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Understand Relationship Patterns (Pt.1): The Pursuer

We all have roles we play in our relationships. These roles are formed based on our need for functioning and our vulnerabilities. In a romantic partnership, there are two roles that partners will often lean towards to protect themselves in times of conflict: The pursuer and the withdrawer. In part one of a two part series, this post will explain the Pursuer role in Pursuer-Withdrawer relationship patterns. You’ll learn what the pursuer is thinking, why they behave this way, and helpful steps to repair the relationship.

The terms Pursuer and Withdrawer were coined by Dr. Sue Johnson in developing her therapeutic model of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT). It is important to understand the roles we play to understand how the conflict in relationships escalates. The more you can understand how you feel and how it affects your partner, the better you can get through arguments and repair.


Key ways to identify if you play the role of the pursuer in your relationship patterns:

1. Do you feel unwanted, isolated, unimportant, disconnected, abandoned in times of conflict?

2. Do you find yourself making comments such as “I have to do things on my own. I can’t count on my partner”, “I don’t matter to my partner. I never come first”, “I can never get through to my partner. I try to do anything to get them to respond but they don’t”?

3. Does your strategy to fix problems often look like giving advice, criticizing, or pleading that your partner change?

4. Do you find yourself thinking “If I can get my partner to act different, my life would be better?”


What is the pursuer feeling?

The pursuer is often feeling:

  • Alone

  • Unimportant

  • Unheard

  • Disconnected

  • Longing for connection to their partner

The pursuer often feels as though they are the only one who cares about the wellbeing of the relationship and the only one trying to fix the problems that may arise. The pursuer may feel that they are the one to bring up concerns and they are not afraid of getting into an argument if it means the relationship will get better.


Why does the pursuer pursue?

The pursuer is pursuing their partner because the distance or silence in the relationship feels traumatic. To the pursuer, this feeling of being ignored, not heard, and not cared for is intolerable. They tend to try every tool in their toolbox to get their partner to engage and feel as concerned as they are but it has not worked. So the pursuer begins to protest the silence.

Common feelings for a pursuer are anxiety and resentment, which turns into frustration and anger. The pursuer will use aggressive behaviors such as yelling, giving ultimatums, and criticizing their partner. Anything to get their partner to hear, “Feeling alone is so painful! I long for you to show me you care and want this relationship to work as much as I do.” The protest comes from a real place of hurt and sadness. However, this anger often masks vulnerability.


What are the positives of being a pursuer?

The pursuer has learned how to be independent, problem solve, and manage stress and anxiety. These characteristics become beneficial in parenting, career, and other relationships. Often times the reason the relationship is still present is due to the efforts of the pursuer.

The pursuer is the communicator in the relationship and the one wanting to find a solution and “make it better”. The pursuer is putting in 100% by reading the relationship books, doing research on the issue, and often demanding couples therapy! The pursuer is the protector of the relationship.


How do pursuers learn to pursue?

The pain of being alone, unimportant, unheard, and unloved is all too familiar to the pursuer. Often, the pursuer has felt these feelings intensely in childhood or in a past relationship that has led them to feel the pain evermore. It is as if an old wound exists but never completely healed. The scar is there and like Harry Potter, it starts to burn when you feel it again.

Somewhere along the lines, the pursuer has learned to protect themselves from this feeling by being independent and not having to turn to others for help. However, once in a romantic relationship, it gets complicated as the pursuer longs for closeness but may also be afraid of it. The fear comes from wanting to be close but scared that the pursuers partner will let them down and not be there when they are most needed.

The pursuer is caught between two bad places. They can either try to talk to their partner about the pain but it turns into an argument or sit in silence, which is equally unbearable. This often causes anxiety and frustration. The pursuer learned the only way to be heard, get attention, or feel cared for is to get angry and aggressive. Pursuers do not want to go to these lengths but feel there is no other way. They long for any response from their partner.


What is pursuing doing to your partner?

When the pursuer criticizes and yells at their partner, the partner (withdrawer) will feel:

  • Overwhelmed

  • Pressure

  • Anxious

  • Rejected

  • Inadequate

  • Shame

  • Frustrated

  • Angry

These feelings will often turn into behavior that looks like shutting down, being silent, pulling away, and avoiding. This is the exact behavior that makes the pursuer feel more alone and disconnected. Round and round it goes!


How can you change this relationship pattern?

Come forward to your partner from the vulnerable, lonely, and sad place instead of the frustrated and angry place. Try to show your partner how sad and lonely it feels in the relationship. Remember how your behaviors (as much as they make sense) affect your partner and hurt your relationship more.

It can be hard to resolve this relationship pattern with your partner. Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples can help you build the relationship you want.

Interested in learning more? Stay tuned for part 2 of the Understand Relationship Patterns series to learn more about the Withdrawer Role.

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