you’re doing that thing about, Ikea furniture or whatever you THINK you’re fighting in the heat of the moment. It can also help to have a physical signal or gesture that you can use to signal to your partner that you sense things are ramping up; this can be useful to have if you’re around family.
- Do some individual work to really discover what chills you out and helps you find the ground and your internal balance and stability. For some people it's mindful breathing or loving kindness meditation, for others it's a little physical activity or yoga. Learning to tolerate discomfort will just grow you.
- Take an experimental approach and treat situations that usually cause discomfort as mini-experiments that you'll get good data from. Every little experience you have where you wait through the anxiety and see your person return to you and feel that everything is okay, that provides counter-evidence to fears of abandonment and attachment rupture or betrayal; it builds trust.
Tips for Disrupting the Withdraw:
- Ask yourself, "What do I really need when I leave the room/move away?" Help your partner understand the unmet need (e.g., to believe that I'm a valued partner who is beloved, to feel capable and successful, to feel close and connected) that isn't being met, not in a blaming way, but to have constructive conversations on how to meet that need without escalating distress.
- Make it more intentional instead of waiting for the boil-over to drive you to move away from your partner emotionally. Agree on a way that you'll ask for and take a needed break that takes into account everyone's feelings and sense of relational safety. It's a balancing act of how to say you're going away while making sure your partner/s know you're coming back for sure.
- Announce verbally when you can feel the tension mounting in your body. If you aren't really sure what happens in your body when you're doing this dance, just start with a gentle intention to experiment with noticing. Do you get tight in the neck/shoulders? Do your palms get sweaty or clammy? Can you notice your foot tapping? What happens next? Just begin there, and share this with your partner.
- Remember "name it to tame it." Practice calling out what you're doing when you notice it; "I'm doing that withdraw thing. I'm totally leaving the room because I don't know how to cope right now. I'm so withdrawing." It can be as simple as, "I'm feeling overwhelmed."
- Invite the pursuing partner to help if you're struggling to notice the escalation that leads you to move away. They could say something like, "Would you like a little space for a bit?" you know, in that non-sassy way. Avoid: "WOW, you obviously need space (scoff)."
- You can also reassure the parts of you feeling overwhelmed by (here's where some of you laugh) talking to yourself. Some clients find that it helps to go to the bathroom and splash their face with cool water when they feel that pull to move away, so this can be a nice place to speak to those parts if you're concerned with people hearing you talking to yourself. Language that might help: "Hey, part that wants to run away right now, I can feel how overwhelmed you're getting. Right now we need to go make a repair so that we can get the alone time we need without hurting the relationship. I've got this. I can feel big emotions moving within me *and* I know I'm safe."
- Try "time-outs together" if you're not experiencing any violence. Sit side-by-side on the couch in silence, just focused on yourself and your breathing, allowing angry thoughts to just pass right on through without grabbing onto them or looping them. You can turn your bodies ~15 degrees apart to indicate that you're taking the time you need to calm. This tends to be 15-20 minutes for most nervous systems, and can be longer if you've experienced Trauma. When each person feels ready to make a repair and reconnect, they turn back facing forward. When both are facing forward, you can then turn and face eye-to-eye and do any further processing.
- Plan times throughout the week where you can really get some quality soul-replenishing time. It could be alone time. Maybe it's not totally alone but a supper club, or weekly show you go and dance at with your friends who aren't your primary partner, whatever you need to really get to feeling like yourself. If you have a partner who experiences anxiety, it can help to involve them in this calendar planning!
I invite you to be extra gentle and tender with yourselves and partners as you embark to shift a pattern like this bad boy. It can take time if it's deeply and rigidly entrenched. Give each other some grace and patience. It will only grow you.