Resolving Conflict: Navigating Pursue/Withdraw Conflict Styles

Michael Walker, LPCBlog, CouplesLeave a Comment

Resolving Conflict: Navigating Pursue/Withdraw Conflict Styles

One of the most challenging aspects of resolving relational conflict is navigating different conflict styles. Conflict style describes the way we are most likely to behave during times of conflict. 

Before we explore how to navigate these different styles, let’s first understand where these tendencies come from. There are three major factors that inform our tendencies in conflict: values, needs, and fears.

Values: Unity vs. Peace

The value that is often the driving force behind the pursuer is unity. The pursuer feels disconnected from their partner so they bring up an issue for discussion. In doing so, they wish to find resolution, validation and feel unified with their partner. 

For the withdrawer, the primary value providing motivation is peace. To engage in discussion about the pursuer’s concern can often feel like a threat to the peace in the relationship. Those with a tendency to withdraw rarely feel like an issue is a threat to the relationship. They will often opt for peace, rather than engage in the conflict.

Needs: Validation vs. Time/Safety

Pursuers tend to be verbal processors. As they process their feelings out loud, their greatest needs are to be understood and validated. This need can often be met without having to find a solution for the issue. In fact, attempts to offer solutions prior to offering understanding and validation will likely escalate the conflict and further decrease the connection in the relationship. 

Those who tend to withdraw from conflict do so because they need time and emotional safety. While pursuers are typically verbal processors, those who withdraw are more likely to be internal processors. When presented with new information, they benefit greatly from having time and space to gather their thoughts before having to respond. If given adequate time to gather their thoughts on the matter at hand, they are likely to be willing to engage in the discussion as much as the pursuer. However, if they feel pressured to engage and give an immediate response, it will feel like a threat to their emotional safety. 

Fears: Now vs. Later

For the pursuer, the fear that drives them is this: “If we don’t deal with this now, we never will.” This is the reason it is so hard to give their partner the time and space needed to gather their thoughts. If they leave the conversation, they may never return to it and we will remain disconnected. Negative behavior often follows such as raising their voice or following their partner around.

The fear for the withdrawer can take a few different forms. They may think to themselves something like “Here we go again” or “I’ll never be enough” or “I’ll never get a word in edgewise”. These thoughts usually cause one of two behaviors: either they physically exit the conversation, or they remain present but shut down and disengage. 

On the surface, these two conflict styles seem to be working against each other at every turn. However, there is a simple way that both parties can have their values, needs, and fears addressed and provide a path forward toward resolution.

Step 1. Take a time out

A time out in the midst of conflict can be beneficial in several ways. It can help de-escalate a heated discussion, which helps both parties communicate their thoughts and feelings in a non-threatening way. It also helps promote an emotionally safe environment. For the time out to be effective, both parties must honor the request. If you have ever watched a sporting event you have seen that when one team calls a time out, both teams are required to take a break. 

Step 2. Give a specific time to revisit conversation

For a time out to be helpful, it must be paired with a specific time to come back to the discussion. If this step is overlooked, the pursuer is almost certain to remain fearful that “If we don’t deal with this now, we never will.” Offering a time to come back and talk mitigates this fear. 

Many couples feel stuck in a pursue/withdraw cycle of conflict. It is easy to feel discouraged and hopeless that the cycle can ever change. But there is hope. Start by remembering the values you share. Remember the love and commitment on which your relationship is built, and that you both desire unity and peace. By showing care and concern for the needs and fears of our partner, we can avoid the common pitfalls that come with different conflict styles.

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