NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Relationships: Understanding a Partner Who Pursues Emotionally

In my prior articles, I discussed the emotional pursuer-withdrawer dynamic in relationships by focusing on the person who tends to withdraw emotionally.  The focus of this article will be on the person who tends to pursue emotionally (see my articles: Understanding a Partner Who Withdraws Emotionally - Part 1 and Part 2).

Understanding a Partner Who Pursues Emotionally in a Relationship

Understanding the Emotional Pursuer in a Relationship
The person who tends to pursue their partner is usually the one who wants to talk about the relationship more, process problems in the relationship, have a stronger connection and spend more time together, among other things. 

When discussing either the withdrawer or the pursuer, it's important to discuss the dynamics of the other partner because each partner is reacting to the other one.

As I discussed in the previous articles, while emotional withdrawers (also called distancers) often have an avoidant attachment style, emotional pursuers often have an anxious attachment style.  This usually leads to an ongoing pursuer-withdrawer cycle where the more the pursuer pursues, the more the withdrawer withdraws, and the more the withdrawer retreats, the more the pursuer pursues (see my article: What is Your Attachment Style?).

The withdrawer withdraws because they're emotionally overwhelmed.  They might withdraw--either emotionally, physically or both.  Even if they remain in the same room with the pursuer, they might numb out so they're no longer listening to their partner.

At that point, many withdrawers, who are overwhelmed, just need time to regroup before they can have a dialogue with their partner.  Some people are sufficiently self aware to know what's going on with them, so they can tell their partner they need space.  Others aren't sure what they're feeling, so they don't say anything before they withdraw, which leaves their partner anxious and unhappy (see my article: Are You a Stonewaller?).

To the pursuer, who is anxious to make things right in the relationship, the emotional distancing of the withdrawer feels like a rejection.  For many pursuers this feels intolerable, so they'll double down on their pursuing by being even more insistent.  This often means they demand the withdrawer to speak or, if the withdrawer has left the room, they follow the withdrawer and continue to insist on talking.

So, the couple gets stuck in this negative cycle that doesn't work, but each of them continues to engage in the same pattern of behavior because they don't know what else to do (see my article: Overcoming the Negative Cycle in Your Relationship That Keeps You Both Stuck).

You might wonder: Why does the pursuer continue to insist on talking when it only makes the withdrawer retreat even more?  

The answer isn't the same for everyone, but most of the time the problem is that the pursuer is usually the one who wants to get to the bottom of their problems.  Many withdrawers would rather not address the problems at all and, on some level, pursuers know this.

In fairness to pursuers, if they didn't insist, problems might not get resolved.  In addition, they often don't see that their partner is distancing due to emotional overwhelm--not because they're rejecting the pursuer or they don't care.

In fairness to the withdrawers, if they didn't distance themselves sometimes, arguments would get too heated and nothing of value would be accomplished.  Sometimes things actually get worse when both people are overwhelmed and they don't take a break.

So, neither pursuing nor distancing is a bad thing in and of itself.  It's a matter of how each person's dynamics are affecting the other person.  Both people might have good intentions, but they need to learn new skills for interacting with one another.

It's not unusual for the pursuer to see him or herself as a martyr in the relationship.  They see themselves as the one who is more committed to the relationship and, for all their sacrifices, they feel they get little or no appreciation from their partner.  They might also express feeling humiliated or ashamed of how they're being treated by their partner.

What pursuers often don't see is that this view of martyrdom often comes from a longstanding unconscious belief that they don't deserve to be treated well.  As a result, they unconsciously choose a partner who is emotionally avoidant (in other words, a withdrawer), which reinforces the pursuer's underlying belief that they're not worthy.  This unconscious belief often goes back to early childhood dynamics in the family of origin.

There is also a secondary gain to being perceived by friends and family members as the one who is working hard to make the relationship work and who, in return, gets no appreciation from their partner.  From the pursuer's point of view, friends and family members appreciate them (or, more often, pity them), so why can't their partner?

The other secondary gain is that, by virtue of the fact that pursuers are the ones who are the initiators in the emotional realm of the relationship, they also get to control the relationship on an emotional level.  When they want to be close, they pursue, and when they want space, they don't pursue.  But pursuers are often unaware of this.

From the withdrawer's perspective, the pursuer, whom they see as "needy," is "nagging" them.  Withdrawers tend to see the pursuer's wish for closeness as a weakness.  For withdrawers, the secondary gain is feeling superior to the pursuer because they don't see themselves as so needy.  But they often feel disconnected and lonely when they withdraw.

Unconsciously, withdrawers don't realize that their choice of a pursuer for a partner is often the result of their own problems communicating what they need from a partner.  So, they choose someone who will be the one who seeks greater emotional intimacy while they remain safely retreated.  This is usually the result of the withdrawer's low self esteem.

How Can a Couple Break Out of the Negative Cycle?

For Both Partners:
  • Each partner needs to recognize they're stuck in a negative cycle and focus on changing the cycle rather than blaming or trying to change their partner.
  • They both need to recognize that they're choosing to be with their partner--they're not being forced to stay in this relationship.  
  • They need to recognize that they're probably at the same level with regard to maturity, emotional intelligence and intimacy, so there's no need to feel either superior or inferior to their partner.  

For the Pursuer:
  • They need to own their part of the dynamic and stop blaming their partner for the problems in the relationship.
  • They need to learn to stop pursuing their partner.  This often brings up fears that if they stop pursuing, the relationship will be over, but chasing after the partner doesn't work.  It actually makes matters worse. So, pursuers need to face the risk and give their partners a chance to come to them.
  • Since pursuers are often too self sacrificing, they need to start focusing on themselves more.  Rather than trying to get all their emotional needs met in the relationship, they also need to find other ways to feel fulfilled so they don't put undue pressure on their partner.
  • They need to recognize that, although they can tell their partners what they're emotional needs are, they can't change their partner or make them act a certain way.
  • They also need to take responsibility for their own happiness.  Ultimately, if their partner can't give them what they want, they need to decide whether this is the right relationship for them.

For the Withdrawer:
  • They need to take responsibility for their part of the dynamic in the relationship. Most withdrawers know, on some level, that when they withdraw, their partner will pursue, so they need to ask themselves what they get out of this--whether it's feeling superior to their partner or feeling their partner really needs them, and so on.
  • The challenge for withdrawers is to eventually remain present without withdrawing emotionally or physically. Building the emotional capacity to do this is a process that will involve the cooperation and empathy of both partners.  
  • Rather than criticizing their partner for "nagging," they need to develop a more empathetic stance to see their partner's concerns from the partner's perspective.
  • They need to recognize that their partner is often the one who pushes for positive changes in the relationship.  They might not like how their partner actually goes about doing this, but a recognition of their partner's intention is important.
  • They need to develop the capacity to put words to their feelings before they numb out or withdraw.
  • Similar to pursuers, they need to see that they're choosing to remain in the relationship.
Getting Help in Therapy
Changing a negative cycle is very hard for a couple to do on their own.

A licensed psychotherapist who uses Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples can help a couple to change the negative cycle so they can have a happier relationship (see my article: What is Emotionally Focused Therapy, EFT, For Couples).

So, rather than struggling on your own, seek help from an EFT couples therapist.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many couples to overcome their negative cycle so they could have a more fulfilling relationship.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during regular business hours or email me