It’s time to learn a new dance: Breaking the pursuer-withdrawer pattern

The word conflict tends to rub many people the wrong way due to the negative connotation often associated with it. I mean, let’s be honest. Most of us aren’t actively seeking more of this in our lives. In fact, there are a significant number of people who would even consider themselves conflict avoidant.

While not necessarily an enjoyable experience, conflicts do serve a purpose and we can learn a lot about ourselves and our partners from how conflicts are managed. How you see your partner during a conflict and what they are actually feeling isn’t always aligned. In this case looks can be deceiving.

There are two common types of conflict management styles that I want to focus on.

The Withdrawer

Here’s what it looks like. On the surface it looks like your partner is shutting down, they may even give the silent treatment and seem like they no longer care.

You may find that your partner pulls away from you during a conflict or shortly thereafter. This withdrawal is an effort to avoid further escalation. Your partner doesn’t want the fighting to continue or potentially worsen, so they emotionally withdraw which may feel like they’re shutting down.

This withdrawal behavior is their best effort to stay connected to you. They see the conflict as a threat to the connection between the two of you. Withdrawing helps them to regain a sense of control and protection of your precious bond.
While this behavior serves a purpose, it’s not good for the overall health of the relationship. Frequent withdrawal or avoidant behavior disrupts the bond and threatens the intimacy and connection in a relationship. It erodes the trust because it communicates that it isn’t safe to be vulnerable and share feelings.

In my work with couples, I often see a pattern where one partner is described as the “withdrawer” and the other partner eventually begins reacting by shutting down and also becoming withdrawn. Now we have two people withdrawing from each other. Partners end up feeling that they have to protect themselves by not expressing how they feel to avoid the hurt that’s caused by a withdrawn and emotionally disconnected partner.

Solution for the Withdrawer

Lean into the discomfort or fear of a lack of connection. Withdrawing and shutting down only makes things worse and never leads to a genuine resolution. Say how you feel. Express your fears and get vulnerable. The simplest way to do this is by using a three-step model I call FAN.

  1. FEEL (say how you feel and be honest. Start by using “I” statements instead of “You” to avoid blame).
  2. ABOUT (describe the situation, not your partner).
  3. NEED (ask for what you need. Let your partner know what you want versus what you don’t want. You partner isn’t a mind reader so don’t hope for them to figure it out.)

One partner is unhappy about the amount of time her partner spends on his phone and feels that he is often distracted with the phone and pays little attention to her.

What not to say:
You’re always on your phone and we never get to spend time together. You care more about the stupid phone than anything else.

Use FAN and say this instead:
I feel upset that we’re not spending enough time together. I need more quality time with you and I think that spending less time on the phone would be a great way for us to use that time to connect more.

The Pursuer

This looks different from the withdrawer. This individual in the relationship is the person who often engages in blaming their partner during the conflict. Blaming or attacking is an attempt to pull their partner closer. They are passionate and filled with strong emotions.

These emotions often overwhelm them and they need their partner to understand what they are feeling and why these emotions exist.

The problem here is how it’s done. The expression of needs and feelings comes across in a way that the other partner perceives is filled with negativity, blame, contempt and criticism.

One person either withdraws when conflict arises and the other blames or purses to seek connection. The interesting thing about this pattern is that both partners want the same thing. They both want to feel connected but they each seek it in different ways.

Solution for the Pursuer

Take a pause by taking a deep breath and looking at the situation with a new pair of lens. Then ask yourself these questions using RAP.

  1. Responsibility (Take some responsibility for even a small part of the problem)
  2. Appreciations (What has your partner done right? Share that with them and express appreciation.)
  3. Polite (Ask for what you need, don’t make demands)

Using these steps can help to break the pursue-withdrawn pattern and replace it with a cycle that’s more supportive, loving, and nurturing. It’s a win-win for both partners.



Kerri-Anne Brown

Kerri-Anne Brown

Hi, I'm Kerri-Anne and I'm a licensed mental health counselor in Orlando, FL. I help individuals and couples who are living with fertility challenges, perinatal loss, birth trauma and difficulties with postpartum adjustments. Please feel free to reach out anytime.


  1. A on October 5, 2017 at 9:06 pm

    What a great article! This is real life stuff and the examples you used were on point. I want to keep this in mind the next time this might happen in my marriage. Thank you!!

    • Avatar photo Kerri-Anne Brown on October 11, 2017 at 10:47 am

      I am glad you found it helpful and practical. That’s awesome to hear.

    • E on February 12, 2024 at 7:48 pm

      I found this article extremely interesting! One question I have is, why does the withdrawer withdraw in the first place? It seems that the pursuer is only reacting to the withdrawer’s lack of interest in the relationship. It’s hard to understand both sides when it seems like the pursuer is actively trying to save the relationship, whereas the withdrawer is not really making any effort.

      • Avatar photo Kerri-Anne Brown on February 13, 2024 at 10:00 am

        That’s a great question. The irony is that likely both partners have a shared desire and goal of wanting to preserve the relationship. Couples often get stuck in cycles and while the withdrawer may appear to not be making an effort, they are often responding to the overwhelm they feel from being flooded with emotions. The withdrawal serves as a means to seek safety to decrease or manage their overwhelm. Once couples begin to understand their cycles, they can change the unhelpful patterns that keep them stuck. Thanks so much for your question and comment!

  2. Amber Lewter on October 11, 2017 at 10:44 am

    Great advice! I love the acronyms for how to respond. As an EFT practitioner myself I’ll be sharing these solutions with my clients. Thanks!

    • Avatar photo Kerri-Anne Brown on October 11, 2017 at 10:48 am

      Amber I am so glad you find this information useful and feel your clients will be able to benefit from it.

  3. Tom on October 12, 2017 at 8:32 am

    Well written article. I like the honest appraisal of our human nature and the usefulness of conflict at times.

  4. Rose LaPiere on October 16, 2017 at 9:45 am

    Great Article, really like how you describe each and give solutions. Valuable relationship information.

  5. Kim Martinez/True North Counseling Services on October 19, 2017 at 10:02 am

    Great article. I love giving clients acronyms! Ill definitely remember these.

  6. Rachel (Full Cup Play Therapy) on October 23, 2017 at 2:40 am

    Oohh! This totally links with our attachment style from childhood as well. I love the FAN vs RAP! Will definitely be passing onto the parents I work with 🙂

  7. jerome allen on January 7, 2018 at 10:17 am

    This is me and my wife, I am the withdrawer. I hate conflict, arguing especially with her. So I walk away from the situation and be by myself. Where she is the total opposite of that and can come across as over powering and demanding. I am definally going to use yout techniques thanks

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