Kyle McMahan, MFT is a couples therapist at The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center. The Center provides couples therapy and premarital counseling to help couples with unhealthy relationship dynamics. 

Kyle McMahan, MFT is a couples therapist at The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center. The Center provides couples therapy and premarital counseling to help couples with unhealthy relationship dynamics. 

The desire to have healthy relationships with others is universal. Our emotional well being and survival depends on our ability to attach and create emotional bonds. 

What we learn during our childhoods about how relationships function shapes our responses to overtures in love and friendships as well as our reactivity in our adult connections. Children who were listened to, loved, and felt that they were known by their parents grow up to be adults who navigate relationships with relative ease, and seek out and get comfort from closeness; they are, as attachment theory has it—developed by John Bowlby,- securely attached.

Those who grew up in emotionally unstable circumstances, in families where love was either denied or disbursed in unreliable bursts, criticism or dismissal. Emotional needs were either ignored or belittled, or the child was made to feel unlovable or lacking develop insecure styles of attachment which are either anxious or avoidant. Unhealthy intimate relationships seem to roughly fall into one of the two templates: 1) demand-withdraw relationship dynamic or 2) the pursuer-distancer relationship dynamic


The Demand-Withdraw Relationship Dynamics:

In the demand-withdraw dynamic, one party seeks control through criticism, complaints, or coercion, while the other seeks control through distraction or isolation. Demand-withdraw is mainly about power – who will control whom. One partner is aggressive while the other is passive-aggressive. The dialogue becomes a toddler standoff, with one saying, “Mine!” (or “My way!”), and the other saying “No!”

 It’s common in the demand-withdraw dynamic that both parties feel like victims and see their partners as abusers. Each power struggle in the demand-withdraw pattern ends in a standoff of toddler coping mechanisms - blame, denial, and avoidance.

The demander sees the “issue” as the withdrawer’s laziness, selfishness, obstinacy, or sabotage. The withdrawer sees the “issue” as the demander’s need to control and lack of empathy. For example, Elissa views “the issue” as her husband continually lying to her. She cites as an example the time he told her that he had paid the insurance bill on time when he actually paid it past due, along with a late-penalty. From Frank’s perspective, the only “issue” was the fact that he couldn’t tell her about the mistake, because it would begin “an onslaught of criticism that would last all night.”

Eventually demanders give up, out of exhaustion, resignation, despair, or bitter contempt. At that point, withdrawers often pick up the slack with their own demands, prompting their partners - the previous demanders - to disengage.


Pursuer- Distancer Relationship Dynamics:

A close cousin of the demand-withdraw dynamic is the pursuer-distancer dynamic. More about connection than power, the dance of pursuer-distancer is made up of one party that tries to achieve a degree of closeness and intimacy that is considered by the other to be smothering. Any attempt by the pursuer to get more closeness in the relationship is met with resistance and more distance.

Common among the many ways of creating distance in intimate relationships are:

  • Workaholism 
  • Over-involvement with children, friends, or neighbors
  • Substance abuse
  • Porn
  • Affairs

Pursuers can be creative in attempts to engineer closeness, while distancers can be just as fervent in their resistance. 

Pursuers see the primary relationship issue as the coldness and withholding nature of their partners: “You just throw me a few crumbs of affection now and then. You don’t care at all about my needs"

Distancers see the “issue” as the neediness of their partners: “Nothing I do is enough for you. Nobody could meet your needs, you’re unappeasable.”

The accumulate guilt from rejecting a loved one and the shame of being rejected by a loved one activates cycles of resentment, anger and hostility that drain life from the relationship.

Reversal of Roles (Complex Cycle)

A reversal of roles occurs near the end of pursuer-distancer relationships, just as it does in demand-withdraw. Pursuers eventually stop pursuing when the weight of contin­ual rejection becomes too great. They make less eye contact, close off their body language and appear tired, irritable, cynical or angry much of the time. The cessation of pursuit makes distancers unsure of who they are. (The foundation of the distancers' self-perception is the unbridled devotion of the pursuer.) Out of desperation, they start their own pursuit of the weary, angry, withdraw­ing former pursuers. Distancers tend to fall in love with their partners as, bags in hand, they finally walk out the door.

No One Self-Regulates

In the frustrating dance of demand-withdraw and the more painful struggle of pursuer-distancer, both parties remain power­less over their internal experi­ence. The dynamic of the relationship provides negative regulation by “making them” push harder or run faster. Sadly, the more it hurts, the more both partners play out their respective ends of the dynamic. Demanding and withdrawing, pursuing and running away feel like powerful emotional needs. 

An emotional need is a preference that you've decided must be gratified to maintain equilibrium. It feels as if you can’t be well or feel whole without it. The perception of need begins with a rise in emotional intensity — you feel more strongly about being with someone or having something. As the intensity increases, it can feel like you “need” to do or have it, for one compelling reason: It’s the same emotional precursor of biological need. (Try planting your face in a pillow; emotional intensity rises just before you struggle to breathe.) The brain confuses the rise in emotional intensity with biological necessity.

In terms of motivation, perceived emotional needs are similar to addictions. If the body decides that you have an addiction. The mind decides that you have an emotional need. Once you decide that you need something, the pursuit of it can be just as compelling as addiction.

Perceived emotional needs always come with a sense of entitlement: “I have a right to get you to do what I want, because I need it, and my right to get what I need is superior to your right not to give it.”

It also carries a coercive element: “If you don't do what I want, you'll be punished,” through criticism, harassment or abuse on the part of the demander, or rejection, abandonment and withdraw of affection by the distancer.

Seeking to “get your needs met” in an intimate relationship, as opposed to being loving, compassionate and kind, is likely to make you appear demanding, selfish, or needy. You're almost guaranteed to get depressed, or chronically resentful or both. One thing is for sure, you won’t give or receive very much love.

Therapy for Unhealthy Relationships Dynamics

As you enter into a therapeutic relationship with a couples therapist, you will examine, understand, and ultimately heal the unhealthy dynamics that keep occurring in your relationship. Often the cause of these relationship dynamics can be based on underlying fears of abandonment, betrayal, or a shame which leads to one or both partners to believing that their partner does not love them or they are not worth being loved.

Whatever the reason, when understood, the couple can move past frustrating dynamics and enter into deeper intimacy where both partners feel a sense of trust, security and love. In this new place, each person is better able to show up as a supportive partner for the other, rather than a source of pain and frustration.. It is in the therapeutic relationship that each partner is able to express themselves fully and where the couple is able to feel close and connected.