Pursue-and-Withdraw Relationship Dynamics


Relationships can be like an epic game of adult hide-and-seek – one partner tends to hide while the other will actively seek them out. Naturally, this dynamic makes sense to many couples therapists, but not always to many couples. So let’s break this down:

Every relationship has roles that come with it. Typically, you will have one partner who is what we call a pursuer. This person usually requires answers in the moment, thinks quickly on the spot, and likes to have conflict settled immediately. I like to refer to this role as that of a lion.

The other partner, in this case, would typically be more of a withdrawer. This person needs more time to process, likely wants space in order to do this, and likes to resolve conflict after achieving clarity. I like to refer to the withdrawer role as a safari guide hiding in a cave.

So welcome to the Savannah. We’ve got lions positioning themselves outside of the cave in which the safari guide is hiding, and demanding they come out. So now what?

One of the most distressing things in a relationship can be when you are searching emotionally for your partner to respond to you and they are not available – or worse, they disappear. What you are left with is an open relationship wound that is bleeding out, without a doctor in sight – or at least, this is how it can feel. Many pursuers feel that their withdrawing partners just don’t care, because if they did, wouldn’t they come running?

The short answer to this is NO. Withdrawers need to know that they are entering into a calm, safe space, prior to becoming available and present. If they feel that a pursuer is pushing too hard, or too loudly, the only result is that they will retreat or shut down. In our previous metaphor, a lion growling outside will only result in the guide retreating deeper into the cave.

But what if the lion were more approachable? What if they learned tools to dial back when in pursuit of their partner, and accessed patience? Moreover, what if the withdrawer could see that instead of a lion outside the cave, that in fact, it is a small kitten? Sometimes pursuers, even though scary, at the heart of it are simply hurting.

The goal here is to teach pursuers how to regulate themselves just enough, so that they can soften. After allowing the withdrawer to have time and safety to respond, the next goal is to have the withdrawer better tolerate their partner’s distress, in order to show up more readily. Here, both partners are adjusting their dials in order to meet the other halfway – pursuers are dialing back while withdrawers are dialing up.

One thing to note is that not all relationships are as simple as having one pursuer and one withdrawer – you will occasionally have two of each or varying complexities of both. The aim is always to look at the dynamic, attune to one another, and head out of the Savannah safely.


By Jennifer Goldberg, RP, M.Ed., CCC.

Jennifer Goldberg is a registered psychotherapist who works extensively with couples at The Counselling Group. She incorporates current topics arising out of her couples therapy sessions into themes and issues covered in Couples Corner. 

Looking for couples counselling? The Counselling Group offers a variety of experienced couples therapists who can support positive changes and growth in your relationship. For more information, please call 613-722-2225 x352 to speak with an intake worker today.

Source: Johnson, S. M. (2008). Hold me tight: Seven conversations for a lifetime of love. New York: Little, Brown & Co