Ok, let’s put our science hat on for just a minute and understand something called Attachment Theory. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth pioneered this concept in their work with mothers and children in the 1900s. Dr. Sue Johnson, Mario Mikulincer, and Philip Shaver, amongst many others have developed this further into adult attachment styles in our current lifetime.
Essentially the theory says, we have three primary ways we attach to people: Anxious (Pursuer), Avoidant (Withdrawer), or Disorganized (Rapid switching between the two)
We all have combinations of Pursuer and Withdrawer within us, but we generally are more dominant in one.
Let’s get to know Pursuers better!
I think of the Pursuers as the relationship thermometers. Their systems are usually quite aware of feeling disconnected, even if it’s a tiny moment. Disconnection sends a danger signal to the Pursuers brain, and the Pursuer wants to immediately resolve that bad feeling. Whereas a Withdrawer may experience the same moment and try to self-soothe and move on, a Pursuer will generally try to address or correct what caused the disconnection.
On the outside, Pursuers often use tactics like:
Demanding answers or more words
Instructing their partner on how to say or do something better
On the inside, Pursuers often feel like they are doing most of the work, and that their partner doesn’t care enough to engage with them. While Pursuers are generally the ones who are more verbal in complaints, there are also many times they are holding back, hoping that maybe, just this time, they might actually get their partner to connect with them.
Pursuers pursue because they believe nothing will get resolved if you don’t talk about things. They’re not wrong! If we just ignored and dismissed everything, there isn’t much opportunity for growth or change. But they also are feeling quite anxious with disconnection, and disconnection from their partners is truly an unbearable feeling. Pursuers sometimes feel they are the only ones who care about reconnection.
Pursuers often feel quite alone. They long for more emotional comforting and connection from their partners, and sometimes more help and a feeling of doing things like a team. Often being in a frustrated or demanding stance can feel more powerful for them than feeling alone and scared and vulnerable.
I want Pursuers to leave therapy knowing that their emotions are not too much, and that they truly can receive help and comfort once they feel safe enough to ask for it in a vulnerable way.
So now, let’s learn more about Withdrawers.
First, Withdrawers can be any gender, even though people often describe Withdrawer-like behavior as “like a typical guy.” Withdrawers typically suppress and numb out bad feelings, and particularly bad feelings they don’t feel they can fix or solve. This isn’t always a bad thing. Imagine someone in the military – they have to be able to set aside feelings at times in order to respond clearly in a crisis. Even as a therapist, I have to be able to push aside bad feelings or worries about my personal life, and focus in on my clients. Being able to push down and suppress feelings is an advantage in many situations, and certainly one our society celebrates and rewards in men particularly. Being seen as “cool, logical, and level-headed” is high praise in many contexts. At home, however, this can be a challenge in connecting with their partners.
On the outside, Withdrawers often use tactics like:
Pushing for the Positive Outlook
Getting quiet/shutting down
Blowing up/jabbing back in order to get space
This often feels to their partner like dismissing or minimizing, but internally it’s how Withdrawers cope. You know how a Withdrawer almost never voices complaints or “starts the fight?” It’s because they’re letting go of the 10 annoying things you did that week by telling themselves, “that’s not a big deal, focus on the positive, it’s not that bad.” The hard part is when they use that tactic with their partner’s pain or concern, which is sure to lead to more escalation.
The work with a Withdrawer is to help them feel safe enough to voice their authentic feelings and experiences, versus the “right answer”. Withdrawers often look stoic, or “like robots,” but are equally as sensitive as their partners. They just have different triggers. Withdrawers often fear they are a disappointment to their partners, although you may never know that they are feelings that based on how they look.
Withdrawers aren’t always quiet and shut down, sometimes they can be quite explosive in an argument. The key difference is that a Withdrawer’s anger is about wanting to be left alone, and a Pursuer’s anger is about wanting to stay and keep talking.
I want Withdrawers to leave therapy knowing they are loved for who they are, and not just how well they perform certain chores or tasks.
For more, Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson is an excellent book that explains how this plays out in adult relationships.
- Wesley Little, LCMHC, NCC