The Dance of Pursue and Flee in Couple Relationships

Therapist talking with couple sitting at desk

Towards the end of a session with a couple, my female client asked “Why is it difficult for some things to change?” She, of course, was referring to her husband’s behaviour, specifically in regards to the fact that he often seemed to choose going out with his friends over spending time with her. This concern had indeed been one of the key symptoms of the problem that had caused her to initiate couple counselling. The problem, it seemed, centered on him appearing to withdraw and seek out his male friends whenever he felt the need or from his wife’s perspective, “Whenever he wanted to distance himself from me.” Withdrawing and seeking companionship with those he deemed as “safe” resulted in his wife feeling “shelved” which only further served to threaten their already fragile marriage relationship.

Unfortunately this all too common pattern is pervasive in many relationships: the pursuing wife and the fleeing husband. What he did not realize was that he was missing out on precious opportunities to connect with his wife, instead opting to take for granted the assumed idea that she would always be present. He had concluded that the fact that she was present now was an indicator of her future behaviour…sorry Dr. Phil, we know that’s not always the best predictor of future behavior! As for his wife, frustration and criticism had set in, as well as a sense of hopelessness that things would ever change. This only further served to take away a sense of safety and intimacy, feeding her husband’s need for withdrawal. Lastly, resentment had commenced to root itself in the foundation of their relationship thereby creating a sort of emotional erosion.

So, what do each of these symptoms express about the state of affairs within this relationship and many of the others that we counsel over the course of a week? Namely it conveys the idea that initially the pursue-flee patterns ensure primary and secondary gains that can often outweigh the long-term value of engaging in relationship. What do I mean by this statement? Let me define this concept and then provide an example. Primary gains are the benefits, such as relief from emotional feeling/expression that one experiences when they engage in the defense mechanisms of withdrawal and pursuit. Secondary gains refer to the benefits that might present as a result of the defense mechanisms meaning that it might achieve the desired goals in the short term (he stays home more for a time, she is less critical).

However, this leaves each partner isolated and managing the problem on their own and herein lies the problem.

The challenge, relationally speaking, is for us to recognize that the underlying emotional erosion is occurring simultaneously as we seek to benefit from both primary and secondary gains. Until we do so, why would we change our behaviour? It’s really a question of values.


Written by: Rene Vandenberg is an Associate Counsellor with Capital Choice Counselling