Date Night: When your arguments are always the same…

AdamFlove, marriage 15 Comments

Do you ever feel like you and your spouse fight the same way every time? Almost like, “here we go again?” Can you predict how the argument is going to happen before it happens? Chances are you may both be caught in a negative pattern that may be common but can be destructive.

For couples who are caught in a severe pattern (i.e. they don’t know how to stop it, or it leaves one or both partners feeling angry or upset or alone), therapy may be helpful. These couples may need a therapist who can address these patterns in one way or another (in a future post I will address the issue of finding a therapist that suits you and your spouse). Even spouses that have relatively happy marriages may find therapy helpful for their relationship if they see these patterns in their relationships. These patterns can get in the way of solving problems and discussing difficult issues.

Two weeks ago I wrote about agency, including a type called “collective” agency. This fits with the concept of patterns in marriage. Each spouse can be immensely affected by the pattern in the relationship. To be sure, each spouse contributes some of their own agency to these patterns, but they are also the victims to it. Here are some of the most common patterns… If you can’t see your own relationship in one of these, chances are you either have a more complex pattern that is more difficult to spot, or you have a great “collective” relationship, full of positive patterns of emotional accessibility and responsiveness! In case of the latter, pat your relationship on the back!


This is a very common pattern. Some other names for it are demand/distance, criticize/stonewall, or complain/placate. Each partner usually takes one position or the other. The position one takes may also change with different relationships.

The pursuing partner is often more emotionally expressive, demanding, critical, and blaming. They often pursue their spouse out of protest of a loss of connection in the relationship. They sometimes feel that it is all up to them to work on the relationship, and when they sense something is wrong they want to fix it. They may also feel like they are never listened to. They may go after their partner with questions, criticism, and attempts at making their partner respond. Even an angry response is better than silence for them. Underneath their anger, anxiety, demands, and blame they often feel hurt, abandoned, alone, not wanted, or disconnected. Those underlying feelings often become fuel to the fire of their pursuit.

The withdrawing partner is often less emotionally expressive, and tend to need space to think things out on their own before they can talk. They distance themselves from conflict, and while they may look unemotional, during conflict they are often filled with overwhelming emotion that they do not always know how to show in a safe way. They often “stonewall” and become less responsive and try to retreat. Sometimes they shut down in order to protect the relationship. They may feel helpless and trapped, or that they won’t be able to satisfy their partner. Some of the underlying emotions beneath their apparent stonewall stance are rejection, fear, feeling frozen or numb, judged, or criticized. Shame can also be a big issue… for both sides.

You can probably guess how this pattern plays out. The pursuer goes after the withdrawer because they withdraw, and the withdrawer withdraws because they are being pursued, and around and around they go. Sound familiar? In the majority of cases, roughly 60-80% of pursuers are women. However, there are plenty of men who are pursuers as well. Notably, in female pursue/male withdraw patterns, the male may still often be the partner who pursues for sex. It is often the only arena the male partner feels emotionally safe enough about. These same patterns occur in gay and lesbian relationships as well.


This pattern is more of an emotionally disconnected style, and may be the result of a pursue/withdraw pattern that has burned out. The pursuer may decide to finally give up and withdraw as well, thus creating this pattern. A friend of mine (in a great marriage) described this one as the “cold war.” In their former pursue/withdraw pattern, she would pepper him with questions and concerns during conflict, to which he would often retreat out of fear of getting angry, so she decided to stop pursuing and wait it out. For some couples this doesn’t take long to get out of—a few minutes or a few hours. Some couples spend a day, a week, or even longer in this cold war, which can leave both feeling very lonely. Some couples find themselves stuck in a withdraw/withdraw pattern around specific issues, such as sex. They may be fine in every other area, but chronic avoiders of certain topics in order to keep the peace.


This is also often an offshoot of the pursue/withdraw pattern. In many cases, the usual withdrawer will become frustrated enough that they will come out swinging back, sometimes in a vicious way in order to protect themselves and stop the pursuer. Once this happens, the withdrawer will withdraw again until the next argument. The results of this can be devastating for both. At the same time, some of these couples balance out this high-intensity style with enough positive interaction and romance to overcome these encounters. John Gottman says that partners need at LEAST five positive interactions for ever one negative for a healthy relationship. Unfortunately, many cannot keep this balance, and this cycle does its damage. These cycles by nature can’t last very long without one or both partners eventually being flattened or just giving up and walking away.

Most couples, even happy couples, get caught in these or similar patterns from time to time. Some people find it helpful to recognize these patterns, and when they are stuck. If they are unable to get out, many find therapy to be helpful. Next time for this series I will talk more about why it is that we almost automatically take certain positions in relationships.

  • Have you seen any part of yourself or your relationship in these patterns?
  • For those who are fortunate to not be caught in these patterns, can you recognize the positive patterns of interaction in your relationship—times when you each are able to be open, accessible, and responsive to each other?

Reference: Johnson, S.M., Bradley, B., Furrow, J., Lee, A., Palmer, G., Tilley, D., & Woolley, S. (2005). Becoming an emotionally focused couple therapist: The workbook. New York: Routledge.

Comments 15

  1. Yeah, a lot of times the more critical partner is blamed (which is amusing because they are usually the “blamers” themselves) but they are “critical” for very understandable reasons.

  2. Wow I’m a nerd. :). You know you’ve been in grad school for too long when you are interested in these dry topics that put everyone else asleep.

  3. Adam, I love the topic. The question is how do we break the pattern?

    It appears to me to me that the last 2 are reactions to when the first 1 fails to provide satisfaction to resolve the issue. Is that correct?

    (Perhaps the lack of participation is because of Pioneer Day? I was out of town and just got back.)

  4. I don’t know what the ‘critical cycle’ is (but I have a good guess based on the name) but I’m assuming this the problem my husband and I had with our therapist. My husband and I go through what you described as the pursue/withdraw cycle constantly! I am the ‘pursuer’ and husband is the ‘withdrawer’. You described it perfectly. We went to counseling and the counselor focused on me for being too critical (I guess one can’t count on one’s spouse for finishing what he says he will by the day he says he’ll do it, or to pay the bills on time, etc). She just didn’t get it that it was about trust and respect for me. We didn’t go back since she wasn’t helping solve our problem at all, in fact, it just made it worse because then husband had more justification to withdraw. And around and around we (still) go. Nice to see that we’re not the only ones struggling with this, and this its *both* partners contributing to the problem. I just wish we could get out of the cycle before we destroy our marriage.

  5. My Mister and I used to get into a pursue/withdraw cycle whenever we argued. We’ve gotten a lot better. He was able to explain why he got quiet- he felt like if he said anything, I’d turn it around and blame him anyway, so what was the point, and when he didn’t respond to me, I’d get mad that he didn’t care how I felt.

    We’ve worked on letting each other talk without interrupting, except he is allowed to interrupt to acknowledge that I’m speaking :), and being really careful not to blame each other. We’re still not perfect, but we’re much better at communicating than we used to be.

  6. MH “how do we break the pattern?”
    Without therapy that addresses these patterns, it is probably not possible to really get out of these patterns or cycles, imo. Even for couples with relatively happy marriages who are caught in these patterns from time to time may not be able to get out of them completely without therapy. The first thing an individual can do though is recognize what they do in the cycle, and the feelings they have, MOST importantly the feelings that are behind the anger that I mentioned in the post.

    the last 2 are reactions to when the first 1 fails to provide satisfaction to resolve the issue. Is that correct?
    In a sense, the withdraw-withdraw positions are the end result of all of the cycles. It is a reaction in the long-term when the first fails often enough and long enough. However, in the short term (i.e. near the end of a specific fight) a pursuer may withdraw, or a withdrawer may give up on withdrawing and come out swinging back, etc.) Most, but not all couples, have one who was or is the pursuer and one who was or is the withdrawer, even in attack-attack or withdraw-withdraw cycles.

    Yeah, you’re definitely not alone in this! You are critical for good reasons, so focusing on it being your fault is a big mistake, imho. At the same time, withdrawers withdraw for equally as valid of reasons, and focusing on them as being distant or “not communicating” is just as big of a mistake for therapists. I can see why the counseling didn’t work out, and why you didn’t go back. Bad therapy is even worse than no therapy in some cases. In an upcoming post I will talk more about therapy and in detail about emotionally focused therapy, which addresses these patterns, slows them down, gets at what’s happening emotionally that drives them, and in the end (if all works, and it does 70% of the time) creates new positive patterns and helps couples get out of these patterns. Great stuff! I’m obviously biased toward this particular model of counseling, but I definitely think that whatever kind of therapy a couple gets, a counselor CANNOT take sides or blame one spouse or the other, and this DEFINITELY will make the problem worse.

    The withdrawer being able to take a stand so to speak and talk about those feelings is a really great thing. Also, blame can be a huge problem, so that’s neat you’ve managed to reduce it. Part of what helps to reduce blaming each other is to focus on these patterns as a “together” kind of thing, i.e. “we get caught in this TOGETHER” or “this is what happens TO us” or “we are fighting this pattern together that takes over our relationship.”

  7. AdamF
    Awesome post! These are the kinds of posts that actually help us. Keep up the good work.

    I suspect I am in the persuer/withdrawer relationship pattern. I’m pretty sure I am the pursuer. We also had an experience very similar to jks’ when we saw a therapist (though admittedly the therapist was still a student and was only on an pseud-internship thing).

    I’m looking forward to the next post to tell me how to resolve all this!

  8. Great post, AdamF. I definitely see my relationship in these patterns. I am the withdrawer for sure. I can really relate to the paralysis/numb aspects of the cycle. However, I think part of my withdrawing issue is that I don’t really hold on to things. Usually if my wife is upset at me or vice versa, all I really want is for the fight to be over and I’m happy. I don’t care so much about the underlying issue (unless it’s really significant). Consequently, I’ll often refuse to get into a fight and instead I’ll try to wait out the storm and let her have her say. The problem with this is that she see’s my lack of engagement as a lack of concern or emotional connection, even though that’s honestly not the case from my perspective. Often I’ll try to joke with my wife or be playful when she’s mad at me, and it infuriates her because in her mind there’s no way to get past her anger unless we talk it out. I feel completely opposite. In my mind, if we can just stop being angry then we can move on (again, this applies to mostly mundane things). I see the folly in my approach, but the thing that frustrates me is that I’ve explained to her why I do this, so even if she disagrees with my style, it’s agitating to continually be accused of not caring or even worse, not being willing to put in the effort to resolve differences. I’m ok with her not liking the way I choose to resolve problems, but it’s hurtful when I feel like she refuses to even recognize that I’m trying, albeit in what may be an awlward or ineffective way.

  9. brjones-it sounds like you are aware that there is a problem and you want it to go away,and that you feel that should be good enough for your wife.

    I understand that you feel that this is an indicator that you care,and I think it also means that you would like to be able to change the situation,but perhaps fear that you do not have the skills necessary.

    That still leaves the problems,and that is perhaps exasperating for your wife as nothing is changing-effectively an impasse.Sounds like some new skills could be useful-my guess is that therapy might need to be your next step.

    It’s hard to stop being angry when the reason for the anger remains unchanged.Perhaps there is an alternative,but I find it hard to imagine what that may be.

    Having said that,resolution is often not a short term possibility.It takes time and commitment to see results.Despair is always an option.I’m sure that you are saying that you would really like to be happier together.

    So hope things can get more comfortable,it sounds painful for you both.We all just want to feel safe to be ourselves,to be accepted.

  10. Definitely true, Wayfarer. I should clarify that my wife and I frequently assess our relationship and agree our marriage is as strong currently as it has been in years. I don’t think we have excessive communication problems and I think she would agree. That said, I agree with you that counselling would be good for us. I think most couples would probably benefit from it as no two people communicate in precisely the same ways. And even though I don’t think my wife and I get into many big fights, any time a problem in communication continues to arise, it’s probably not a bad idea to involve a third person.

  11. I note that most of the commenters here are pursuers, rather than withdrawers. brjones, it is really nice to hear your perspective, because I almost can hear my wife in your comments, and I know how frustrated I get when it appears to me she doesn’t want to solve the problem. I’m well aware that my pursuit of solving the problem is not helping, but I feel like I am at least putting forth some effort, where it appears she isn’t.

    As a problem solver, I’d really like to be able to say, “Ok self, your solution is not working. Try her approach.” I’ve tried this, but then it appears to me that we get into a withdraw-withdraw pattern. While I know that she is happy that I’m not angry, it seems like a death spiral to me. Now we have 2 people that aren’t putting any effort into the marriage, and it does feel like a “cold war.”

    I’ve been reading the book “Hold me Tight” as well, and it seems to me that this is a worse stage than “Pursue/Withdraw.” As an impatient person in general anyway, I don’t want to wait for a therapist to help me fix my problem–I want to get started on the solution now! 😉 (Plus I’m a cheap skate and would rather try to fix the problem in a less expensive way than therapy anyway.)

  12. 9 – jmb – Thanks, good to know that!

    10 – brjones – I can see where both of you are coming from. She will indeed see your lack of “engagement” as a lack of connection, that’s exactly how it feels to pursuers, no matter what the intention was (even if it’s a really good intention, like keeping things calm). When these cycles are repetitive enough and leave you feeling hurt and her feeling disconnected and etc., and you are unable to get out of the pattern despite a year or more of being caught in it, outside help is probably a necessity. That’s not even a professional opinion here, I’m speaking from personal experience. 🙂 Whatever you both choose, good luck!

    11 – wayfarer – Agreed, therapy may be necessary. The therapy must also go way beyond communication skills, as (and this is for everyone) who can really use I-statements or “active listening” when they are caught up in the midst of a cycle, basically fight or flight. I totally agree, feeling safe is HUGE.

    13 − ΜΗ − Ι agree, it is nice to see a withdrawer comment here (Thanks brjones!). Yeah the money is a huge issue, probably #1 I think. Glad you are reading the book. It’s not a miracle cure, but I really think it’s helpful. And yes, as a “recovering pursuer” I totally get where you are coming from in terms of “wanting to get started on the solution now!” and feeling like the “cold war” is a “death spiral.” To pursuers, it really can feel dead. Anger is better than no connection for us. Through training and working with couples, as well as my own therapy with my wife (who is a recovering withdrawer) I have also learned what a HUGE HUGE impact we pursuers have on our withdrawers. I really was unable to grasp this until a while into therapy. For many of them, it’s really not safe enough to “come out and talk” so to speak.

    In my next post I’m going to cover therapy, what prevents people from going, what to look for in a therapist, and etc. We went for about 6 months and it helped a lot. At the same time, some therapy doesn’t help, and some therapists can actually make your marriage worse (as some have attested to), so the process of finding a therapist is a very important one.

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