How to Overcome the Withdraw/Pursue Relationship in Marriage

man woman sitting on bench, frustratedThe withdraw/pursue relationship is normal for many relationships.

It’s also not healthy.

In fact, marriages that have the withdraw/pursue relationship that continues and grows have a high risk of marriage trouble and divorce.

What’s a withdraw/pursue relationship? It’s where one person generally brings up issues, and the other avoids having the conversations or withdraws from the conversation (the withdrawer or distancer).

The other person (the pursuer) often keeps pushing the issue, and it can turn into nagging, criticism, and so on.

Generally, it’s the men who withdraw and the women pursue, and it becomes a cycle.

The wife brings up an issue, and the husband avoids or withdraws from the conversation. So, the wife keeps pushing, so the husband withdraws even more, and so on.

And with the cycle come the negative emotions. The wife often feels the husband doesn’t care about (or as much about) the relationship.

The husband feels the wife is nagging, trying to pick a fight, and is constantly complaining.

The problem is, if issues aren’t discussed and resolved appropriately, they not only will not get fixed, they often get worse. And it can destroy your marriage.

Is that your marriage?

How do you fix it? Why does that happen?

In this article, we will dive deep into the withdraw/pursue relationship, why it happens, and what you can do to resolve it.

We will be pulling from 3 great books: Fighting for your Marriage by Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Blumberg; the Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work by Dr. John Gottman; and Love & Respect by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs.

Also note that we will be writing with the assumption that it’s the man withdrawing and woman pursuing. That is not always the case, but it’s more frequently that way.

Let’s start.

Why does the withdraw/pursue cycle happen?

Let’s look at a couple of factors: the general motivation of the man and woman and the general differences between a man and woman.

Why does the woman bring up issues and pursue?

Women, in general, connect more verbally while men connect more so by activity. Face to face time for women is heart to heart time.

Husbands, when your wife brings up an issue, it’s often because she wants to connect. She may not be bringing up issues or talking about the relationship because it’s bad, but as a checkup on the relationship. She just wants to make sure everything is okay.

When she brings up an unresolved issue from the past, it’s often not to criticize you or to say that you have major problems, but she wants to talk about and air the issue out to resolve it so that the relationship is better.

Your wife’s motivation is that she wants to make the relationship better, and to do that, she brings up issues to talk about to make sure everything is okay.

Again, your wife is more verbal and talking about the relationship and issues is important to her.

When you as a husband don’t respond or withdraw, it makes her feel like you don’t care as much about the relationship.

If your wife seems to constantly criticize you or bring up issues, often it’s a cry from her to you to love her and to show that. She wants to know you love her and care about the relationship as much as her.

Why does the husband withdraw?

Men on the other hand or activity oriented. Men connect more by doing activities with someone than by talking.

Men may think that sitting and watching television with the wife is quality time even if they didn’t talk because they did it together more (though the wife might not think the same).

When the husband withdraws, it’s generally not because he doesn’t care about the relationship. As opposite as it may sound, it’s because he does care about it.

The husband wants peace in the relationship. He wants harmony, sometimes at all costs. Because of that, he may see you bringing up an issue as complaining or nagging or causing a fight.

When issues are brought up, while the wife is bringing up an issue just to make sure the relationship is okay and talk about it, the man may see it as saying there are problems in their marriage and possible problems with him. If issues are kept being brought up, it may make him think there are a lot of problems with the relationship.

While women generally seek love from their husband, men seek respect from their wives. They want to know that their wives respect them for who they are and what they do.

When their wife criticizes them (or what they take as criticism), they feel that their wife is not respecting them for who they are and what they do.

And what often happens is what Eggerichs calls the crazy cycle – the woman shows lack of respect to try to get husband to show love, then the husband acts unloving to try to get the wife to show respect, and so on.

Men generally also want to fix things. Sometimes the wife brings up something and just wants her husband to listen. However, it’s often in the man’s mentality to try to not just listen, but fix.

When an issue comes up that the man sees as unfixable, it can sometimes make him feel powerless, and he may also withdraw from that (and quick note men: make sure to listen first and truly understand before thinking about giving advice. She doesn’t always want you to fix things, but to listen. Ask first before giving advice.)

Also, when it comes to conflict, men are much more likely to get overwhelmed. Their blood pressure and heart rate are likely to increase more than their wives and it takes longer for them to calm down from it than it takes the wife.

In Summary

In summary, the man wants peace in the relationship, so he avoids. Though it’s counterproductive, he’s doing it to for the relationship in the same way the woman brings up issues for the relationship.

He may see issues brought up as saying there are problems in the marriage or with him or take criticism as a lack of respect of who he is.

The woman generally brings up issues because she connects verbally and wants to resolve the issues. She wants to make sure the relationship is okay.

When the husband withdraws, it may seem to her that the husband doesn’t love her or doesn’t care about the relationship as much as her.

How do we resolve the withdraw/pursue cycle?

So now that we understand more of why it happens, how do we resolve it? How do we overcome these differences and issues?

Let’s dive into a few tools you can use and actions you can take to end the cycle and deal with issues the right way.

First of all, remember the differences and why one pursues and withdraws.

If you remember why it happens and how your spouse is different, it can help understand and approach your spouse with understanding. It can change your response because you know why your spouse is doing it (and the best thing to do if you are not sure is to ask!)

Husbands, if your wife is bringing up an issue, remember that she’s doing it because she cares about the relationship. It doesn’t necessarily mean the marriage is in dire straits. She may just be checking on the relationship or bringing up something to make sure it’s resolved and everything is okay.

Remember, too, that she connects verbally and face to face time is important. By you listening and showing care, it lets her know you care about the relationship as well and helps her feel more connected to you.

Wives, if your husband withdraws, remember that he has the relationship at heart, however misguided. You may also want to make sure you don’t come across as criticizing or as nagging and that he feels respected by you.

Second, make sure you both think as a team.

One damaging mentality in marriage is when each spouse sees the other as an enemy (or the problem itself) and are working against each other.

If you think that way, you will never resolve issues well and find it hard to break the negative cycle.

Instead, think as a team. Think we vs. the problem instead of you vs. me. When you discuss an issue, think of it as you working together as a team to fix it, not against each other.

Doing this can make a huge difference in your conversations or problem-solving.

Talk about issues the right way

It’s important that when you talk about issues, you do it the right way.

In fact, just how you bring up the issue can make or break the conversation.

One study showed that how the conversation started determined by 96% how the conversation would continue and end.

If one of you brings up an issue harshly, or with an attack, or with sarcasm or criticism, that will push the other person away and the conversation will not go well.  Make sure to start gently and kindly.

You also want to make sure your spouse feels safe talking to you.

When people feel safe, they will likely be more vulnerable and open up to you.

However, if they fear that you will put them down, criticize them, be quick with advice, and so on, they will not want to share with you.

Other negative attitudes include contempt toward the other person (a sense of superiority toward them) and invalidation (putting down the other person, their thoughts, or their ideas).

If you’ve been that way with your spouse, you need to stop. Apologize for it and work on restoring that trust and safety.

A few other notes about negative talk in regards to issues:

  • If in a conversation you are always trying to “win” it, you’ve lost.
  • Be careful criticizing each other or nagging about issues. There’s a difference between criticizing someone and their character and actions and having a complaint or issue you want to discuss or resolve.
  • Watch out for exaggerations such as “always do this” or “never do this” as well.

Be careful of your assumptions

It can be easy to make negative assumptions about your spouse.

If you “know” your husband is doing something because of X reason or you know your wife is bringing up this issues because of X intention, you are hurting yourself. The only thing you “know” is what happened; everything else is an assumption. If you act on that assumption without verifying or asking, you can hurt your relationship a lot.

Don’t assume why your wife is bringing up an issue or assume a hidden intention. Don’t assume why your husband responds a certain way. Instead, ask.

“I get the impression that… is that accurate?”

“When you bring up that issue, it makes me feel that you are saying that I’m doing a poor job with the kids… Is that what you are saying?”

“When I brought up the issue with Johnny, it seemed that it upset you. Is that so? What about it bothers you?”

Negative assumptions are deadly. Give each other the benefit of the doubt. Assume the best, not worst.

Talk about when and when not to bring up issues (and how)

It’s important that issues are dealt with. If they aren’t, things will just get worse.

However, there are good times and bad times to bring something up. When someone gets home from work, for example, or right before bed (or when someone is stressed or hungry) is probably not a good time.

Before bringing up an issue, you could have a rule to ask “is this a good time?”. If not, set a time later or have the person who said “no” set the time when it’s brought up (or be in charge of bringing it up later).

You may also have set times that issues are not allowed, such as right before bed or during a meal.

As a side note, you should never talk about issues during friendship, fun, support, or romantic/intimate times. That will just destroy those times and make one or both of you avoid those times in the future in order to avoid the fights. Save it by not bringing up issues then.

Use timeouts and pauses

One great tool when dealing with issues is timeouts and pauses.

If the conversation gets heated or one or the other starts feeling overwhelmed, or you feel it’s about to escalate into an argument, call a timeout.

Each person takes a break for at least 20 minutes to calm down and collect their thoughts. Then you come back together and try again.

Or you can use what Gottman calls a “rescue attempt”. You may have a word or phrase that you say when things are starting to get heated. It could be something that could invoke humor like “peanut butter” or just a plain “pause”.

This let’s both of you know that the conversation may be moving toward a heated argument and to step back. Sometimes you may can just step back then, sometimes you may need a break.

A timeout can be a great tool for someone who withdraws because it’s security for them that the conversation won’t get out of hand.

Have weekly Marriage Meetings

Weekly marriage meetings can take a lot of pressure off your day to day marriage of dealing with issues.

A marriage meeting is where the wife and husband have a set time to talk undistracted about issues, logistics, what’s going well and what’s not, and to show appreciation toward one another.

It can give peace to the wife knowing that there will be a time to talk about issues, and it can give peace to the husband that issues won’t be thrown at him all the time.

It doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about issues during the week if needed, but it does provide a time when issues are dealt with.

Use the talking stick method (or another method for constructive problem discussion)

With the talking stick method, whoever is holding the stick is the speaker, and the other person is the listener. The listener does not argue or speak or talk except to paraphrase what the other person is saying.

When the speaker is finished, he/she passes the stick and the roles switch.

Having a method such as this can help keep discussions of issues calmer and let everyone feel heard (note: paraphrasing back is an important part of helping each other feel heard and understood).

Hold hands and sit by each other when talking

Lastly, hold hands with each other and sit by each other when talking about issues.

This goes back to working as a team.

When you sit across from another, it gives more of the impression that you are against one another. When you sit by each other, you are working side by side to resolve the issue.

And when you hold hands while talking, it let’s each other know that, no matter the issue, you love each other and are working together to resolve the issue.

Conclusion

While the withdraw/pursue relationship may be a deadly normal in many marriages, it doesn’t have to be for yours.

In this article, we discussed the differences and the motivations of why men often withdraw and women pursue. We also looked at some tools and actions you can use to overcome the cycle and start dealing with your issues more effectively.

As a last note, if you are still having issues or want extra help, getting a marriage counselor or coach can help.

Now to you: What steps are you going to take next?

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