Every relationship has patterns where connection and disconnection occur. No matter what is happening on the outside, these patterns look pretty similar from interaction to interaction. For example, one partner gets loud or angry, the other partner distances or shuts down. The first partner then gets louder attempting to connect or be heard, the second partner leaves or withdraws. This is called the pursue-withdraw cycle. Research shows that 80% of couples fall into this pattern of interaction. These patterns come from learned experiences that tell us we are not safe or that vulnerability isn’t allowed. When the cycle takes over, interactions spiral out of control.
If you are a pursuer, this may sound familiar:
Reaching for connection by moving towards your partner during conflict or disagreement. You like to talk about the problem and actively pursue ways to look at what’s happening right now. It can feel hard to take a step back or give time for things to cool down. If you don’t feel heard, you may be critical or blaming. You try to nudge your partner towards change. The underlying reason this happens is because the pursuer feels unsafe and disconnected. Disconnection is a painful, anxiety-filled, scary place. Getting back to connection is so important.
If you’re a withdrawer, this may sound familiar:
You move away from your partner or conflict by minimizing, deflecting, defending, shutting down, or walking away. The withdrawer has learned that engagement creates escalation, and that feels too overwhelming. You may move away or distance from what’s happening in order to protect yourself and the relationship from the damage that can occur during these negative cycles.
The withdrawer may look calm on the outside but is feeling intense emotion on the inside. They may feel pressure and have messages like “I’m not good enough or I will never be able to make my partner happy.” By shutting down, the withdrawer can avoid being overwhelmed by these emotions. They want to calm the situation down and turn down the emotional temperature.
As a therapist with advanced training in emotionally focused therapy (EFT), I help couples identify their cycles of disconnection and understand their own and their partner’s coping strategies (positions in the cycle). Creating awareness around and exploring these interactions helps couples interrupt the negative interaction cycle and move toward emotional safety and a secure bond, resulting in closeness, intimacy and connection.