One of the First Issues I Usually Have to Address in Couple Therapy
You and your partner get in an argument. You’re both pretty worked up, but suddenly your partner says, “Forget it,” and seems unwilling to have the discussion.
This really frustrates you, because it seems like you always want to confront and discuss issues up front, and like your partner usually backs out of talking about things. Then it seems like they never bring it up later and just get upset if you bring it up. The longer this has gone on, the more frustrated you have gotten and the more forcefully you find yourself insisting that you’re going to have the discussion right here and right now. Of course that almost never works, and your partner accuses you of badgering her and never respecting her right to not discuss things.
Sound familiar? Or maybe for you it’s the other way around, where you are the partner who feels like they need to “get away” when things get intense.
This is what I call the pursue/withdraw problem, and it’s one of the most common things I deal with in couples therapy. My rough estimate is that at least 80% of couples I work with are having this problem. In this post I’m going to explain where that problem comes from and how it works to keep couples locked into a cycle they cannot escape.
The pursue/withdraw problem, fundamentally, comes from what causes feelings of overwhelm in each partner during disagreements.
Pursuers feel overwhelmed when there is a standing disagreement between them and their partner. They feel driven, often desperate, to clear the air so their overwhelming emotions (often anxiety) can dissipate and they can feel good again.
Withdrawers tend to feel overwhelmed not so much by conflict itself, but by the intensity of negative emotion in the pursuing partner.
See the problem? One partner needs to resolve an issue right this minute because they feel anxious and overwhelmed by the fact that they are arguing. The other partner is pushed into overwhelm by the intensity of the pursuing partner’s negative emotion, so they shut down and withdraw. This spikes overwhelm even higher in the pursuer, who becomes even more intense, which further shuts down the withdrawer. Get it? Irresistible force meets immovable object.
Does this remind you of anything that happens in your own relationship? The good news is, there’s definitely a fix for this! The bad news is that it can be difficult to apply, because you have both been stuck in your respective patterns most or all of your life, and you’re going to have to learn how to break out of it.
In my next post, I’ll tell you in one sentence how to fix the issue, and then elaborate on what that will look like.