Understanding Withdrawers

Ok, put your science hat on for just a minute. What I’m talking about with Pursuers and Withdrawers are attachment styles. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth pioneered this concept in their work with mothers and children in the 1900s. Dr. Sue Johnson, Mario Mikulincer, Philip Shaver, amongst many others have developed this further into adult attachment styles in our current lifetime.

Essentially the theory says, we have three primary ways we attach to people: Anxious (Pursuer), Avoidant (Withdrawer), or Disorganized (rapid switching between the two)

We all have combinations of Pursuer and Withdrawer within us, but we generally are more dominant in one.

So let’s learn more about Withdrawers.

First, Withdrawers can be any gender, even though people often describe Withdrawer-like behavior as “like a typical guy.” Withdrawers typically suppress and numb out bad feelings, and particularly bad feelings they don’t feel they can fix or solve. This isn’t always a bad thing. Imagine someone in the military - they have to be able to set aside feelings at times in order to respond clearly in a crisis. Even as a therapist, I have to be able to push aside bad feelings or worries about my personal life, and focus in on my clients. Being able to push down and suppress feelings is an advantage in many situations, and certainly one our society celebrates and rewards in men particularly. Being seen as “cool, logical, and level-headed” is high praise in many contexts. At home, however, this can be a challenge in connecting with their partners.

What I most often hear Withdrawers say are things like:

This isn’t a big deal

Can’t you focus on the positive

It’s not that bad

This often feels to their partner like dismissing or minimizing, but internally it’s how Withdrawers cope. You know how a Withdrawer almost never voices complaints or “starts the fight?” It’s because they’re letting go of the 10 annoying things you did that week by telling themselves, “that’s not a big deal, focus on the positive, it’s not that bad.” The hard part is when they use that tactic with their partner’s pain or concern, which is sure to lead to more escalation.

The work with a Withdrawer is to help them feel safe enough to voice their authentic feelings and experiences, versus the “right answer”. Withdrawers often look stoic, or “like robots,” but are equally as sensitive as their partners. They just have different triggers. Withdrawers often fear they are a disappointment to their partners, although you may never know that they are feelings that based on how they look.

Withdrawers aren’t always quiet and shut down, sometimes they can be quite explosive in an argument. The key difference is that a Withdrawer’s anger is about wanting to be left alone, and a Pursuer’s anger is about wanting to stay and keep talking.

I want Withdrawers to leave therapy knowing they are loved for who they are, and not just how well they perform certain chores or tasks.

For more, Hold Me Tight is an excellent book that explains how this plays out in adult relationships.

Wesley Little