A relationship dynamic of Pursue-Withdraw is one of the most common in distressed relationships.
One person will withdraw from discussion and intimacy. They will go quiet and ‘stonewall’ the other person. Sometimes they do this because they feel that confrontation is dangerous – it threatens the relationship or themselves. It feels safer to just shut up and back away. Sometimes they do this because they feel that arguing will only end up as it always does, with no resolution or reconciliation.
This behaviour is noticed by the partner, who is worried by the change and starts to pursue the partner for re-engagement. This might be as obvious as asking, “What’s wrong?” but more often it will be be more confrontational or controlling.
Often the dynamic pushes each person further into their different behaviours – and intimacy is lost.
One of the early developers of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), Scott R. Woolley, who taught me on my initial EFT training, was interviewed by the Gottman Institute’s Kyle Benson on this subject. If you’d like to read it, it can be found here: Breaking the Pursue-Withdraw Pattern: An Interview with Scott R. Woolley, Ph.D.
The Pursue-Withdraw dynamic is sometimes but not always linked to relationship attachment styles. Some people tend to be more insecure in their sense of how reliable and emotionally safe their relationship is and will tend, from time to time, to pursue their partner for reassurance. A secure partner is likely to provide reassurance.
However, someone who is more avoidant of intimacy is more likely to withdraw. For some people, there is a fear that they might be overwhelmed or controlled by the other person.
Crucially, it’s never just one person’s “fault”.
It’s a dynamic and the actions of both people are necessary for it to spiral out of control.
There are lots of websites on attachment styles. An excellent but long introduction can be found here. There’s also an accessible book called, “Attached”, by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller.
A word of caution! I don’t believe that most of us have fixed attachment styles. I think our styles emerge in the context of our relationships. For example, we can be Secure in one (like with our best friend), Insecure in another (with our bf/gf), and Avoidant in yet another (our Mum or Dad).