We’ve all been there. In a really bad place in a relationship that really hurts. Struggling relationships with family, colleagues or especially lovers create some of our deepest pain. And there’s a real reason relationships hurt. Most painful relationships have one big, common, predictable factor. And, there’s a very specific way to begin to address and fix it.
If you’re like me, the first thing you think about in a tough relationship is what THEY are doing wrong. Right? Most of the time it’s just so clear that they should be doing _____________ or that they shouldn’t be doing ______________. I get it. I’m with you. When relationships hurt, most of us focus on them. But what if that’s not the problem?
Here’s the Deal.
I’d like to tell you the secret conclusion of most of my clinical relationship training. Ready? When relationships hurt the problem isn’t really them, but it isn’t you either.
It’s the impact that you are having on each other, together. The real reason relationships hurt is the negative pattern you’re caught in. Really? Really. Most of the time understanding the negative pattern, and reducing the 1) frequency and 2) intensity of it creates relief. SO much relief. And while this is not the magic bullet for things to stay good, it is job #1 to feeling better.
This concept might seem foreign, but there’s actually a ton of science that supports that statement. Relationships that are in a bad space, are almost always stuck in negative patterns of behaviors. And when you want things to get better, this is (in my humble opinion) the best place to start.
And usually, the negative pattern is some version of Pursue — Withdraw.
Pursue – Withdraw. Basically, I Ying and you Yang.
Children often pursue parents by “watch me” behaviors. “Look at me on the swing” is a positive version, yelling is a negative version.
Partners might pursue by complaining that the other isn’t available to help with (kids, chores, Aunt Alice, etc). Or maybe, that you’re not available to make love. Guys often pursue around sex.
At work, a colleague might pursue by asking lots of questions. Sometimes bosses can micro-manage in a way that’s pursuing (and crazy making).
Pursue can take many forms, but at its root it’s about trying to connect. They’re trying to connect in some way that usually leaves the other partner feeling bad and in the end it doesn’t work.
Withdraw-Pursue. Or, You Yang and I Ying.
Sometimes kids, especially teenagers, balk at a parents need to know what they’re doing. Or, even what school was like today. That can be a type of withdraw.
Partners might say “Let’s talk about it tomorrow, I’m tired” after their spouse brings up an unpleasant subject.
Bosses, or colleagues might be MIA when you need help, even if it’s their job to be available.
Often the one that withdraws is doing what feels right to them. Much like the pursuer, they often know things aren’t working but don’t know what to do. They can feel overwhelmed by the pursuer’s behavior. And the pursuer usually feels unimportant and unappreciated. Ying and Yang.
We all get in negative patterns, even therapists! (Just ask my family.)
But if the negative patterns are too frequent or around big ticket items, they create a lot of pain. And if you keep having the same basic fight, as so many of us do, I’d put a lot of money on the chance that you’re in a Pursue-Withdraw pattern.
Here’s How to Fix it.
So, what do you do to change things when relationships hurt?
Well, one of the most effective ways to begin to fix this can seem simple, but it can be powerful. Specifically, you need to begin to see the Ying and Yang. Yes, so when you get frustrated, maybe ask yourself if this might be a Ying and Yang situation. Just asking yourself the question and being curious about the situation is important. It can begin to slow down the cycle, because these types of interactions tend to happen fast. And when you slow down the cycle and become curious — well then there’s space to do something different.
A potential antidote to this pattern, is to try to connect — emotionally and/or intellectually. The pattern of Withdraw-Pursue actually creates disconnection. So the solution after you realize what’s happening, is to consider if connection might be worth trying. And if so, maybe begin to join with not against them.
When Relationships Hurt, it’s Hard to do it Differently.
It’s sometimes difficult to see the pattern at first. But if you look for it, you’ll probably see it. Most people can see it. The Pursue-Withdraw pattern is everywhere.
And just to be clear, connecting with them doesn’t mean that you agree or see it their way. It doesn’t mean they’re right or you’re wrong. It doesn’t mean that they don’t need to make some changes, often they do! Btw, you probably do too.
But if you see the pattern, you can interrupt it. And then the real reason that things are so bad won’t be there in the same way. They’ll be space, an opportunity to begin to change. An opportunity to see them differently. To join with them in understanding, instead of fighting with them in a way that leaves you both feeling bad.
And, if you try to connect instead of pursue or withdraw, it really can shift things. And begin to create a new relationship.
Simple isn’t Easy
My experience is that every relationship can get better when you look at it through this lens. But that doesn’t mean everyone can make the changes alone. Sometimes people need help, that’s what I do for a living. But sometimes, people can make these changes on their own. Just by understanding the Pursue – Withdraw pattern.
I’m a Licensed Clinical Therapist in St. Louis County. My private practice focuses on relationships and how to make them better. We really are happiest when we feel valued by the most important people in our life. And there are ways based in science to create, nurture and repair that love. For more info on the science behind my work, click here.
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