A loving partnership is one of the most valuable things in life. Being able to turn to and depend on our partner creates deep joy, shelter, and protection through life’s challenges. But no matter how secure our relationship is, we all experience periods of relationship distress and conflict. Understanding more about the typical patterns that occur within relationship conflict can be incredibly insightful. Attachment theory helps us understand how we react with certain emotions and action tendencies (like criticizing or avoiding) when experiencing relationship disconnection; and whether we are more of a pursuer or a withdrawer by nature. 

Are you a pursuer or a withdrawer in your relationship? Check out this quick read to identify your attachment patterns, and then explore more below to gain greater insight into your partner’s emotional experience during relationship conflict. 

When we have an idea of how we get stuck in cycles of disconnection, we can work to change the pattern so that we can learn more about one another, understand our attachment needs more clearly, and increase trust in our relationship. 

What you might not know about your pursuer partner 

If you are the withdrawer in your relationship, conflict with your partner may feel particularly awful. “On the outside, pursuers often use tactics like complaining, pushing, demanding answers or more words…” when triggered. It can feel overwhelming and unfair to see your pursuer partner expressing anger, criticism, disappointment, and hurt because of you. 

For example, your pursuer partner may advocate for more romance. This advocacy comes out as your partner complaining that you need to give more of a romantic effort. This is a triggered response. You might perceive that your pursuer partner is choosing to lean into their negative feelings and deliberately pressuring you to do something or change something so that they feel better. It is essential to understand that your pursuer partner dislikes this set of action tendencies. They don’t want to pressure or demand more of you to make themselves feel better. A pursuer partner uses this set of actions as they tend to want to resolve bad feelings immediately. Your partner is likely to restrain themselves from doing those actions at least some of the time. 

While your pursuer partner may not understand the full emotional impact of their tendencies on you, they do have some awareness that they are coming across in a way that triggers your defensiveness, withdrawal, or shutdown. Most pursuers feel horrible at the thought of making their partner feel bad. Pursuer partners usually long for more consistent emotional openness, which helps them feel secure and wanted in the relationship. Sadly, their action tendencies sometimes push you further away from emotional openness.

The pursuer’s dilemma

The pursuer’s dilemma is the mismatch of feelings and subsequent action. A pursuer often believes that if they don’t point out problems in the relationship, nothing will change for the better, and their hurt or insecure feelings will continue. But then again, if they do speak up about the need for change, they inadvertently hurt your feelings and trigger your withdrawal. Amid this internal spiral, your pursuer partner gets stuck, and the longer the pattern continues between you, the more helpless and ashamed your partner feels. 

Do you feel some compassion for your partner when you think about their dilemma? Can you hear the loving message within their longing to feel closer to you? 

What you might not know about your withdrawer partner 

If you are the pursuer in your relationship, be aware that your withdrawer partner also has a relationship dilemma occurring internally during conflict. You might observe on the outside that they are being defensive, shut down, standoffish, or withdrawn when you try to point out your hurts. It may seem unlikely that your withdrawer partner could be experiencing emotional insecurities inside. Often a withdrawer partner’s defensive behaviors inadvertently send the message that they do not care about your hurt feelings or take your longing for change seriously. You might not know that your withdrawer partner feels stuck and unsure how to respond without worsening your hurt feelings. They fear that negative emotions within difficult conversations will prevent repair and harmony. While it may not look like it from the outside, a withdrawer may feel inadequate as a partner. 

The withdrawer’s dilemma

The withdrawer’s dilemma is that they believe they make problems worse and fear they cannot meet their pursuer partner’s emotional needs. Most likely, your withdrawer partner profoundly wants to feel like a good enough partner for you. They want to believe that they are doing a good job in the relationship. Your satisfaction and happiness are signals that they are a “good” partner. 

Can you hear the sweet message within that fear of inadequacy? Can you access some softness and compassion towards your withdrawal partner in their place of helplessness? 

The power of curiosity 

Whether you’re a pursuer or withdrawer, you need to be curious. Curiosity is the foundation for safety and change in a relationship. It is easy to think that we know all about our partner and how they feel towards us. In reality, sometimes, we only see our partner’s outward behaviors rather than hearing about their internal insecurities. Rather than assuming you know all about your pursuer or withdrawer’s feelings during conflict, try approaching them with curiosity about how they get stuck within their relationship dilemma. Remember to stay calm, respectful, and non-reactive as they share. Click here for more tips on how to effectively share and listen about your relationship experience. 

How can couples therapy help?

Sometimes working through conflict feels overwhelming. A trained, compassionate therapist can be an excellent guide to help a couple find their way. If you could use professional guidance and are ready to make an appointment, contact us to get started. 

We offer services for those who live in Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas.