Our Relationship Conflicts: Two Sides of the Same Coin

This past weekend, I worked with four couples in my Hold Me Tight Workshop. Each couple analyzed their relationship’s conflict pattern; what each person does that perpetuates the conflict. ‘Prodding with questions’ and ‘making one’s point’ were as equally common as ‘minimizing’ and ‘physically withdrawing’.

When a couple is in conflict, the moves of one person trigger or ‘invite’ the moves of the other, which then trigger the initial person to respond, thereby inviting the other to respond, and so on. Imagine spinning a coin; we see each side momentarily, but it’s the momentum of the two sides that creates the spinning action.

When we have a conflict, it can appear like a big mess of emotions, words, expressions, and actions. Underneath all of that, there’s actually a pattern that is pretty consistent, even if the topics may vary.


We are the same, yet different

As social beings, we depend on one another for our biological and psychological well-being. Our relationships ground us; we depend on them and the security they give us. The connections we have with our partners are precious to all of us. Yet, we vary how we handle disconnections in our relationships.

Pursuers

Inevitably, in our relationships, we will experience moments of disconnection. For some of us, when this happens, we are comfortable to try and address the disconnection directly. We roll-up our sleeves and jump right in, trying to figure out what just happened; exploring the feelings, puzzling out the meanings behind the actions, and chewing on the disconnection until it makes sense and is resolved.

When there is a disconnection and we don’t feel heard, we increase our intensity to try to get our partners to hear/understand us. Using the model of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), people who use these behaviors overall are called ‘Pursuers’.

Pursuers are often perceived by their partners as pushy, critical, needy, or demanding. It can seem that we always focus on what’s wrong and make a problem when there wasn’t one initially. As much as it can feel like we are being impossibly critical, we are doing this to keep the connection strong. Pursuers are like ‘quality control engineers’; if something doesn’t seem quite right, we notice it and check it out.

As much as our tendency to focus on disconnections can be overwhelming at times, we do it because the relationship is SO important. We want the connection to be strong and when we sense something is off, we actually get scared that we might lose the relationship eventually. So our efforts to explore expressions, discuss issues and address disconnections are based on the INTENTION of keeping the connection healthy and strong.

Withdrawers

For others, when there is a disconnection or a conflict, it is hard to stay emotionally present. Not everyone is equally skilled at handling emotions. For some of us, when there is a disconnection or conflict, we can actually get overwhelmed by all the emotions and need to step back a bit and process things mentally.

We try to tone-down the emotions in the situation by minimizing or denying; toning down the emotions so it’s bearable for us to manage. If we are in a situation where our partner keeps demonstrating more emotional intensity, we will work harder at shutting down that emotion. One common way we do this is by shutting down (psychological withdrawal) or physically withdrawing. EFT describes people who show these behaviors overall as ‘Withdrawers’.

Partners who withdraw are often labeled as cold, uncaring, or avoidant. Our partners interpret the tendency to shut down or withdraw as an indication of ‘not caring’ about the issue, person, or the relationship. Just as introverts have often been misunderstood and perceived as ‘aloof’ or ‘snobbish’, Withdrawers are misperceived as not being invested enough to stay in the conversation.

In stark contrast, it’s not that Withdrawers don’t care, it’s actually the opposite. Withdrawers worry about not getting it right; failing in our attempts to address the disconnect. By tamping down the emotions, our INTENTION is to try and bring the boiling emotions to a simmer where our logic can prevail and connection can possibly be regained.

In the end, the goal is the same

Pursuers and Withdrawers may seem at odds with one another; one pushing for emotion and communication and the other tamping down the intensity and going internal. Yet, no matter which behaviors you tend to exhibit, you are doing this for the same goal. You are both caring for something delicate, complicated, and precious…your relationship.

This article and activity below are designed to give you tools and strategies to make your relationships and connections better. If you would like individualized work on your relationship, read how I help couples or contact me. I want you to succeed!

Activity: Exploring Your Behaviors

(The activity below is modified from one I give to couples during my Workshops and Retreats and is based on Dr. Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Therapy.)

Explore the two lists below that show pursuing and withdrawing behaviors. Each person note what behaviors you tend to show when there is a conflict or disconnect. Use this information the next time you are experiencing a disconnect, realizing the behaviors of your partner are an attempt to keep the connection, just in a manner different than yours.

Your Turn!

When you suddenly find that you do not feel safely connected to your partner, what do you usually do?  Circle or discuss the “moves” in the lists below that fit for you.  It is possible one or both of you may only circle “moves” from one of the lists. 

In moments of disconnection, I move towards you (pursue) by:

  • expressing frustration
  • expressing disapproval
  • telling you how to change
  • pointing out your mistakes
  • telling you how to improve
  • complaining/criticizing/blaming
  • prodding/continued questioning
  • insisting on making my point
  • pursuing — demanding that you pay attention
  • defining you as THE problem
  • making threats
  • becoming angry
  • yelling

In moments of disconnection, I move away from you (withdraw) by:

  • staying calm and reasoning with you
  • minimizing
  • trying to do a quick fix to stop the conflict
  • staying in my head and just not responding
  • trying to zone out (mentally or with devices)
  • changing the subject
  • trying to stop the conversation by turning to a task
  • shutting down/numbing out
  • protecting myself by distancing
  • giving up and withdrawing
  • trying to get away
  • refusing to talk and leaving
  • ignoring/shutting you out
  • defending/explaining myself (possibly angrily)

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Remember, I want you to succeed!