Originally posted October 28, 2009. Updated January 29, 2020.

Devin and Cassandra are having a conflict. Devin hasn’t said much for the last few days. Cassandra, his wife, has talked quite a bit. Cassandra processes life by commenting on it verbally as it passes her by. Devin does his reflecting internally. He shares when asked, although sometimes Cassandra has to drag it out of him. Such is the normal ebb and flow of Jason and Cassandra’s marriage. It works quite well. Mostly.

The chase-withdraw problem

chase-withdraw couple

But not at this moment. This pattern gets Cassandra and Devin into trouble when they deal with conflict. Cassandra expresses a concern and Devin makes a gesture or verbal remark that says, “Do we have to talk about this?” Cassandra feels misunderstood and tries harder to get her point across. Devin, dismayed that the hoped for return-to-harmony has gone up in smoke, tries to ease the mounting tension with a face that looks to Cassandra like a stone wall. Cassandra feels ignored and slighted and so she takes up the chase again. Now Devin feels under attack. He’s thinking, “Can’t we just be warm and comfortable with each other?” Cassandra is stewing. “He doesn’t care what I say!” Cassandra says something critical. Devin withdraws further. It’s a chase-withdraw or a pursue-distance conflict pattern that soon has Devin accusing Cassandra of “nagging” and Cassandra pleading with Jason to “just listen to me.”

The solution

Thankfully Cassandra and Devin are able to speak together about how they alienate each other at times. Cassandra expresses an irrational fear that “chasing” Devin could drive him out of their marriage. Devin reassures Cassandra. Devin shares with Cassandra, not for the first time, how he learned to shut down long ago in order to deflect his father’s never-ending criticism. Recognizing the pursue-distance, or chase-withdraw dynamic of their relationship helps Cassandra and Devin reconnect before the withdrawal and nagging spiral out of control.

How not to let chase-withdraw take over

In my work as a couple’s therapist I regularly see the pursue-distance, or chase-withdraw pattern at work. It can so completely take over a couple’s relationship that neither partner feels safe or loved enough to speak honestly about their vulnerabilities and fears. Do you ever experience this dynamic in your closest relationship? Follow these steps:

  1. Own your role in the pattern
  2. Stop questioning your partner’s motives
  3. Wonder how you impact your partner. Ask him or her.

These steps, practiced regularly, are an excellent way to ensure that the pursue-distance, chase-withdraw does not take over your relationship.