Pursuers and Withdrawers: Withdrawing to Safety

Christie Kim, MHC

Every couple has a pattern or cycle of communicating, arguing, and resolving issues. Often such cycles can become negative or unproductive, leading to ongoing resentment or breakdowns in communication. One of the most common dynamics is the Pursuer-Withdrawer in which each partner inhabits a role within the communication cycle. This article (a complement to my last blog on Pursuers) explores the Withdrawer -- their communication patterns, essential needs, fundamental fears, and common feelings. You may identify with the descriptions below, or you may realize you’re in a relationship with a Withdrawer.

In a nutshell, the Withdrawer is most likely to…

  • Placate or avoid confrontation

  • Struggle to find language for their emotions

  • Say “I don’t want to talk about it”

  • Leave the room out of overwhelm or anxiety

  • Shut down, numb out

The Withdrawer’s goal is to have less fighting. Since a fight can feel so overwhelming, filled with anger and pressure, the Withdrawer would rather have space to cool down and self-soothe. The Withdrawer tries to work things out on their own and may need more time than a Pursuer to organize their thoughts or figure out how they feel in the first place. Withdrawers tend to compartmentalize their feelings to maintain the status quo, which may look like using positivity (e.g., “let’s just have a good night”) to avoid difficult conversations.

Common Withdrawer phrases:

  • “I can’t do anything right”

  • “You’re overreacting”

  • “I wait for the fight to blow over”

  • “I don’t know”

  • “There’s no point”

The Withdrawer’s greatest fear is failure. Withdrawing tendencies are most often born out of a history of failed emotional interactions. Someone’s pattern of withdrawing can be a protective shield, an indication that they’ve been hurt before. Withdrawing serves as a skill of survival keeping one safe from overwhelming or threatening external forces. The Withdrawer may hear the Pursuer’s attempts to communicate as complaints or criticism that they’ve done something wrong. Rather than engaging in confrontation, the Withdrawer often seeks to alleviate pressure through positivity, humor, or deflection. While this may be frustrating for a pursuing partner, the Withdrawer’s intent is to self-protect.

When the Withdrawer’s needs are being met -- when they feel successful and safe -- they are confident, decisive, calm. They can engage with their partner from a more relaxed, present state.

If this resonates with you and you want to explore more about the couples therapy I practice, Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT), take a look at Dr. Sue Johnson’s book Hold Me Tight.