How to stop the negative cycle

In the field of couple’s therapy in Bethesda, we recognize some common roles that are present in many intimate relationships. “Pursuers” and “withdrawers” are two examples of relationship roles. Before we get started, I want to clarify a few things: 1). Sometimes, pursuers partner with other pursuers, and withdrawers date other withdrawers. However, in many relationships, these roles are complementary, in that pursuers are the yin to withdrawers’ yang; and 2). In the media, pursuers are often women (e.g., the nagging wife) and withdrawers are often men (e.g., the husband who fears the phrase “we need to talk”). But, pursuers can be men, just as withdrawers can be women.

Both pursuers and withdrawers recognize and are affected by feelings of disconnection in relationships; however, they have different responses to feeling disconnected. Pursuers “move towards” their partners by criticizing, blaming, bringing up problems, and telling their partner how to improve. While withdrawers “move away” from their partners by shutting down, defending, minimizing problems, or leaving the room. In the moment, both pursuers and withdrawers feel as though their attempts are working: pursuers believe that they are getting to the root of the problem by facing conflict head on, while withdrawers feel they are “keeping the peace” by avoiding conflict and smoothing over differences. Unfortunately, in the end, both attempts fail to increase connection.

One of the most challenging aspects of the pursuer/withdrawer dynamic is that the more the pursuer pursues, the withdrawer withdraws, and vice versa. Couples in this dynamic are like cars stuck in the mud, spinning their wheels and unable to get enough traction to get back on safe ground. Luckily, there are a few strategies to help you get out of this problematic cycle:

1). For the pursuer: It is easy to get caught up in your partner’s little annoyances (e.g., forgetting to pick up the drycleaning or always being on the phone) and lose sight of the bigger issue: lack of connection. When you find yourself tempted to nag or criticize, remind yourself that your goal is increased connection and blaming your partner or instructing him/her on the “right” way to behave will get your further away from you goal. See if friendly reminders and invitations for connection (e.g., let’s put away our phones for the evening and watch our favorite movie, what do you think?) get you closer to what you want.

2). For the withdrawer: It’s important to remember that it is normal to become overwhelmed when faced with criticism or the potential for criticism and shut down. Sometimes, withdrawers are so skilled at closing the door on their emotional world, that they may not even realize that criticism affects them! The first step is to identify how your partner’s pursuing affects you. The next step is to acknowledge that by shutting down and withdrawing, your partner is more likely to be critical, nag, etc. As a result, withdrawing moves you further away from your goal of existing peacefully with your spouse. Take a couple of deep breaths and remind yourself that the conflict is only temporary….if you face it head on.

3). Hopefully, you will get some relief from these strategies. It might be helpful to sit down with your partner at a mutually agreed upon time to discuss how you will manage this cycle. If you continue to try to solve this problem and find yourself frustrated or hopeless about your lack of progress, it may be a good time to reach out to a couple’s therapist for more help. A skilled Bethesda, MD couple’s therapist will be able to help you find balance in your relationship.

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