NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Monday, October 31, 2022

Relationships: What Are the Underlying Issues in the Cat-and-Mouse Game?

The origin of the phrase "Cat-and-Mouse Game" dates back to 17th Century England.  This phrase refers to actions involving the constant pursuit, near capture and repeated escapes of two people stuck in this dynamic. 

The Underlying Issues of the Cat-and-Mouse Game

What Are the Underlying Issues in the Cat-and-Mouse Game?
The Cat-and-Mouse Game is similar to the cartoon characters, Tom and Jerry:  Tom, the cat, always almost captures Jerry, the mouse, but somehow Jerry always manages to get away.  

The result of this pursuer-withdrawer dynamic is that they continually engage in this dance of pursuit, near capture, and flight (see my articles: Are You Afraid of Being Emotionally Intimate in a Relationship? and Fear of Abandonment).

The Cat-and-Mouse Game usually involves an unconscious fear of either fear of engulfment or fear of abandonment.  There is an ambivalent quality to the dynamics of these two people, who might want to be together. but when it appears they are getting closer together, one or both of them distance themselves.

Fear of engulfment is extreme distress or anxiety about being emotionally taken over/engulfed in a relationship with another person. The fear involves a perceived loss of independence and sense of self.  Fear of engulfment often occurs when a person feels insecure and experiences relationships as overwhelming.  This usually relates to unresolved childhood trauma where this person felt overwhelmed by one or both parents.

Fear of abandonment is an overwhelming worry that people who are close will leave.  This fear is often rooted in unresolved childhood trauma where someone close, including a mother, father or another close relative, left or died.

Although the Cat-and-Mouse Game is referred to as a "game," there usually isn't a malicious intent.  Often it's more like an unspoken dance between two people, who might be unaware of what they're doing, but who are both dealing with fears within themselves.

The person in the role of the cat fears s/he will be abandoned by the mouse, so s/he pursues but also maintains some distance so there is enough space to deal with what s/he fears will be the inevitable abandonment.  

The mouse fears being engulfed or overwhelmed by the cat, so s/he maintains enough space to feel safe but close enough to maintain contact.

On an unconscious level, the cat, who is the pursuer, is interested the in the mouse because the cat knows the mouse will run.  And the mouse is interested in the cat because the mouse knows the cat will pursue the mouse.  

As long as one chases and the other pursues, they remain in contact with each other, but they also maintain a safe emotional distance which they both need for their own psychological reasons.  

The regulation of the space between them is an unconscious defensive act so that they can have contact with some distance at the same time.

The Cat-and-Mouse Game is exhausting and can be deeply painful.  Due to their fears, the two people involved often don't get close enough to have an emotionally intimate relationship.  They might really love each other, but their earlier traumatic history of abandonment or engulfment keeps them apart and stuck in this cycle.

Even people who are married or in a long term committed relationship can get caught in this dynamic.  For a period of time their relationship can be going relatively well when one of them will pick a fight with the other.  

On the surface, the fight might seem ridiculous.  But what's really going on underneath the surface is that one or both of them gets uncomfortable with being too close because it either triggers fear of abandonment/being left or fear of intimacy/being too close.  So, the unconscious reason for the fight is that it provides psychological distance.

After a while, when the psychological distance allows each of them feel safe enough, they reengage--until fear comes over them and they begin this negative cycle again.

How to Get Out of the Cat-and-Mouse Game
As I mentioned earlier, these dynamics are often deeply entrenched in an earlier traumatic history which left an indelible mark on each person.

Getting Out of the Cat-and-Mouse Game

But there is light at the end of the tunnel if both people are willing to get help in therapy.

Insight isn't enough to change this dynamic.

Often the most effective therapeutic strategy is individual trauma therapy to work through the unresolved trauma so it doesn't get continually triggered and, if the two people involved are in a relationship, couples therapy, like Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) to address the negative cycle in the relationship (see my articles: Overcoming the Negative Cycle in Your Relationship That Keeps You Stuck and New Bonds of Love Can Replace a Negative Cycle).

Once the couple is no longer getting triggered by their traumatic histories and the negative cycle they created together, they are free to be emotionally intimate.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT Couples Therapy, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I am a trauma therapist who works with individuals and couples (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

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 business hours or email me.