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Understand Relationship Patterns(Pt 2): Withdrawers

If you caught Understand Relationship Patterns (Pt 1): The Pursuer, you may have learned that we all have roles we play in our relationships. In a romantic partnership, these roles are formed based on our vulnerabilities and need to protect ourselves. In part two of this series, this post will explain the Withdrawer role in Pursuer-Withdrawer relationship patterns. You’ll learn what the withdrawer is thinking, why they behave this way, and helpful steps to repair the relationship.


What role does the Pursuer play in this relationship pattern?

The pursuer is a partner who often feels alone, unimportant, unheard, and disconnected in the relationship. The pursuer will often use behaviors such as yelling, giving ultimatums, and criticizing their partner to feel heard and attempt to create change. These tactics often force their partner (usually a withdrawer!) to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and inadequate that turns into shutting down behavior that looks like being quiet, exiting, or getting angry.


Are you in the Withdrawer Role?

These are some key ways to identify if you play the role of the withdrawer in your relationship:

1. Do you feel overwhelmed, pressure, anxious, rejected, inadequate, shameful, or frustration?

2. Do you make comments such as, “I don’t know what I feel or what to do, I am lost and confused”, “He/she overreacts. I don’t understand what the problem is” and, “There is no point. I never do the right thing anyway.”

3. Is your strategy to make it better by being silent, avoiding the problem, or pulling away?

4. Do you find yourself thinking, “If only my partner would leave me alone and stop getting angry, my life would be better?”


What is the withdrawer feeling?

The withdrawer is often feeling frustrated, stuck, helpless, desperate, anxious, and inadequate. There is a fear of not measuring up, not being accepted, and feeling like a failure. The withdrawer is often stuck in their anxiety and internally escalated with feelings but cannot put words to them. They are alone in their own pain. These feelings are so painful that the withdrawer does the only protecting behavior they know will help, which is to withdraw by staying silent, getting angry, or leaving.


Why does the withdrawer withdraw?

The withdrawer is withdrawing out of fear and to protect themselves from feelings of anxiety, helplessness, inadequacy, and shame. The withdrawer wants their partner to be happy and becomes hyper-focused on scanning their partner to figure out what they are supposed to do to keep the happiness.

The withdrawer’s focus is not on themselves but on their partner and is performance-based. The thought is, “If I get this right, I’ll be safe and responded to. If I get this wrong, my partner will get angry and attack me, and I will have to fix it but may fail”.

The withdrawer desperately wants to fix the relational problem and does so the only way they know how. The withdrawer can turn off their feelings and try focusing on the task at hand to fix what is broken. They internally create a logical plan and find steps to fix it.

However, this often does not work because their partner (usually a pursuer!) wants to talk about their feelings and may criticize the withdrawer even more. If the withdrawer cannot fix the problem, then they at least are able to keep the fight from escalating by staying silent, being distant, or exiting.


What are the positives of being a withdrawer?

The withdrawer has become a savvy avoider. Lucky for them, this has benefits in our society. The withdrawer is able to regulate their emotional responses quickly to be able to focus on tasks that are necessary to complete.

For example, would you want your surgeon to succumb to their anxiety while they are performing surgery on you? Or would you be more confident knowing they will be able to ignore their anxiety and completely focus on having a successful surgery? I know what I would pick. Withdrawers are task-focused and good at getting the job done which is often rewarded in careers. Withdrawers have the ability to stay calm under pressure and can use anger to mobilize out of fear and helplessness.


How do withdrawers learn to withdraw?

Somewhere along the lines, the withdrawer learned that they were alone in their pain. Oftentimes, from the past, there was a failure of others to respond to the withdrawer. So the withdrawer learned to pull back and deal with their own pain. It has become a coping mechanism in being less hurt and disappointed by others. Withdrawers have learned to depend on and care for themselves.


What is withdrawing doing to your partner?

As the withdrawer pulls into themselves to manage their pain or internal escalation, their partner feels the disconnection and sadness of not being let in. The pursuer (for their own good reasons) gets triggered and attaches the meaning that they are not important or cared for by their withdrawer. This typically makes your partner frustrated and angry. The pursuer will then do anything they can to get a reaction out of the withdrawer.

Unfortunately, the more the pursuer attacks the more the withdrawer gets the message that they are the problem, they are doing something wrong, they are inadequate in some way. The withdrawer copes in the only sure way they know how by withdrawing even more to avoid the negative feelings. The cycle returns and continues to escalate!


How can you change this relationship pattern?

The withdrawer is in a sticky situation. They are stuck in a place where they can try to make it better (by fixing it) which does not work and they are left with an angrier partner and feelings of failure or inadequacy or they can stay silent, shutdown, and

only feel their partners anger and avoid the feelings of inadequacy and failure.

However, this is not a solution because what they really want is to be with their partner but they often do not know how to. Withdrawers, be present with yourselves and come forward to your partner from the helpless, anxious, and stuck place. Your partner cannot see that you are in pain because you have gotten so good at hiding it. Acknowledge your pain and express to your partner what it is like for you. Then ask for what you need. As scary as this is, you will feel connected once you have your partner not only see your pain but respond.


Bring In Support When Your Relationship Needs It

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 about the purser? Check out part 1 of the Understand Relationship Patterns series to learn more about the Pursuer role.

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