Overcome Pursuer vs Withdrawer

It can be challenging when one partner wants to feel connected just when the other feels a need for space. Having these opposite needs at the same time is quite common. Most couples can fall out of synch in this manner on a daily basis.

How a couple negotiates being together vs. alone will determine how secure they feel with each other. Unfortunately, these differing needs often turn into a Polarity Dance of pursuer vs. withdrawer. It can happen whenever one partner is pursuing the other for closeness and connection—while the other partner is withdrawing or becoming more distant.

The more one chases connection, the more the other runs away. Conversely, the more that partner distances, the more the first pursues. As this escalates over time, distress in each partner increases. As they polarize more, levels of upset escalate. 

Fears of abandonment or not being important can get triggered in the partner needing closeness. Feelings of overwhelm or a fears of being trapped can arise in the partner who distances. Upset feelings get amplified by each partner’s old emotional baggage carried around since childhood.

What is that Blast from the Past in this case? Quite simply, it has to do with how we were originally programmed around closeness and distance, and how this affects us emotionally today. There have been thousands of scientific studies in the arena called attachment theory, which has to do with how humans emotionally bond in pairs.

Our earliest pair-bonding, of course, was with our parents. They were our original significant others, and our emotional attachment wiring was shaped by interactions with them. This wiring lives in parts of our brain that are effectively unconscious to us, and operate without our awareness or permission.

This same wiring drives how we communicate and behave with our current significant other. How our parents responded to us taught us what to expect and how to emotionally pair-bond. We adapted to what was available in our original home. And our long term memory systems operate unconsciously to bring this forward into our current sense of “home” with our partner.

How exactly was our attachment circuitry programmed? By how our parents responded to our signals that we had a need. This relates to a physiologically-based biological process called co-regulation. If our parents were consistent in attuning to our needs and giving us physical affection—holding, hugging, rocking, kissing—then we developed healthy expectations, emotional responses, and ways of communicating our needs. They were co-regulating us in the same way all species do this for their young.

Cats and dogs lick their young. Monkeys and humans hold their young. Ask any biologist. They will even describe the importance of this at birth and call it an important imprint. This is crucial in our first two years, long before we were using words. It is the most basic form of communication—body-to-body.

Unfortunately, many of us did not receive that kind of consistent physical nurturing. Many parents were led astray by a culture which valued making children self-sufficient. And parents who did respond and held their children may not have been consistent. Adapting to our environment, many of us became “islands” or “waves—Stan Tatkin’s terms for avoidant and preoccupied attachment styles.

How we adapted to our home environment is in our attachment wiring today. Operating unconsciously, it automatically affects how we communicate, behave, feel, and react with our partner.

The island is an adaptation to an upbringing where children were left alone too much. They were shaped to be self-sufficient. They became kids who rarely cried or ran to an adult if they were upset. They were low-maintenance and self-entertaining.

As adults, island-ish partners value independence and alone time. They easily get overwhelmed by too much closeness or interpersonal stress. Emotions can overwhelm them—theirs and others’. When they get overwhelmed, because they were trained to be self-sufficient, they withdraw, avoid, distance, or shut down.

Seldom do islands know their philosophy of self-sufficiency is based on emotional neglect in childhood. Nor will they understand why their self-sufficient behaviors can trigger their partner to feel neglected by them.

Islands are lower in verbal expression about themselves and may appear to be filtered or guarded in what they say—even secretive. Their facial expressions are low in amplitude, making them good at poker but hard to read by their partners.

They tend to focus on work, performance, and activities—and often have difficulty reconnecting after being alone. They can be prone to feelings of inadequacy, blame, shame, or overwhelm by their partner, which results in withdrawal, distancing, or shutting down.

The wave grew up experiencing inconsistent responses to their needs or cries of distress. Maybe their parents were not always there or were otherwise preoccupied. In some cases, parents themselves fell into emotional states, and this left the young wave having to care for their caregiver in a classic reversal of roles.

Whatever the source of inconsistency, the young wave adapted by increasing their signals of distress. They cried more, became clingy or fussy, and were harder to calm down. In essence, they were engaging in angry protest over the inconsistent care delivered by their caregiver. This grew into the expectation that the other person would not be there for them and a sensitivity to abandonment.

As adults, wave-ish partners seek proximity and connection, sometimes to the point of seeming clingy. They value emotions and have higher than average expressiveness about their feelings. Their speech output is driven by the non-linear, emotion-based right brain—where one thing leads to another in a seemingly unfiltered and tangential stream. This may easily overwhelm a more island-ish partner, who is left-brain dominant, linear and logical.

Similarly, waves are high in facial and gestural expressiveness. They have difficulty separating and being alone, yet they may express this in a negativistic way in pursuer behaviors of complaining, getting critical or going on the attack. Seldom do wave-ish partners realize their angry protest is a Blast from their Past—amplified by unresolved expectations of abandonment—and that the manner in which they are reaching out for connection is actually overwhelming and pushing a more island-ish partner away.

It’s important to know that childhood programming is not the only source of the Polarity Dance of island vs. wave. The adult relationship itself creates its own context. How you interact with your partner around needing closeness or distance can set into motion similar insecure dynamics—or create a new secure pattern, even if never experienced in childhood.

It all comes down to how responsive you are to each other’s needs for closeness or distance—and how you signal these needs. Do you consciously negotiate any differences in your needs, making sure that both partners end up getting what each needs? Or are you overtaken by an unconscious Reactive Cycle, where the very way you signal for your need gets you the opposite reaction from your partner?

When left unconscious, this Polarity Dance will escalate over time and trigger the survival states of fight, flight, or freeze. One person ends up pursuing and chasing, the other fleeing or shutting down. As old buttons are getting pushed in this dance, partners start to feel more anxious, angry or numb.

Take the example of Jim and Ann. Their relationship of ten years was in danger of ending. Jim complained that Ann didn’t spend time with him, broke agreements to do things together, and that she put more time and energy into her business than she put into their relationship. Ann complained that Jim was needy and insecure. She had to run a business and didn’t have time to respond him every time he called. To her, he seemed like his need for connection was a bottomless pit and she’d never get anything accomplished if he got all the attention he demanded.

I asked them to explore their past and how it was influencing them now. We discovered old beliefs and baggage developed in childhood were contaminating their relationship. Their childhood wounds were taking over.

Jim frequently felt abandoned as a child by a mother who sometimes adored and coddled him, but just as often was overwhelmed and unavailable. He adapted to these circumstances with the preoccupied attachment style. His environment shaped him into a little wave. His unconscious mind continued into adulthood to have anxiety over getting abandoned again.

Ann’s parents did not act very emotionally warm or nurturing, and her personal space was often intruded upon. She was rarely responded to and learned to become an island, adapting to neglect with an avoidant attachment style. As an island, she could easily get overwhelmed by too much contact and tended to need to retreat into solitude. Her unconscious mind seemed braced against anyone ever trapping her again.

Jim and Ann developed quite different personality types—with different tendencies and reactions when it came to closeness and distance. After coming to better understand themselves and each other, they began to support each other’s growth and healing. Each wanted to expand beyond their old unconscious patterns and learn new behaviors.

Jim learned how to respect Ann’s need for space and time alone, to turn down pursuing or pressuring her, and to approach her with a softer tone when he wanted connection. In return, she learned how to be more responsive to Jim in ways that reassured his abandonment fears, even though her old reaction was to leave in order to get space and reduce her anxiety.

In addition, they both found the value in supportive physical touch as a way to reinforce a quiet, calming, body-to-body sense of connection. They spent more time just holding each other, instead of trying to verbally argue about their differences. This started giving Ann an experience of the nurturing she missed as a neglected child, and filled in for some of the times Jim felt abandoned growing up. On a biological level, they were co-regulating each other’s nervous systems—like recharging each other’s batteries. And their bodies held onto this charge more of the time, leading to the calm and connection they really wanted to feel with each other.

Ann realized that she needed and grew from contact with Jim. She saw that her idealization of being “independent” was based on having adapted to an island home culture where nurturing was not a part of her parent’s behavioral repertoire. Jim recognized that his big fear of abandonment—and the desperation and anxiety that accompanies it—had little to do with Ann. He learned that he could get the soothing contact he needed by approaching Ann differently.

As Jim and Ann learned these new skills, they healed old wounds and rekindled their love. They “popped” their polarity. The issue of closeness and distance lost its charge and they could more easily find mutually satisfactory solutions for scheduling their time together and apart. They felt more connected when they did things together, and more secure when they were each doing their own thing.

In the Polarity Dance, each partner acts as if only having one foot to stand on. The other foot is disowned. In reality, everyone needs connection and everyone needs space. A healthy relationship balances both needs. We each have two feet—and we need to use both to move forward and become more whole.

But in the Polarity Dance, we pretend to have only one foot, the opposite of the foot our partner is standing on. We judge our partner’s stance as being wrong in some way. If we have trouble owning our closeness foot, we may call a partner “needy” or “insecure” when we are pursued for connection. If we have trouble owning our distance foot, we may feel it’s “selfish” or “cold” when our partner needs some space.

By doing this, we create even more pain and push each other to more escalated extremes of opposition. We trigger each other’s basic wounds around abandonment or entrapment, in deeper and more intense waves of upset and confusion.

Interestingly enough, this dance can sometimes suddenly reverse, and each partner puts down their opposite foot. Usually the partner pursuing closeness will back off and then the formerly distant partner starts feeling abandoned. Partners may switch roles, trade places—but the pain does not stop.

Couples who develop happiness in relationship finally realize what’s going on, and are willing to explore new options. They come to understand each other’s wiring better. They no longer take their partner’s different attachment bias personally, and stop blaming each other. Instead of demanding the other person “change” they each learn to negotiate better with their own and each other’s biases.

Ideally, each person finds a better sense of balance between their own two feet. In that way, a couple can truly share closeness at times. And at other times, they can enjoy their own space. Both the “me” and the “we” can be nurtured—without friction or threat to the relationship.