Blog: insights from Dr. Keren Sofer

The Couple Dynamic: What’s Your Role?

As a couples therapist, my first goal in working with couples is to begin to make sense of what is happening between you. Until we all understand what is happening, we cannot begin to determine the deeper underlying causes. From an Emotionally Focused perspective, it is useful to understand the role each partner plays in the relationship as a step to map out the dynamic. 

A common dynamic that emerges with couples is a pursuer-withdrawer tension. One partner emerges as a pursuer and the other partner as the withdrawer. The pursuer longs for more connection, more “we-ness” and contact with their partner. The withdrawer wants to keep interactions calm and harmonious. In the well-functioning version of that cycle, each partner can share their needs clearly and lovingly with the other person. Due to the calm and clear manner in which each partner’s needs are shared, the receiving partner can take it in and not feel threatened or criticized.  

When there is distance in a relationship, or there has been a breakdown in trust or emergence of significant conflict, sharing feelings directly can feel too vulnerable. There are also many couples who do not know how to share their emotional needs directly and openly in general. In these cases, both pursuers and withdrawers find less direct, camouflaged ways to express their respective needs. These less direct ways feel safer but are ultimately less effective and can amplify conflict and distance. 

Pursuers and withdrawers are commonly described and identified in terms of behaviors. Pursuers may yell, nag, critique. Withdrawers may avoid, acquiesce, bury themselves in work or hobbies.

While this is true for many couples, in some cases withdrawers yell, nag and critique and pursuers sometimes avoid, acquiesce and bury themselves in work or hobbies. That’s why it is important to not only identify behaviors but also have a deeper understanding of what is motivating a particular behavior. For example, for a pursuer, yelling is a way to get a partner’s attention, to try to connect and feel their engagement. For a withdrawer, yelling is a way to assert the need for calm, and can be a way to tell a pursuer to back off.  Same behavior, very different functions.  

The chart below organizes the ways in which pursuers and withdrawers attempt to get their needs met.  It displays the underlying unmet needs more commonly associated with pursuers and withdrawers, the straightforward strategies to get those needs met, the strategies that can emerge in times of stress or distance, and the strategies that can emerge that are more typically associated with the opposite role.  

In looking at this chart, do you identify more as a pursuer or withdrawer? We all have some of each in us, but we usually lean in one direction.  

Which strategies do you use to get those particular needs met? 

How effective are the strategies you use?  

When do you find that your partner accurately understands what you are aiming for when you use various strategies?  Do you give your partner feedback that they are getting it right?

 When do you feel misunderstood?  Do you give your partner feedback that you are feeling misunderstood? If so, how do you communicate that feedback?