Pursuers and Withdrawers - Which One Are You?

The kind of couples therapy I do, Emotionally-Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), outlines the dance between Pursuers and Withdrawers so beautifully. When I first learned about this, it blew my mind. But before we get to the dance, how do you know what you are? Of course, no one is a cookie cutter, so this generally outlines what category you may fall into.


Oh, Pursuers. You make the world go round. Verbal, motivated, organized. You are often the one on top of all the things in the household. You can fall into the role of manager, or even sometimes, blamer/demander. You pursue your partner for connection. You complain when something disrupts that connection. On the outside it might sound like, "Hey, you didn't do the dishes? What is wrong with you?" but on the inside it sounds like, "When you don't do the dishes, I feel like you don't care about me! Please know this and fix it, so I can feel close to you."

The Pursuer fears loss, and generally feel fairly anxious (female pursuers seem to be more connected to their anxiety, male pursuers seem to be more connected to a feeling of indignation). They fear they will lose their partner. They work really hard to explain themselves and try to resolve conflicts so this doesn't happen. They explain to their partner often what would help resolve the issue. The anthem of the Pursuer? "I've told him/her exactly what I need, why can't they do it?"

Pursuers can be very gentle, making quiet, quiet bids for what they need. Or they can be strident, where there is no question that they are upset with you. But they tend to be the ones who bring the complaint first, and who can stay in the tough conversation a little longer.

Quiet Withdrawers:

I love Withdrawers. They are so not me. Thoughtful, observant, quiet. You take in the world, and pick up on much more than it seems. In conflict, though, you are a bit of a challenge. In conflict, Withdrawers typically shut down. They go stone cold silent or get defensive and then shut down. They may leave the room. They rarely come back the next day and say, "Hey, you know that fight we were having where you were telling me what a failure I am? Can we resume that?"

Withdrawers look stoic, but truly are far more sensitive than you realize. It cuts them deeply to hear, over and over again, that they are failing you or letting you down. Their brains go into a "freeze" mode in conflict, which makes it very difficult to stay engaged in even minor disagreements. Pursuers may not think they are telling the Withdrawer that they are failing, but trust me, that is what the Withdrawer is hearing deep down.

Whenever someone comes in and tells me, "My partner has no emotions, they are emotionally stunted." I think - oh, you're married to a Withdrawer. Quite the opposite, Withdrawers have as many emotions as anyone else (which are ALL EMOTIONS, for heaven's sakes, all people have all emotions!) they just don't look like it, because they have learned to suppress and deny their feelings. 

Reactive Withdrawers:

Reactive Withdrawers actually come with some gifts, even though you can look like firecrackers in the moment. Reactive Withdrawers have the same motivation of a Quiet Withdrawer, which is to end the conflict. Quiet Withdrawers end the conflict by literally not talking. Reactive Withdrawers end the conflict by turning on the firehouse and blowing everyone away. They look explosive, but they are not pursuing for connection. They are wanting the disagreement to end.

The bonus of the Reactive Withdrawer is that you stay somewhat verbal in conflict. Your brain is probably still getting flooded, which means you feel overwhelmed in an argument, but with some tweaking you can dial back that firehose and stay in the conversation with your partner.

Often, the dance we see with partners is Pursue - Withdraw. But sometimes you can have Withdraw - Withdraw, or Attack - Attack. Regardless, the questions underneath all these conflicts are the same. Do you love me? How important am I to you? Am I your hero or your disappointment? 

To learn more, read Dr. Sue Johnson's book "Hold Me Tight." She founded EFT and is a genius bringing healing to so many couples.