Breaking Relational Conflict
By Danielle Thurman, LAMFT
Breaking Relational Conflict
The more time I spend as a therapist the more I realize that our lives all look pretty similar. Where we all struggle is in learning to cope with the emotions behind what is happening in our lives. My goal as a therapist is to help clients use their emotions to create secure connection. When we feel loved, safe, and secure in our relationships, we are more resilient and are better able to cope with the hard times.
Every relationship has patterns where connection and disconnection occur. No matter what is happening on the outside, these patterns look pretty similar from interaction to interaction. For example, one partner is angry, the other partner shuts down. The first partner then gets louder, the second partner leaves. This is called the pursue-withdraw cycle. Most, if not all, relationships have these patterns. These patterns come from learned experiences that tell us we are not safe or that vulnerability isn’t allowed. It can also be passed down from generation to generation due to trauma. When the cycle is present, often times these conversations spiral out of control.
It’s true—in couple relationships, opposites attract. This can be a positive thing as both partners will have different strengths. These differences can also rub on each other; it’s impossible to be that close to someone and not rub raw spots somewhere. Most relationships are made of one person who is a “withdrawer” and one person who is a “pursuer”. These positions are not a bad thing. When relationships get in trouble, it is because we stay stuck in these positions with one another.
When a disagreement occurs, the pursuer reaches for connection by moving towards their partner. They typically like to talk about the problem and actively pursue ways to look at what’s happening right now. It is generally hard for them to take a step back or give time for things to cool down. If they don’t feel heard, they may be critical or blaming. They may also tell their partner how to change or try to nudge them towards change. The underlying reason this happens is because the pursuer feels unsafe and disconnected. Disconnection is a painful, anxiety filled, scary place. Getting back to connection is so important that their actions may feel intense to others.
Pursuers may also experience burn-out; they feel they have tried to get their partner to see what they have seen for so long that they give up. Their actions start to look like the withdrawer’s actions. It may feel like change has occurred in the relationship when really, it hasn’t. This can be when the pursuer starts moving away from the relationship. This role is often times found more in women, but can be found in both genders.
While pursuers typically take the “fight” response during a triggered moment, the withdrawers take the “flight” position during disagreements. They move away from their partner or conflict by minimizing, deflecting, defending, shutting down, or walking away. The withdrawer has learned that engagement creates escalation. They move away from what’s happening in order to protect themselves and the relationship from the damage that can occur during these negative cycles.
Underneath what’s happening, the withdrawer feels intense emotion. They may feel pressure and have messages like “I’m not good enough or I will never be able to make my partner happy.” By shutting down, the withdrawer can avoid being overwhelmed by these emotions. They can also calm the situation down by not reacting while they are triggered. Men typically take this role, however this role can be found in both genders.
What does this look like?
Typically there is a honeymoon phase in the beginning of pursue-withdraw relationships. The differences between the couple are seen as strengths. The differences may also seem really exciting. This often times doesn’t last long as their communication styles are so different that the couple starts to clash. They may start saying things like “we have nothing in common”.
These interactions typically start with the pursuer seeing a problem. They confront their partner about the issue and want to fix it immediately. The withdrawer feels overwhelmed by the intensity of the emotions that come from this conversation so they shut down. The pursuer takes this personally. They may have thoughts in their mind that come up like, “My partner won’t be there for me,” or “I am not important to them.” Anxiety grows inside the pursuer and they become louder. The increase in tension will often times make it so the withdrawer will remove themselves from the situation.
One of the biggest perpetuators of these cycles is the lack of understanding of their emotions. They may also be so scared that they stay on the surface of their emotions and may not even be aware of the vulnerable emotions underneath. For example, if one partner feels angry, the primary emotion of anger is expressed. This doesn’t create connection. Underneath the anger there may be deeper feelings of fear or hurt. The fear and hurt, which could create connection if adequately expressed, is skipped over. In the end, this lack of vulnerability leaves the pursuer feeling unheard, unimportant, and lonely. The withdrawer is feeling attacked, misunderstood, and that they will never be good enough.
What to do
If you can see this cycle in your relationship, seek help. This pattern can be really tricky to spot. It is even tricker to stop without both people understanding what’s happening on a deeper level. A licensed mental health therapist who is trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy will be able to help you both see where you get stuck and how to get back to trusting, rewarding, and enduring connection faster and teach you to avoid that pattern in the future.
Dani Thurman is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at The EFT Clinic and is currently accepting new clients. To schedule an appointment with Dani or any of our many experienced therapists, call our office at 385-695-5949.