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8 Suggestions to Stop the Pursue-Withdraw Cycle in Sex

The push-and-pull dynamic in marriage.

In marriage, there is a familiar dynamic of push and pull over the two primary needs for connection, emotional attachment and sexual attachment. You want sex and your partner couldn't care less. Begging for connection only drives your partner further away. Why does this negative cycle get so stuck and what can we do about it?

 Tuaindeed/iStock; used with permission
Source: Tuaindeed/iStock; used with permission

One partner seems to need and want more connection in one realm and so pursues their partner. Unfortunately, the pursuer often feels that their early requests for change fall on deaf ears and ups the ante with louder intensity. Unfortunately, their very pushing sabotages the goal of closeness as they become angry, manipulative, or controlling. In response to the chase, whether sexually or emotionally, their partner withdraws. Withdrawers back up to seek some breathing room, hoping to keep everything calm, but frequently placate, forget their promises, and minimize the problems of the relationship which adds fuel to their pursuer’s fire.

Sound familiar? It should. We all go through this cycle on some level or another. Allen and Janae are crisscrossed pursuers and withdrawers. He withdraws emotionally and pursues sexually, and she pursues emotionally but withdraws sexually. Both are motivated toward loving each other but in different ways. Both withdraw precisely in ways that frustrate their partner.

Allen: “She just doesn’t ever want it. It’s like all the fire went out of her once we married. Maybe she’s not attracted to me. But, I feel cheated, like it was bait and switch.”

Janae: “Bait and switch!? Yeah, I wanted it then ‘cause you would spend hours talking to me! Now, all you ever want is sex. I don’t feel seen or heard by you. If you touched me sometime other than when you wanted to go to bed, I might feel a little more like being with you.”

They argue over frequency. The sexual pursuer claims it hardly ever happens; the sexual withdrawer inflates the regularity of sex forgetting about the exceptions to the pattern. One of them is keeping track; they have a calendar record! The other points to this as a good example of the ridiculous pressure the first partner puts on having sex, which only further kills their desire. She wants connection before sex and he rarely initiates time together like he used to.

Healing this negative cycle is the way we find security in marriage—body and soul. How can we do it? Here are eight suggestions:

1. Recognize this is a looping behavioral cycle that you contribute to maintaining regardless of who started it this time.

2. Take a deep breath and see that your partner may be acting in ways that make sense to them even if it drives you crazy.

3. Believe your partner loves you and is reaching for you in their most familiar and comfortable love language.

4. If you are a pursuer, reduce criticisms and stop the anger. Begin to notice and comment on the approximations of your partner’s attempts to love you.

5. If you are a withdrawer—initiate in small steps. For instance, if your partner needs more talking—schedule a regular cocktail hour to review the day. If you are a sexual withdrawer, find your best day of the week to initiate sex when you are refreshed and ready for it.

6. Try vulnerability. Rather than angrily talking about how your partner has failed you again, talk about your needs and feelings inside about sadness over the distance between you or your emptiness over the loss of life’s excitement.

7. Recognize that biology also might play a part in the sexual cycle. Women may really only feel desire once they are having sex rather than at the beginning of an encounter and need copious amounts of time to get there. Men may be more oriented sexually for connection because of their much larger amounts of testosterone but can learn and profit from greater emotional intelligence. Certainly, these dynamics are not contained by gender stereotypes. Women are also sexual pursuers and lesbian couples may be either congruent in their pursuing styles or crisscrossed as well. If gay spouses have enough testosterone to feel in sync sexually, they may still have differences over needs for space and closeness.

8. Become curious about your partner’s responses. Ask what they need to feel safe either emotionally or sexually. Frequently pursuers need to know that they are heard and their requests are regarded as bids for connection. Withdrawers often fear failure and want reassurance that they can voice their differences without provoking a fight.

Resolving the negative cycle brings positive self-development in each of us. We may become better listeners or experience great erotic freedom.

More from Laurie J Watson PhD, LMFT, LPC
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