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Marriage Killer #3: Pursue-Withdraw
Bruce: “I can’t believe you left the dishes in the sink again. You just don’t seem to care that there is anyone else in the house.”
Amy: “It’s not that big of a deal, and I already put them in the dishwasher. Why are you always criticizing me?”
Bruce: “I’m not criticizing. You just don’t listen. It seems like the only way I can get through to you is to talk louder.”
The pursue-withdraw killer leads its victims into an endless chase. One partner protests by demanding and criticizing, while the other partner shuts down or defends. In fact, the louder and more attacking the pursuing partner becomes, the more the withdrawing partner shuts down, defends, or goes into problem solving mode, leading to the pursuing partner to amp up even more. As Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, has described, it is as if one partner is banging on the door and the other partner is on the other side securing the locks.
To the withdrawing partner, the pursuing partner looks dangerous and angry. To see someone they love in so much distress is incredibly painful and even scary. Each attack reinforces that it is dangerous for them to be emotionally present. They hunker down to try to survive the storm, go into problem solving mode, or try to exit through humor or work. Tragically, they cannot see the real motivation behind the pursuit: that the pursuer is protesting the disconnection and lack of emotional presence in the relationship. The relationship is so important that the pursuer is desperately trying to pull their partner back into it. In the process, they end up scaring their partner away.
To the pursuing partner, the withdrawing partner looks like they just don’t care, that their needs just don’t matter, and the person they need most is unwilling to come when they call. So, they call louder and louder to try to get a reaction. Each unmet request is a symbol of how alone they are. Tragically, they cannot see that the reason the withdrawing partner is withdrawing is because the relationship and their partner are so important to them. It is not apathy they are seeing – it is an attempt at self-preservation in the face of intense pain. In the midst of their attempts to preserve themselves, though, the withdrawing partner has no idea that they are actually provoking increasingly intense attacks.
The pursue-withdraw killer is the most common marriage killer. It uses the love in the marriage to fuel the downward spiral, confuses its victims into thinking that their partner is either dangerous or apathetic, and that the only way to change it is to continue the downward spiral.
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