She seems unhappy with our relationship. What can I do?
What if your girlfriend or wife seems so unhappy with your relationship, and you can’t figure out what to do?
There may be a pattern playing out in your relationship called the Pursuer and Withdrawer pattern. Once you understand it, you can learn what to do to get out of it so you can have the close, happy relationship with her that you both want.
Last month I wrote a post on Withdrawers—those who tend to pull away when their partner gets upset. Hopefully, this helped Pursuers to understand their Withdrawer partner a bit better.
Today, let’s explore Pursuers so hopefully their Withdrawing partner can understand them better. Just like last post, for simplicity’s sake, I will describe “her” as the one who pursues and “him” as the one who withdraws. However, pursuing and withdrawing patterns are not gender-based. Pursuing and withdrawing patterns happen in marriages, dating relationships, cohabiting couples, and some friendships too.
Let’s review: Hello, Withdrawers!
What does a Withdrawer do? When she is unhappy with your relationship, you tend to get quiet or distant from her emotionally or physically in response. More than anything else, you probably hate getting into fights with her or knowing you’ve disappointed her.
Underneath, you may have some fears about making things worse or starting a disagreement, and so you don’t talk to keep the peace with her. Maybe, you feel like she’s so emotional, and you just don’t “get” feelings like she does, and so frustration leads you to shut down when she’s upset.
Why is she unhappy with me? Why can’t I just fix us?
For a Withdrawer, pursuing will often feel like she’s nagging, criticizing and blaming you for the relationship problems. She seems so dissatisfied with you, no matter what you do.
Many times, you will conclude, “She’s so unhappy in our relationship!!” You’ll say things out of frustration like, “Here we go again…” when it seems like you argue about the same things over and over.
Underneath, you may be totally confused as to why things never get better even though you have tried many times to solve the problem. You start to worry that she’s never going to be happy with you or your relationship. Feeling helpless and discouraged on the inside, you become distant from her when you quarrel.
Happy wife, happy life? You bet.
It feels awful when she’s unhappy. However, we often learn in couples counseling that there is a lot more going on underneath for Pursuers, and that there is a path to happiness together. First, we have to understand what’s going on inside your Pursuer. Here are common motivations underneath her nagging, criticism or blame:
- An attempt to create closeness by talking about feelings
- An attempt to be reassured that she is important to you
- Wanting confirmation that she can reach out for you when she needs you
It is not that Pursuers are never happy. In fact, because they want to feel happy and close to you, they try very hard to create that closeness. Sometimes, she thinks the only way you’ll reassure her or come close to her is to start talking about her feelings. The problem is, she may not know how to talk about her feelings and needs in a way that feels soft and welcoming to you. It may come out instead as nagging, criticism or even an angry attack.
What do Pursuers feel?
If your Pursuer feels like she cannot reach you for contact, closeness or comfort, she may be perceiving, “He must not love me; otherwise he would do or say something.”
Most likely, her internal alarm system is going off. She might panic on the inside and try saying or doing whatever possible to get reassurance that you do love her.
Let’s say she has complained for months about wanting more help from you. Then, one day, you accidentally forget to pick up the dry cleaning on your way home as you promised. Within seconds, she becomes angry and upset with you.
However, underneath that anger, she’s also asking herself: “Does he even care about me?” What if he no longer loves me?” “Does that mean that he will leave me?” Going even went deeper, she may:
- Feel unlovable and unimportant to you
- Feel abandoned or unheard by you
- Feel invalidated, not empathized with, or not understood by you
- Feel stupid and needy for wanting so much reassurance from you
How does couples counseling help?
If she seems so unhappy in your relationship and you don’t know what to do, couples counseling would probably help.
In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, I help Pursuers communicate softly and clearly about their feelings and needs. Often, we have to work through some of her fears of coming to you in a softer way.
For most Pursuers, it is much more vulnerable for her to say, “Sometimes I get scared. Will you come & comfort me?” It takes less risk for her to nag or complain to you, but the problem is, it feels so bad to you that she may never get the soft response from you that she’s hoping for! You may feel attacked, not invited into a happy, close connection with her!
If your Pursuer can send you softer messages that don’t come lumped with criticism, it might begin to feel a lot better to you. So, instead of you feeling nagged or criticized, like she’ll always be unhappy in the relationship, you get a much clearer message that she just needs some reassurance.
You are so important to her that she sometimes needs to be reminded of your love for her. Yes, this usually means saying it out loud in a heartfelt way – nobody is actually any good at mind reading it turns out.
We can also help her begin to share how important you are to her. What a difference that might make for you! Couples counseling can help you improve your communication this way.
Couples counseling also helps her understand how terrible it feels for you when she’s comes to you in a critical, demanding way. She will have walked around in your shoes and begun to understand you better. If you’re struggling to respond to her, she will begin to see that it may have to do with how she came to you. You will have practiced how to catch and repair those moments together.
If you are Withdrawer, my hope is that this post will help you understand what happens for your pursuing partner. Once you start understanding her feelings and behaviors and she understands yours, you can changing your negative cycle of communication.
For couples counseling in Greenwood Village, Lakewood, or Denver, CO, call Thrive Couples & Family Counseling at 303-513-8975, or schedule online now: Schedule Appointment
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