Are you a pursuer or a withdrawer?
When fighting with your partner, do you prefer to:
- A - Ask for explanations, blame, push, overanalyse, criticise or
- B - Retreat, shut down, walk away, avoid or find distraction?
If A, you are probably a pursuer. And I say “probably” because there is another type of pursuer, I will explain later. If B, then you are probably a withdrawer.
A pursuer or a withdrawer is a role we (have learned to) take in a relationship when there is a conflict. The conflict may be of small or big importance. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the emotional importance the individual gives to the conflict.
So, the issue could be the dishwashing and whose role it is (one of the most common reasons for conflict in couples) but the actual topic in question is: “Do you still care for me? Am I still important to you?”, even if what we actually say to our partner is only something as mundane and accusatory as this: “How many times do I need to tell you to wash the dishes? Why am I the only one who cares about this household?”
The pursuer feels like they need to mention what is going wrong in the relationship. In their eyes, it feels like if they drop the issue, it would be like hiding it under the carpet and a useful opportunity will get lost. The “pushing” and the “blaming” aims at retaining the connection with a partner who is about to withdraw. It aims at bringing the other partner back in the relationship.
The pursuer feels they are not important enough for their partner to pay attention to or connect with them, so they “protest”. They pick a fight and they want to talk about what happened. The “pushing” and “blaming” is seen as a form of protection for the relationship: “If I don’t talk, then nobody will. And then everything will just fall apart.”
It's important to remember, for a pursuer, arguing is better than silence. Silence means a threat, a problem, a disconnection. Their tactics include pushing, blaming, defending, accusing, crying, criticising, blowing up in anger, obsession with house chores, controlling, perfectionism. Their inner fear says: “I am not important enough for you”
The withdrawer feels cornered by the pursuer: they have to talk about their feelings, to give explanations, to analyse, while they are under attack. It’s all extremely overwhelming for them and they don’t feel safe at all, having a conversation like that. A withdrawer is a person who doesn’t feel comfortable opening up. Sometimes, they don’t even know what they are feeling or thinking. They just need more time and a safe environment.
A withdrawer is often accused of not having feelings or that they don’t care. The reality, though, is that they do care. A lot. The way they think they show it is by retreating and moving away from the source of “evil”. Creating space in order to self-regulate and figure out what can be done. Meanwhile, the pursuer reads a completely different scenario and reacts in their own way. For the withdrawer, silence is the way they protect the relationship: “It’s better not to say anything because if I say something wrong, I will ruin the relationship”.
It is important to remember, for a withdrawer, silence is better than arguing. Silence means protection, a break, an opportunity to breathe and feel safe again. Their tactics include shutting down, walking away, avoiding, deflecting, distracting, workaholism, video games, alcohol. Their inner fear says: “Whatever I do is not, and will never be, enough”
As mentioned in the beginning, we learn to pursue or withdraw from an early age. Withdrawers learned that there is no space for their emotions, that their emotions are a burden for others, and there was no one to teach them how to gain emotional awareness; they learned that “leaving you” is to be expected from people and hence “you should learn how to detach early enough from them so that it hurts less”.
Pursuers learned that “people leave and abandon you and you’d better act fast before they leave you for good”; they learned that “leaving you” is one of the most painful things in the world and “you must do everything within your powers to avoid it” - even creating turbulence in the relationship.
There are no gender differences for a pursuer or a withdrawer. Both men and women can be a pursuer or a withdrawer, yet it is more common for women to be the pursuers and men to be the withdrawers.
At the beginning of a relationship, the pursuer is attracted by a withdrawer and the withdrawer is attracted by a pursuer. The pursuer sees the withdrawer as calm, self-sufficient, confident, and hopes to get something from that. The withdrawer sees the pursuer as passionate, emotionally comfortable, driven, and they kind of envy that free expression of emotions.
However, the roles can change within the same relationship: the pursuer, after being the pursuer for many years, may feel exhausted, and eventually give up. That’s the point where they turn into a burned-out pursuer. The same with the withdrawer: after seeing the pursuer giving up, they feel that now they are losing the one and only connection they had (even a toxic one), and they become the pursuers, in order to save the relationship.
Other common patterns are: pursuer - pursuer or withdrawer - withdrawer.
Need for connection
The more the pursuer pushes and blames, the more the withdrawer shuts down. The withdrawer is sensitive to criticism and disconnects; the pursuer is sensitive to disconnecting and criticises. However, they are both afraid to lose each other. Beneath all this defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling and criticism, there is a need for connection and acceptance. They both want to feel accepted, loved, safe, important, seen, heard, validated by their partner. But this toxic way of communication doesn’t allow this to happen.