The biggest sign you need to be in couples therapy, according to a marriage therapist

Motortion Films/ShutterstockBy the time some people start couples therapy, it may be too late.
  • The biggest sign you need to be in couples therapy, says marriage and family therapist Rachel Zamore, is that you and your partner are caught in a “pursue-withdraw” cycle.
  • It’s the most common pattern Zamore sees. One partner is actively pushing for closeness and the other is pulling away, and this can go on for years.
  • It’s important for therapists to help couples in pursue-withdraw patterns realise that it’s not just one person’s fault.

Among the reasons why a marriage deteriorates, “it’s not just affairs and betrayals,” said Rachel Zamore. “It can be a slow erosion of connection.”

Zamore is a marriage and family therapist and the founder of InnerWell Integrative Counseling and Couples Therapy, in Vermont. There’s one type of slow erosion she sees more than any other: the pursue-withdraw pattern. And according to Zamore, it’s the top reason to see a couples therapist.

Typically, one partner has been trying – for months or years – to pursue for more connection and closeness, while the other partner has been withdrawing from those advances. By the time Zamore sees the couple, the pursuer partner has burned out, and has all but given up.

In many such cases, the pursuer’s attempts at connection can look more like nagging, Zamore said: “Make sure you take out the garbage!” That’s likely because the pursuer is wary of making themselves vulnerable by explaining how abandoned they really feel.

The withdrawer, on the other hand, may very well be interested in repairing the relationship, Zamore said. But their mindset is: “My partner seems really unhappy with me, so I’m going to back up and hope that they settle down.”

That attitude only makes the pursuer push harder, and off the couple goes in a vicious cycle.

The problem is that, once the pursuer gives up, “nobody’s on the dance floor,” Zamore said. “That’s often a sign that a couple is in pretty serious trouble.” Put another way, in Zamore’s words, “when nobody’s putting forth effort anymore, that’s usually a death knell.”

Interestingly, the only way these couples end up in therapy in the first place is typically because of the withdrawer. Steven Stosny, the founder of CompassionPower, described the turn of events in a Psychology Today blog post:

“The cessation of pursuit makes distancers [similar to withdrawers] unsure of who they are, because the foundation of the distancers’ self-perception is the unbridled devotion of the pursuer. Out of desperation, they start their own pursuit of the weary, angry, withdraw­ing former pursuer. Distancers tend to fall in love with their partners just as, bags in hand, they finally walk out the door.”

It’s important for the couple to realise that it’s neither person’s fault exclusively

One of the first things a couples therapist does with this kind of couple is disillusion them of the idea that the problem is exclusively one person or the other.

Paul Schrodt, a professor at Texas Christian University, conducted a review of studies that found couples in “demand-withdraw” patterns (similar to pursue-withdraw) are less satisfied with their relationship and less intimate, and have poorer communication.

“Partners get locked in this pattern, largely because they each see the other as the cause,” Schrodt said in a statement. “Both partners see the other as the problem.”

As Scott R. Woolley, a founder and director of the San Diego Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy, said in an interview on the Gottman Relationship Blog, “It’s really helpful to start thinking about the pattern itself because it’s the negative pattern that is the enemy – not the other person.” One goal of therapy is for each partner to identify their position in the pattern, Woolley said.

In some cases, with the therapist’s help, the couple is able to reach a place of deeper honesty and emotional intimacy. “This person’s on my team, they have got my back. That’s what couples are really looking for,” Zamore said.

In other cases, the connection may have deteriorated so much that the couple has reached a point of no return. “Sometimes,” Zamore said, “it’s too late.”

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