4 Tips for Success in a Pursuer-Withdrawer Relationship—AKA the ‘Cat and Mouse’ of Romantic Dynamics

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As a modern love therapist, I see clients of various genders, sexualities, cultures, and races, and I have found that regardless of identity, most unions of at least two people contain a pursuer and a withdrawer. When we are stressed or fearful in relationships, we take up behaviors that make us feel safe, and the resulting dynamic is often similar to a game of cat (pursuer) and mouse (withdrawer). This setup is common, and it can prevent us from experiencing easy and soulful connection—but this doesn't have to be the case.

Let’s begin with breaking down what it means to be a withdrawer, who finds safety in retreating. At their best, they are highly dependable and take great care in not disappointing others. But when they sense impending conflict, judgment, or rejection, they pull back. Withdrawers seek hiding places, like working long hours, and are often referred to as being self-sufficient, because the last thing they want is to be a burden on others. They believe that if they don't rely on others, they can't be hurt by them either.

According to attachment theory, many withdrawers came to be as a result of a childhood without secure caregivers. They therefore turned to toys, books, and imaginary relationships as replacements. The withdrawer’s drive toward independence was a creative response to not feeling the pain associated with their connection needs not being met.

On the contrary, the pursuer finds safety in connection. A threat to togetherness is quite scary for them, and when they sense distance from the withdrawer, they engage in behaviors that are often labeled “clingy” or “nagging.” When afraid, they may avoid a fear of abandonment by pulling for proximity to their partners. And at times, they may even seek conflict because even if it evokes negative emotions, it may force closeness to a partner by providing (or even forcing) fodder for interaction. Pursuers may worry their partner doesn't match their own desire for closeness, and that a partner's bad mood is directly caused by something they did wrong.

Pursuers often develop as a result of needing to match their caregiver's needs as a child or having a caregiver who did not nurture their independence. To them, closeness may have meant sameness; going their own way may have been threatening to their caregivers’ stability or willingness to give love. As a result, pursuers feel most loved when they feel approved; their drive for togetherness may be a response to not having to be alone with the discomfort they feel about their own needs.

Why a pursuer and withdrawer relationship can be tricky to navigate

The important thing to remember is the withdrawer, who hides to avoid feelings associated with failure and rejection, and the pursuer, who pulls for togetherness to avoid confronting their own needs and feelings of loneliness, are not fixed personality types but rather behaviors that take place within the context of a relationship. Furthermore, the behavior of one person instigates the behavior of another—that is, a withdrawer retreating may provoke a pursuer to pull for togetherness, and vice versa.

The behavior of one person instigates the behavior of another—that is, a withdrawer retreating may provoke a pursuer to pull for togetherness, and vice versa.

This dynamic doesn't have to be completely negative though. As couples therapist Benjamin Seaman, LCSW, teaches the pursuer can support the withdrawer in leaning into interdependence, and the withdrawer can aid the pursuer in taking a stand for independence. Ultimately, the withdrawer wants to be found and the pursuer wants to choose space for themselves—and that reality is partially why they are attracted to one another. With this in mind, check out four exercises below to help shift negative dynamics of a pursuer-withdrawer relationship into a positive.

4 tips for success in a relationship with a pursuer and withdrawer

1. Blame the dynamic not an individual

Oftentimes our "survival positions," the beliefs and strategies we put in place in order to get our fundamental needs met, activate our partner's vulnerabilities from past or current circumstances. For example, a withdrawer may remain silent in an argument (survival position), which activates the pursuer’s fear of being abandoned (vulnerability). Or a pursuer’s persistent requests for more time, energy, and sharing (survival position), may stimulate the withdrawer’s sensitivity toward worrying about being unworthy of love if they fail (vulnerability).

The more couples can attribute the conflict to the dynamic as opposed to a flaw belonging to the individual, the less of a need each person has to act from the place of survival. This, in turn, creates a stronger dynamic for vulnerabilities to be expressed in a healthy way.

2. Differentiate between then and now

Remember that you may be pursuing or withdrawing because of a wound from the past, not the present. While it might be hard to move through anger at an adult partner, you may be able to find a point of empathy for their child self. I invite you to begin to share what didn't feel safe for you as a child and how this gets activated in the present dynamic. To do this, consider the explicit and implicit message you received about what you needed to do and who you needed to be in order to receive love and acceptance.

For example, a withdrawer might say “as a kid, it was better for me to do things by myself, so I didn’t have to feel rejected by my parent. Now when I get stressed, I go into my own world instead of turning to you.” A pursuer might say “I often felt anxious about being cared for, so I push a little too hard and demand too much when I feel you’re pulling away instead of tending to my own needs.”

3. Try doing the opposite of what you’re inclined to

As humans, we get caught up in our action tendencies—the things we habitually and automatically do, like talking more than listening, asking questions instead of making statements, and staying quiet in the face of discomfort instead of speaking up. So, consider doing the opposite.

For withdrawers, it may be helpful to identify an offering that meets a single need of your pursuing partner—not everything, but something. Is there something you can give or put out that has a high impact for them in an area that you feel both discomfort and willingness to stretch in?

For pursuers, it may be helpful to differentiate what needs must be met in the relationship and which may be met outside of it by yourself or others. Consider making a bid for connection without pressure or an ultimatum. When you are in a constant state of seeking, others do not have to feel the absence of you and therefore never have to be anxious about the lack of connection. Consider what might happen if you give space and breathing room to both your partner and yourself.

4. Learn from each other to find the sweet spot between togetherness and separateness

Healthy relationships are created by finding the right mix between “we” and “I.” Remember that your partner can enrich your life but can’t heal your heart. The more you expect them to fix the circumstances that they had no role in creating, the more you will harm and not create authentic closeness.

Closeness, crucially, doesn’t mean sameness. Most of us have distinctly different needs, capacities, and feelings than our partners. Imagine your differences as a breeding ground for curiosity.

What to know about relationships with multiple withdrawers or multiple pursuers

Sometimes, the same side of the magnets simply do attract. In withdrawer-withdrawer dynamics, sometimes one of the withdrawers is actually a pursuer in burnout. This person rallied for connection for a long time and has now given up. In this dynamic, it’s important to be mindful of having too much separateness, too much silence around difficult topics, and not enough sharing to nurture a soulful connection.

For pursuer-pursuer dynamics, there may be an excessive expectation on the romantic relationship to meet the person's every need, and not enough on connections with the self or those outside of the relationship. In this case, it may be helpful to find ways to engage in activities and relationships that existed before your romantic partnership began.

Regardless of where you are at in your relational journey at this moment, it can be helpful to remember that you are doing your best to feel safe with the resources that you have acquired thus far. Now, you have a few more practices to be able to learn from your partner and turn the struggle into relational strength and personal growth.

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