Working with a “Withdrawer”

Studio 5 Relationship Coach Matt Townsend offers advice on what to do when your spouse withdraws.

Overcoming the withdrawer tendency can greatly improve a couple’s communication. Here are Matt’s tips for changing the pursuer and withdrawer pattern.


As if communication wasn’t hard enough, most couples fall into a fairly predictable rut when it comes to conflict resolution. A rut is a negative habit or communication pattern that actually inhibits effective communication. The most typical rut couples run into is when one person ends up being the pursuer of the conversation and the other ends up being the withdrawer in the conversation. One partner plays the role of a more aggressive talker and the other is more passive runner; one goes silent while the other gets louder. In the end they just end up running and chasing each other like a dog chasing its tail. The first key to correcting this pattern is to recognize the rut together. You both must notice the pattern that is taking place between you. This is where you have a discussion not about what one partner said to the other, but more importantly, about how you talk to each other. In recognizing the rut, try to normalize the ineffective pattern in which you are both participating and know that most couples have similar problems. Also make sure to use language like “us” and “we” not “you” and “she/he.” This way you each feel like the problem belongs to both of you and that makes safety abound.


Once you are having a conversation about the negative communication pattern, it is important that you both begin to own the part of the pattern to which you contribute. Apologize for being aggressive with your partner and making them feel uncomfortable. Or acknowledge that you tend to run away in conversations. Give examples in your marriage of where you actively played the role of pursuer or withdrawer. Try your best to avoid giving examples of where you saw your partner’s ineffective behavior and instead focus on how your behavior has provided less safety or dedication as you pursued or withdrew. The fast way to get your partner to begin a more effective communication pattern is to be able to talk about it in a neutral way. The more they see that you own your half of the pattern, the more they’ll be able to feel safe to own their half. One of the most honest parts of this discussion can be to talk about the triggers that tend to set you off with your partner. What are the feelings, fears, or triggers that make you want to run from the conversation or argue with your partner? The more honest we are about the triggers, the more able we are to change the negative pattern.


When you have a more open discussion about how “we” need to be different, I would then create some rules for what you both agree to do to overcome this pattern. A great example of this process is when your car is stuck in the snow. You can keep pushing the gas (pursuer) to get out but sometimes that just digs your car in deeper and deeper. You could also just withdraw into your own head and sit there, stewing on how unfair it is that you can’t get out of the snow bank. You could cry, play the victim, bad mouth the city for not plowing, or blame your husband for not having snow tires on the car. In reality, none of these approaches are likely to change your situation. In our conversations if we keep doing what we’ve always been doing then we’ll remain stuck in the same unproductive rut. Instead, after looking at the patterns and discussing your triggers, make some rules together for what you will both agree to do when you notice that you are falling into the pursuer or withdrawer patterns.

Some examples of rules you could set is to call a Time Out. In a Time Out no one call leave and no one can talk about the subject of the conflict. You could agree to hold off on the conversation and instead hug each other. The key is to find something else to do together in the middle of the uncomfortable moment, so that the typical response of pursuing or withdrawing subsides and you can talk it out normally when you call a Time In.

You cannot be any more effective than your ability to live the rules you have made. If you keep getting in a car accident on the same corner every day then you know you need to do something different. It is the same with ineffective communication patterns. If you keep getting in the same argument, on the same topic then you know something has to change. Couples who recognize their communication ruts and understand their triggers can then begin to create brand new rules to improve the communication in their marriage.


Most couples wait until it’s too late to engage their rules. By then, they are already overcome with emotion and go right back down into the rut. One of the easiest ways to overcome this is to pay attention to your own and your partner’s vital signs. When your body is healthy and happy it tends to show certain signs of vitality and strength that doctors call “vital signs”. When you are not healthy, or are under stress, your body will communicate this by manifesting an increased blood pressure, rapid respirations and a higher pulse rate. Vital signs tell the truest condition of the patient. We follow the signs more than we follow what they’re saying to us. Just as our body communicates when it is having problems, our own and our partner’s relationship vital signs communicate the real condition of the person. The three signs to pay attention for are:
    1. Negative Emotion going up
    2. Understanding going down
    3. Trust going down

For more relationship and communication advice, attend:

Matt’s Communication Workshop
6-week class for effective communication
Saturday, January 22 4:00 – 6:00 pm
Wednesday, February 9 7:30 – 9:30 pm
Regular: $480 per couple
Studio 5 viewers receive a 30% discount: $336 per couple
Call to register

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