Let’s put on our science hats for a moment to understand 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, among many others, have developed this further into adult attachment styles in our current lifetime.

Essentially, attachment theory outlines four primary ways we attach to people: secure, 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. 

The rubber meets the road when these two attachment styles clash in a pursuer-withdrawer cycle. The pursuer-withdrawer cycle is a relationship pattern in which one partner seeks connection while the other withdraws. This pattern can be damaging, leading one or both partners to feel insecure, distant, resentful, and frustrated. 

When you better understand the what and why behind withdrawer and pursuer attachment styles, you can strengthen your self-awareness and connection to your partner. Let’s learn more. 

The pursuer attachment style

Think of pursuers as relationship thermometers. Pursuers are usually quite aware of feeling disconnected, even if it’s a tiny moment. Disconnection sends a danger signal to the pursuer’s brain, and the pursuer wants to resolve that lousy feeling immediately. While a withdrawer may experience the exact moment of disconnection 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 complaining, pushing, demanding answers or more conversation, or instructing their partner on how to say or do something better. On the inside, many pursuers feel like they are putting in most of the effort and that their partner doesn’t care enough to engage with them. Even though pursuers often express their concerns verbally, there are occasions when they hold back, hoping that their partner will finally connect with them.

How a pursuer shows up in a relationship 

Pursuers pursue because they believe nothing will get resolved if you don’t talk about things. They’re not wrong! If we ignore and dismiss everything, there isn’t much opportunity for growth or change. However, pursuers also feel quite anxious about disconnection, and disconnection from their partners is truly unbearable. Pursuers sometimes feel they are the only ones who care about reconnection. Pursuers often feel quite alone. 

If you’re a pursuer, you likely long for more emotional comfort and connection from your partner. You want to experience and do things as a team. Often, being frustrated or demanding can feel more powerful for them than feeling alone, scared, and vulnerable.

I want pursuers to leave therapy knowing that their emotions are not too much and that they genuinely can receive help and comfort once they feel safe enough to ask for it in a vulnerable way. They can break the pursuer-withdrawer pattern of disconnection. 

Let’s learn more about withdrawers.

The withdrawer attachment style 

First, withdrawers can be any gender, even though people often attribute withdrawer-like behavior to “a typical guy.” Withdrawers typically suppress and numb feelings they don’t feel they can fix or solve. Emotional suppression isn’t always a bad thing. Imagine someone in medicine—they must set aside feelings to respond clearly in a crisis. Being seen as “cool, logical, and level-headed” is high praise in many contexts. Suppressing feelings can be an advantage, which our society often celebrates in men. 

At home, however, this can be a challenge in connecting with their partners. On the outside, withdrawers often use tactics like dismissing, minimizing, pushing for a positive outlook, shutting down, or blowing up to get space. These tactics help withdrawers cope. 

A withdrawer rarely voices complaints or “starts the fight” because they’ve already moved on from the eight annoying things you did that week. Withdrawers often tell themselves, “That’s not a big deal. Focus on the positive. It’s not that bad.” Yet when withdrawers use these coping tactics to minimize their partner’s pain or concern, escalation is sure to follow. 

How a withdrawer shows up in a relationship 

Withdrawers must feel safe enough to voice their authentic feelings and experiences instead of merely giving the “right” response. While withdrawers may seem stoic or act robotic, they are equally as sensitive as their partners and have different triggers. Withdrawers often fear they are disappointing their partners, even though their partners may never sense these feelings. 

Even though withdrawers are often quieter than pursers, withdrawers can also be quite explosive in an argument. The critical 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 tasks or move on from the little nits in their relationship. Withdrawers are also key in breaking the pursuer-withdraw cycle. 

How does your attachment style affect your relationship? 

Self-awareness is one of the most important and fulfilling gifts you can give yourself and your relationship. Whether you’re a pursuer, a withdrawer, or a little bit of both, when you can recognize and acknowledge the strengths and challenges of both attachment styles, you can work towards building a healthier and more fulfilling connection with your partner. 

Our therapists are experts in helping you understand and address attachment styles. We offer in-person appointments in Charlotte, NC, and Carefree, AZ. We also have virtual sessions available for those who live in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas. Contact us to get started.