How To Break a Push Pull Relationship Pattern?

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Push Pull Relationship Cycle

How to Break the Push Pull Relationship Cycle.

By:  Rick Fannin

Intimate relationships can go south when partners get stuck in a pursue-withdraw cycle.  A push-pull relationship cycle is a clear-cut example of "playing games," but it's a dynamic that's not uncommon.  The psychology of a push-pull relationship is fascinating.  In this push-pull dance, one partner seeks greater connection but grows increasingly critical when a connection is elusive.  The other partner seeks greater autonomy and increasingly withdraws in the face of complaints, pressure, and feeling smothered.  Both parties are seemingly unaware of their own behaviors that drive the cycle.  And even if you are aware of these dynamics, you may be left puzzled as to how to break a push pull relationship pattern.

Underneath this frustrating cycle lies the differing insecure attachment styles of each partner.  It is estimated that half of all adults have an insecure attachment style that can lead to either a pursuing or distancing stance in relationships.

In a push pull relationship, both the partners are unable to get involved with each other due to their attachment insecurity.  This relationship pattern makes it difficult for either partner to build a secure attachment and love-lasting relationship.  They spend an enormous amount of time and energy pulling close to each other to push away again.  In many cases, one or both participants are afraid of intimacy, rejection, or abandonment.

Pursuing partners fear rejection or abandonment and seek reassurance from their partners through closeness and connection.  Withdrawing partners fear being controlled or crowded and seek relief through independence and autonomy.  Both the pursuer and the withdrawing partner may deeply desire a close intimate relationship, but each has a fear of intimacy at a conscious or subconscious level.

Forming a genuine attachment in this kind of relationship is very difficult.  There is no stability or lasting connection in this type of relationship.   The push-pull relationship can be stressful and affect you, and your partners, emotional well-being.   They tend to hurt each other over and over again, leaving deep emotional wounds.

The pursuer believes a bond is developing, so they begin to enjoy the attention and feel value in the pairing.  Still, the withdrawer starts to pull away gradually and becomes disinterested.  On some level, pursuers know that chasing a withdrawer is counterproductive.  The pursuer's immediate thought is to wonder what they had done to cause the reaction and intensify their efforts to pull close again.  These increased efforts cause the other to push further away.  The pursuer fears that it will never happen if they do not try to increase the connection.  This leaves pursuers feeling trapped in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't dynamic, leading them to criticize their partners.  This criticism leads to the further distance between the pursuer and the withdrawer.

Withdrawers know on some level that the pursuer wants closeness, but it can feel overwhelming or frightening to provide it.  Withdrawers fear that giving in to demands for more connection will lead to losing themselves in the relationship.  The withdrawer, too, feels caught in a damned-either-way dynamic: Give in and feel trapped and vulnerable, or resist and receive mounting criticism.

This sort of relationship dynamic offers each person what they want in a roundabout way.  Neither person wants things to get too intimate, and yet neither wants the relationship to end.  The cycle prevents the formation of true, meaningful intimacy, but it also allows the relationship to continue.

They bounce back and forth between short periods of apparent peace, love, and harmony and longer periods of discontent and friction.  The push-pull relationships can be sustainable for a substantial period since there are moments of joy and satisfaction to make each person want to hold on.  However, this kind of relationship only lasts because both the partners allow it.  There is no possibility of a genuine attachment or deep intimacy within this dysfunctional relationship pattern.  More so, each feels a lack of control and stability leaving everyone frustrated and vulnerable to hurt.  This kind of relationship is fruitless in helping to heal old wounds.  Instead, it adds another layer of confusion, frustration, distrust, and hurt by disallowing oneself to break this painful relationship pattern.

Push pull relationship does not always have a fixed role for the participants.  Both individuals can change their roles as a pusher or a puller.  Things can get more confusing, frustrating, and complicated with time in this role-changing relationship.

If you are in one of these relationships, you need to pursue self-love and take steps to break this dysfunctional cycle.  If you cannot take care of yourself and love yourself, it can be hard to love someone else and build a healthy relationship with them.

Take the Push Pull Relationship Assessment. 

Tips to Break Out of a Push-Pull Relationship Cycle

1.  Recognize the Real Problem

When both partners in a relationship have different wants, needs, fears, and outlooks, it becomes easy to fall into the trap of viewing your significant other as the root cause of all the problems in your relationship.  For instance, pushers tend to avoid addressing the real relationship issues, making the puller feel like they don't care.  Pursuers tend to magnify the focus on problems.  Withdrawers tend to deny, ignore or distance from relationship problems.  Withdrawers tend to overthink, making the pusher feel that they're too overbearing.  Together, they create a push-pull dance that alienates both.

Improving your relationship helps to recognize that this cycle, not your partner, is the enemy of your relationship.  The push-pull behavior is the problem, not the participants in the dance.  By focusing on the real problem of pull relationship psychology, you become better poised to understand that you need to change your relationship dynamics and not your partner.  Change the dance; don't change dance partners.  This helps promote a 'we' versus a common problem mindset instead of 'you' versus 'me'.

2.  Acknowledge the Cost of Push-Pull Dynamics

The push-pull relationship cycle is a costly one for both participants.  In terms of your mental health, that is.  Stress, anxiety, conflict, alienation, confusion, frustration, fear, depression, anger, and lack of intimacy become constants in your life when you're caught in such unhealthy relationship dynamics.

Few withdrawers come closer when they feel pressured, chased, and certainly not when criticized.  Few pursuers say positive things to a partner they feel is ignoring, dismissing, depriving, or rejecting them.  Both stances create a self-reinforcing cycle.

Acknowledging these costs, you can clearly see that you need to make a change for the better.  Both partners will require awareness, acceptance, and action to change this dynamic.  With some effort, patience, and perseverance from both partners, you can make progress in time.

Withdrawers need to soothe their fears of engulfment, communicate and participate more with their partners, and be more transparent.  Pursuers need to soothe their fears of abandonment, reality tests their worst-case scenarios, and be more self-reliant.   Both members need to stop seeing their partners as either the problem or potential solution.

3.  Be More Empathetic Toward Your Partner

Whether you identify as the pursuer or the withdrawer, you can hopefully see the reasons, at least at a superficial level, why your partner behaves the way they do.  Understanding is crucial for empathy, and empathy is crucial in changing how you act and react.

In both of your cases, you and your partner fear intimacy, rejection, and abandonment.  Knowing how this feel, you should be able to empathize with the way these fears can consume your mind and influence how you behave.

Empathy is an essential factor in a healthy intimate relationship, and it's the key to breaking free from a push pull relationship cycle.  Once you've recognized that you're either a pusher or puller in the relationship, take steps toward better understanding your partner.   Seek to understand your partner and their suppressed issues instead of avoiding or criticizing them.  What are the underlying issues triggering their behavior patterns?  What are their fears, insecurities, and vulnerabilities?  Which past experiences have contributed to them developing these tendencies?

Given that you're dealing with your share of issues empathizing with your partner shouldn't be hard.   When partners are more understanding toward each other, they have the right state of mind to start fixing what needs fixing to help each other overcome these insecurities, fears, and poor attachment styles.

4.  Respect Your Differences

The opposing attachment styles, fears, and relationship needs are at the core of a push-pull relationship.  For instance, a puller may want to discuss the relationship at length from time to time to reassure themselves that all is well and that their partner isn't going to abandon them.  These repeated conversations can leave the pusher feeling overwhelmed, often causing them to withdraw.

To stop to the push pull relationship cycle, learn to respect your differences.  Make peace with the fact that you both are just wired differently and try to accommodate each other's way of handling relationships as much as possible.

5.  Allow for Necessary Distance When Needed

At times, this dynamic will prove to be more than you bargained for.  In these moments, time alone is crucial.  Pushers or withdrawers need distance to reassure their sense of individuality instead of feeling that developing a partnership might cost their sense of self.

If the puller accepts a pusher's need to invigorate without becoming anxious, nervous, or critical of that time away, the pusher can enjoy self-soothing without the need to withdraw or repel.  Likely the pusher will come back fully attentive and affectionate.

Allow your partner to take a portion of the day or week to themselves and recharge.  And of course, seek the same in return.  While you're doing this, each should take the time to get to the bottom of what's bothering them.  Fear of intimacy, rejection, and abandonment are not small issues.

Either you or your partner could be reliving old wounds, mental health could be deteriorating, and neither is none the wiser.  It doesn't take a relationship expert to know when to back off and when to reach out.  We all burn out sometimes, and it's so important that partners can understand that and take a step back.  Give them your unwavering support from a distance, and each of you gets your head in order.

6.  Honor Each Other's Differences and Needs

The opposing attachment styles and relationship needs are at the core of a push pull relationship.   One of the keys to breaking the push pull cycle is to gain awareness and honor each partner's differences, fears, and needs.  Pursuers and withdrawers in the same situation can have vastly different time experiences.  An hour talking about a relationship may provide just a taste for a pursuer who is desperate to discuss relationship issues.  But to a withdrawer, an hour may feel endless and overwhelming.

By the same token, a day without contact for a withdrawer may feel like a breath of fresh air, while to the pursuer, it may feel like torture.

It helps if withdrawers reassure pursuers that there will be time to talk and spend time together.  That can allow a pursuer to self-soothe.

It helps if pursuers reassure withdrawers that they can have their space, won't be criticized for it, and will be welcomed when they return.  This can allow a withdrawer to feel free to move closer without fearing they will lose themselves.

7.  Work Against the Problem, Not Each Other

Always remember this; neither you nor your partner is the problem.  The dynamic of your relationship is the problem.  Don't try to change them or their behavior.  That has to come from them.  You are powerless to change them, and any attempts to do so will simply worsen the problem.  Similarly, change in yourself has to come from you.  You are the only one you have any power or control over in this relationship.

Motivation to identify and change specific thoughts or behaviors can come from agreeing to work as a team to improve the situation.  There is no blame game in this approach.  Neither person should feel like the relationship's success lies on their shoulders.  It is a team effort.

You can support and encourage each other when you struggle.  You can praise and thank each other when you behave in a way that helps to break the cycle.  You can reassure each other when things are difficult.  You can thank each other for simply being willing to try to change.  And when it seems like you are changing more than they are, remember to understand where they are and what they might be feeling and thinking.  They might not be able to adapt their behavior as quickly as you can.  Just keep encouraging them and never criticize them.

8.  Accept your Partner's Shortcomings But Praise Their Good Qualities and Efforts

The push-pull dynamic is partly fueled by a desire for our partner to be perfect.  We expect them to know what we need, how we are feeling, and to act accordingly.

Stay mindful that no one is perfect.  We all have our defects and shortcomings.  And we can't read minds.  One way to soften and then overcome the feelings that drive the cycle is to appreciate your partner's good qualities and the good things they do.  This helps you understand and accept compromises, which are an essential part of any healthy relationship.

9.  Improve Your Self-esteem

You are both plagued by your own individual sets of issues rooted in low self-esteem.  This makes your issues appear much grander than they are.  Focus on improving yourself.  This low self-esteem can make the highs and lows of the cycle more pronounced.

Their lack of self-esteem makes them prone to grand gestures of love and affection for the pursuer because they don't think themselves worthy enough of their partner's love.  As for their partner, it makes it challenging for them to accept their love because they know it's only a matter of time before they pull away.

For the withdrawer, there is a guard around their heart, and while inside they may love the lengths that the pursuer may go it, the underlying fear cause them to pull away.  This act makes the pursuer feel less wanted and less loved because they take things very personally.  An already fragile self-esteem lowers even more, and they tend to become critical of their partner, which, in turn, reinforces the withdrawer's low self-esteem.

If both parties could work to improve their self-esteem, the emotional impact of the cycle would diminish.  Building your self-esteem doesn't happen overnight, but if you truly want to improve and overcome your issues, it's a journey you will have to take.

10.  Don't Run Away from Vulnerability

Being accepting of space in the relationship leaves the puller feeling very vulnerable.  If the puller in the relationship needs to learn viewing distance positively, the pusher needs to learn how to be vulnerable with their partner.  A fear of intimacy stems from an underlying fear of being emotionally vulnerable with another person.

Possibly, you've had some distasteful experiences on this front in the past.  That may well be why you tend to close up and build walls to protect your most fragile thoughts and desires.  Even so, you can turn over a new leaf by starting small and gradually opening up to your partners about your fears, apprehensions, past experiences, thoughts, and emotional state.

To ensure that the pusher succeeds in their attempts to let their guard down, their partner must welcome this openness with support, empathy, and understanding.  If the person feels judged, they will withdraw instantly.  This will only cause the fear of intimacy to be compounded manifold.

11.  Manage Your Anxiety

Both pursuers and withdrawers are anxious.  Pursuers fear being alone and tend to believe that if only their partner stopped distancing, their anxiety would go away.  Withdrawers fear being overwhelmed and tend to believe that if only their partner stopped pressuring them, their anxiety would disappear.

Deep down, both want connection, love, and to be seen and accepted for who they are.  However, fear and anxiety can bring out the worst in us, triggering primal fears and primitive coping behaviors.  In believing that the solution to the problem lies with the other person's actions, both partners give up their power.

In truth, pursuers need to calm their anxiety by coming to know they are sufficient and okay on their own.  Withdrawers need to calm their anxiety by learning that they can get close without being destroyed.  These realizations give both partners the power to manage their anxiety.

There is Hope

If you have been stuck in the spin cycle of a push and pull relationship for any length of time, it may leave you feeling hopeless.  However, there is hope.

The good news is that most pursuers and withdrawers do want love, and most will admit that this hot and cold relationship style is unhealthy.  Each must learn some new relationship skills and face some fears so that they can learn to give themselves fully to their partner.  Both individual and couples therapy can prove helpful in addressing these feelings and the relationship dynamics.


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