You are currently viewing 205: Pursuer Pain and Frustration

205: Pursuer Pain and Frustration

Pursuers – a foundational episode about the partner in relationship who always wants more

Pursuers’ frustrations — what’s it like to be a pursuer in your relationship when you want more and you can’t get it? What’s it like to work so hard and see your partner walking away from you? We know it feels unfair and want to help you see how you push that might be driving your partner away! Get vulnerable for your own sake.

Show Transcript


Laurie Watson: So one of my favorite topics, pursuing, can hardly wait to talk to you about this, George. Hey, you’re listening to Foreplay Radio for couples and sex therapy with your host, myself, Laurie Watson, sex therapist and George Faller, expert couples therapist. George and I are counselors, educators, authors, researchers, contributors and leaders in our field with a collective 50 years of experience working with couples and sex therapy. We’re grounded in the best and most scientific research from attachment theory with our emphasis on emotionally focused therapy. Using all we’ve learned from our clients, our work, and our own lives, we want to have this open, frank, and informative conversation about love and sex to help you and your partner keep it hot. So we’re going to talk about my side of the fence today, which is fun.
George Faller: All right.
Laurie Watson: Being a pursuer, I think one of the things I feel definitely as a pursuer is, I’ve got hope. Sometimes I know that it’s not working, but I keep going because I just keep thinking, “Gosh, if I keep going with this person”, a patient even sometimes when I’m blown it, or a friend or my husband or my kids, I’ve got three boys, two of them are withdrawers. One of them is a pursuer. Thank God, he understands me. But I can keep going, right?
George Faller: Yeah.
Laurie Watson: But the hope is that they’ll finally hear it. I’ll say it every which way. I remember when my kids were in school and they’d come to me and they’d say, “I got a D.” I just had this routine I had to go through. “I studied, I studied” they’d say. What would you have happened if you’d studied an hour a day more?
George Faller: Sure.
Laurie Watson: “No, I’d have still gotten maybe just a C.” “What would have happened if you’d studied just two…” I’d just drive it home, this pursuing part that just would go for it and go for it and go for it until I got this reluctant. “You’re right.”
George Faller: I love as you’re talking to me now, your hands are kind of whacking into each other. Just shows that energy. The image I’d come up with, if you take a pursuer and you put the pursuer on a desert island and you put a withdrawn a separate desert island, and see the same desert islands the way they experience.
Laurie Watson: I’m going to get eaten by the shark, I’m going to swim over.
George Faller: You’re going to try to swim… you don’t even know where your other partner is, but again, has a pursuer experience that island, it’s the stress, it’s yelling, it’s screaming SOS …
Laurie Watson: It’s hell.
George Faller: … it’s hell, throwing rocks, building fires. I mean that energy is mobilizing.
Laurie Watson: Yeah.
George Faller: Now your withdraw, you put them on a desert island and they’re like, “I don’t want to live here, but it’s just, it’s relaxing. It’s calm.” It’s a very different reality.
Laurie Watson: They’re going to watch the waves for a little bit.
George Faller: Watch the waves, counts to stars.
Laurie Watson: Mediate.
George Faller: Right. I want to zoom out for a second because I don’t want to over-simplify. I’ve never met a pursuer who at times doesn’t withdraw. I’ve never met a withdrawer who doesn’t sometimes pursue. Some of us are in more of one category than the other …
Laurie Watson: That is true.
Laurie Watson: … but it’s really important to get both of these worlds equally well.
George Faller: Right. My husband says, “Yeah, you’re a pursuer and you always complain about having to initiate and all this stuff until you get a pursuing girlfriend and then you’re totally a withdrawer.”
Laurie Watson: That’s a great, he’s a wise man. Your husband.
George Faller: I know I have this one girlfriend who whenever we go for walks, and we do fairly frequently, she gets out her calendar at the end of the walk and says, “Okay, when are we going to walk again?” And I just feel this suffocate, I love her.
George Faller: I love talking to her, but I feel this suffocation, like “Don’t nail me down. I’m so busy.” I mean, I do have that sense of withdrawing inside too.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. I think growing up in my family, I had seven siblings and my parents, some of …
Laurie Watson: Irish Catholic.
George Faller: … my dad, my mom, I withdrew from. From my dad I pursued, some brothers I pursued. So again, it depends on a relationship, our moves might change, right? But just to be able to get the gist of what it’s like for both, what it feels like to be suffocated and wanting to get away from the relationship. But today we’re really trying to understand, what is it like when you want more and you can get it.
Laurie Watson: Yeah, exactly.
George Faller: Let’s talk about the world of a pursuer as a reformed withdrawer, I’ve spent thousands and thousands of hours walking in the shoes of pursuers so I feel like I finally get it.
Laurie Watson: You do talk about us pretty well.
George Faller: Well, thank you. So I think the main thing starting off too is appreciating the value of this pushing energy.
Laurie Watson: Yeah.
George Faller: Pursuers tend to be the ones who want to initiate, repair, talk. They have more words, they can express their feelings. This is good stuff. As a therapist, I give a homework assignment, “Read George’s Sacred Stress Chapter One.” They read the whole book.
Laurie Watson: Of course do.
George Faller: They highlight key sections …
Laurie Watson: And they’re the ones asking for homework.
George Faller: Yeah, exactly.
Laurie Watson: “Tell me what to do.”
George Faller: They work so hard.
Laurie Watson: They do.
George Faller: And that’s a great, great benefit to the relationship. So we want to start off with connecting with, what’s it like to work so hard, and then get so little of a fruit for that work.
Laurie Watson: Right? It’s crazy.
George Faller: That’s often a word pursuers you will use, they feel crazy. Like they’re doing all this work to be appreciated. They want their partner to say, “Hey, I’m pretty lucky to have you.” and yet what they keep seeing is their partner walking away from them. It’s hard to make sense of kind of what you’re trying to get and you’re getting precisely the opposite.
Laurie Watson: It is so backwards.
George Faller: That’s a great word, backwards.
Laurie Watson: Because the harder they go for it, the further away their partner goes. I think about it like south pole magnets on a rod. One partner comes forward and it just bounces the other partner back and it’s hard to understand. They’re full of love, they’re full of wanting to be close. They want to have study breaks together, get what the heck is happening?
George Faller: Well, again, I think what they don’t recognize … I want to meet them in this place where it feels unfair that they’re trying so hard … and they’re so creative, but they often don’t see how good they are at pushing.
Laurie Watson: So true.
George Faller: So they might ask, they might push, they might offer reassurance to their partner. They might offer advice, they might try to correct their partner, they might diagnose their partner, they might … There’s so many different ways that they try to get their partner to change because it’s they’re pushing that they believe, like you said, “If I can just get my son to listen, if he’ll just hear what I’m saying, maybe the results will change the next time”. So if he’s not going to listen to me going through the front door, I’ll go through the side door. If he locks that, I go through the basement. He don’t like that. I go up to the, you know, a ladder to the second floor. I mean it’s, you’re so resilient and how pursuers is try to impact change. I mean, that’s the word … I loved how you said hope. Right? They often come across as being critical and negative, demanding, pushing, but when you actually take that away, when pursuers stop pushing, they get depressed. Because the push is their hope that things are going to change. It’s their belief, so it’s finally going to listen.
Laurie Watson: It’s the way they’re reaching out.
George Faller: Exactly.
Laurie Watson: Right.
George Faller: So that’s the reframe, we want to get withdrawers listening that they’re not waking up choosing to be critical. Their criticism is just hope that things are going to change.
Laurie Watson: And that’s what they say, right? “If I don’t push, nothing’s going to change”
George Faller: Right.
Laurie Watson: If I stop telling my partner about how we could be closer, painting this picture that we could be better, then they’re just going to go away.
George Faller: No, it’s so important. They’re saying just like a withdrawer. Withdrawer is saying, “I’m withdrawing in a hope you’re going to calm down.” That never really works. Even though it works for them and their own individual world. When you understand the pursuer, they’re never going to calm down when you’ll walk away from them. Pursuer’s doing same thing, I’m talking and I’m pushing you in a hope you’re going to listen. Telling them to withdraw their failing doesn’t motivate them to listen. It motivates them to leave. We laugh about this thing, but when you’re caught up in it, it’s really hard to see.
Laurie Watson: It’s so hard I think as a pursuer to see, like, how you’re pushing.
George Faller: Yes.
Laurie Watson: I have a girlfriend who I love to death and she’s kind of always interpreting her husband, “Well, you know, he really means this, or, don’t you mean this honey” or something. And it’s very subtle, very subtle. And the guy barely talks because she’s doing all the talking. And it’s really hard to know whether or not he means that or not. You never know because she’s talking for him. But I can see it just on the outside that it shuts him down further and further and further because this interpretation and this encouragement to say it better is actually a push.
George Faller: Nice, I mean that’s … subtle’s almost harder to see. It reminds me of the opposite of subtle. One of the first couples I saw after 9/11, the wife came into my session and she said, “George, I’m so happy to see you. I mean, it’s just, this is, I’ve been waiting two weeks for the session. I don’t know what to do. I can’t get this man to talk. I’ve tried everything. I read Sue Johnson’s book and nothing’s working for this man. He comes from a German family. Nobody talks in his family. I come from an Italian family, we always talk.” And she went on like this at this pace for 45 minutes.
Laurie Watson: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
George Faller: Right. And her complaint is, he doesn’t talk.
Laurie Watson: Right.
George Faller: I’m sitting back saying, “How could this poor guy talk? You never shut up.” Right. I mean …
Laurie Watson: Can’t get a word in edgewise.
George Faller: [crosstalk 00:09:15] She must’ve been an Olympic athlete, but I mean again, it really, it drove home to me the importance of that energy because what would happen, here’s the key.
George Faller: What would happen if she didn’t push and she didn’t talk?
Laurie Watson: Yeah. She’d give up. She’d feel helpless.
George Faller: Silence.
Laurie Watson: You mean and further withdraw, right?
George Faller: Right. No, for the pursuer, if they didn’t do it. Like just like a withdrawer we’re trying to get, what would happen if they didn’t go away? That’s why they go away. To stay in it is so scary. The opposite for the pursuer. What would happen if they didn’t push? That’s the real fear. It’s this silence.
Laurie Watson: Their fear is nothing will change, right?
George Faller: Nothing will change. That’s the place of vulnerability. What would happen if nothing changed? If you had to sit in your silence? If you were all alone? Right? That’s the desperate place that drives all this pushing. And who sees that in a pursuer?
Laurie Watson: Not their withdrawing partner.
George Faller: That’s a problem.
Laurie Watson: Their withdrawing partner feels relief. When the pursuer stops pushing.
George Faller: Yes. And what they don’t recognize is, once they walk away, all of that energy that the pursuer has that’s been directed towards them in a critical negative way, now turns inward on the pursuer. Right? This is what I’m pursuing, [crosstalk 00:10:28].
Laurie Watson: “I am too much.”
George Faller: “What’s wrong with me?”
Laurie Watson: I think that’s the message of childhood that you come away from as a pursuer. Right? You were too much. You annoyed your parents. I mean, they’re afraid of that replication. “Somebody’s going to turn around and tell me I’m too much.” It’s, it’s almost unbearable to be told you’re too much.
George Faller: I mean, to me that’s the definition of hell. They’re cut off from human relationships and they turn and don’t like themselves and the tape start playing. “What’s wrong with me and just like my father said, I’m too much. I have bad timing.” And it’s horror show and nobody even sees it.
Laurie Watson: That’s right. That’s right.
George Faller: Not okay.
Laurie Watson: Not okay. Let’s come back and see it. All right.
Speaker 3: Speaking with certified sex therapist, Laurie Watson from Awakening Center for Couples and Intimacy. Laurie, what is an intensive?
Laurie Watson: So an intensive is 12 to 14 hours of therapy all in one weekend. And it’s a way to really make fast progress compared to weekly therapy. I mean, there’s just so much more you can get done when you have a chunk of time.
Speaker 3: Overcome the challenges in your relationship and your sex life. Learn more about intensives and Awakening Center’s other services at
Laurie Watson: Hey, I want to let you guys know all about George. He’s written and contributed to several books and I’d especially like to draw your attention to his book, Sacred Stress: A Radically Different Approach To Using Life’s Challenges For Positive Change. His book is about a mission on how you adopt new strategies and turn stresses into a positive force in your life and who among us doesn’t live with a lot of stress these days? We’ll keep you posted as to all he’s doing, but George and other EFT therapists all around the country and the world hold couples retreats called Hold Me Tight, which is developed by Sue Johnson, and it helps secure your own relationship. If you’d like therapy with George, find him at
Laurie Watson: We’re back helping the pursuers.
George Faller: Right. You can just feel a heaviness of this place where you’re working so hard to not be left alone and you keep finding yourself alone.
Laurie Watson: Right, and the … You set the silence of, “If I don’t do this, then nothing’s going to happen. Nothing’s going to change and I’m going to feel horrible and I’m going to feel like somehow or another I just needed too much.”
George Faller: I have an example of, I was working with a pursuer and she had a fight with her husband. It was a horrible fight. And they went to bed not talking to each other, which was pretty horrible because the pursuers want to say, “Hey, let’s stay up all night. If we don’t sleep, we get at least get a chance.” And her husband went to bed and literally they’re laying next to each other, her husband is snoring, right? And she’s just up all night saying, “I just, I got to do something different.” And so the next day she says, you know what? Today I’m going to be, it’s going to be a positive day. So her husband gets up and she’s laying in bed and she does some meditation, some centering prayer, and she’s trying to ground herself and she smells coffee. And she says, “Oh look, I’m going to be rewarded. My day started off good. My husband made me coffee. Look, we turned it around”
George Faller: And she gets up into the kitchen and the husband had not made her coffee, just made himself some coffee. She’s like … And what we know about the science today? That rejection registers in the same part of the brain is physical pain. According to your brain, your partner kind of rejecting you or hurting you is like stepping on a nail. So that’s like a little punch to the brain when she looks for coffee and hopes for it and doesn’t get it.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. And he hasn’t done anything different other than just getting up and making coffee.
George Faller: Right. He don’t know this is going on.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. He has no idea, this whole fantasy is in her head of, you know of “What would it be like?”
George Faller: So she makes her own coffee. Then she goes into the refrigerator get milk.d Husband finished all the milk, there’s no milk. So she’s like, “All right, I’m just not going to let this stuff rattle me.” Right? So then she goes to put her coffee cup in the sink and as his cup sitting like two feet away from the sink.
Laurie Watson: Which he didn’t put into the dishwasher.
George Faller: Right. Now who’s got to put it into the dishwasher?
Laurie Watson: [inaudible 00:14:36] of course.
George Faller: Right? So you can just feel these constant little things that just keep mounting. She goes into the bathroom, he’s just walking out. He says, “Good morning dear” and walks past her. She goes to jump in the shower, he had used all the hot water, so now she’s in a freezing cold shower. So she’s like sitting in that shower praying, “Please don’t let the negativity get me” She’s …
Laurie Watson: “I’m not going to be critical. I’m really not. I’m committed.”
George Faller: “I’m not going to be critical.” Right, she’s trying so hard. “Today’s my day.”
Laurie Watson: “I’m not going to be critical.”
George Faller: “Today’s my day.” Right? She gets out, she goes to grab a towel. There it is sitting on the floor soaking wet. He had just used it.
Laurie Watson: The last towel.
George Faller: The last towel. Now she has to use a towel and it just … and then he comes back in to brush his teeth and the dam just breaks. And she’s like, “How could you!” She brings up the towel, the coffee, last week’s fight, his mother, the whole laundry list comes out.
Laurie Watson: “You don’t care about me!”
George Faller: “You don’t care about me!” And it’s like… he looks at her like she’s a lunatic …
Laurie Watson: Like she’s lost her ever living mind.
George Faller: … and he walks out and what he has no idea is when he walks out, what is that like for her? She tried every fiber of her being to not be negative and yet the environment set her up for this same story to play itself out again. And when he leaves, now she’s got all of this kind of horrible tapes playing in her own brain.
Laurie Watson: Yeah, I mean it’s complete abandonment. You didn’t even listen to the huge anger that came his way. He’s just like, “She’s hopeless.” Right?
George Faller: Yeah. She is too much.
Laurie Watson: She is too much.
George Faller: Right. “I just got to get away from us.” So we get his moves. But this week we’re really trying to understand the good reasons why she’s in such distress, that when she needs somebody to come closer to help her make sense of this world, they constantly leave her alone. We know what happens. You leave a baby alone that’s flooded and dysregulated and crying. They’re not going to do well.
Laurie Watson: No.
George Faller: Right. But somehow we’ve started to blame pursuers because they’re anxious …
Laurie Watson: Right. They’re going to disintegrate, I mean, babies disintegrate essentially emotionally if they’re left alone. And I think that’s what happens to a pursuer. They disregulate, they get worse. They … it takes days sometimes to get …
George Faller: They do.
Laurie Watson: … regulated again.
George Faller: They do the only adaptive thing they can do, is they channel that anxiety and they try to influence the outcome so people don’t keep sending them to this place. And then they get blamed because they’re anxious. How could they not be anxious? And they start to believe there’s something wrong with them because they’re anxious when they were just set up from this from the get-go. So again, I’m trying to give that message to pursuers that it’s okay to be anxious. That’s a normal byproduct of all these misses. That if we can kind of increase the levels of success with them, then they can be very different people.
Laurie Watson: Right. It’s okay to feel anxious and to feel like you’re going a little crazy when your partner walks off after they’ve used the last towel, the last drop of milk, didn’t make you a cup of coffee. I mean those seem petty, but I think in the world of the pursuer, all of those petty things add up to …
George Faller: Accumulative.
Laurie Watson: Yeah, it’s cumulative. Exactly. Over time … we just saw one little snippet of a morning, but this has been going on for 12 years.
George Faller: Yep.
Laurie Watson: It’s all up to them to do the housekeeping, pick up the dry cleaning, plan the menu, pick up the kids, whatever. There’s lots of things that they’re left in and this tiny little morning is just an example and they feel alone.
George Faller: We look their rejections as those moments when their partner walks away, but what we don’t often understand with a pursuer is how many hundreds of other rejections. Like every time they hope their partner is going to initiate a conversation and they don’t, then eventually the pursuer has to bring it up.
Laurie Watson: Wait wait wait, say it again, George. Just say that again. I love that.
George Faller: I’m always thinking about there’s the pre-fight, there’s the fight and then there’s the post-fight. We keep focusing on the fight and that’s where the pursuer gets rejected. No, they’re rejected throughout the whole process. Before the fight happens, the pursuer’s sitting back saying, “It really be nice if this time my withdrawer initiated the conversation.”
Laurie Watson: Why can’t they just come home one time and say, “Let’s talk about us.” Let’s talk about our relationship.
George Faller: They can learn how to do that.
Laurie Watson: You know my favorite example of yours is when you say “When the partner looks at their phone hoping for a response from their withdrawing partner. Every time they look at their phone, they feel rejected.
George Faller: Right, and then finally when they can take it no more, they have to initiate the repair process to have a conversation and most of the time it’s not good timing for the withdrawer.
Laurie Watson: Bad timing.
George Faller: They want to say, “Maybe we can do this another time when you’re blah, blah, blah.” It’s another rejection which probably leads to a fight and now who’s going to repair that most recent fight?
Laurie Watson: Right. The pursuer.
George Faller: That’s a lot of responsibility.
Laurie Watson: It is.
George Faller: And we know on a physiological level when you have that much responsibility and your body’s going to get stuck on higher levels of anxiety. The baseline for pursuers is they have more anxiety in their nervous system because they’re constantly have this rejection and then they’re blamed because they have too much anxiety. Which is really pretty unfair.
Laurie Watson: Exactly. Exactly. I know my husband’s favorite thing to say to me … is in a fight, “But you’re always anxious.” It’s like I’ve stricken that word from my vocabulary. I never tell him anymore I’m anxious.
George Faller: Well, that’s the stuck place for a pursuer is where would you rather be? Feeling kind of strong trying to fix your pot and they’re trying to motivate change or would you rather go to that more vulnerable place where you’re left alone and you feel like less than and insecure? Right?
Laurie Watson: And needy.
George Faller: It feels so counterintuitive to go to the needy place because then your fears might get confirmed. “Why show these parts of myself? I’ll just keep being strong and trying to change my partner.” But what they don’t recognize that every time they try to change their partner, their partner goes further away. That place inside of them grows. Right? And what pursuers deserve, I mean, the good news, if we know the fear, which is to be rejected, the opposite of that is what? Accepted. It’s to be wanted.
Laurie Watson: Accepted. Yeah. Of course.
George Faller: Right? So it’s, we’re trying to get pursuers to go to these softer places, because they’re pushing is really a plea for help. The withdrawer just doesn’t hear that.
Laurie Watson: Okay, but help me because yes, of course they want to be accepted that they can’t accomplish that on their own. Right? So what do we tell the pursuer? How do we comfort them in this process while they’re growing together and learning how to do this differently with their partner when nothing seems to work?
George Faller: Well, the pursuer needs to come from that view of self place instead of focusing on their partner. I could say to you [crosstalk 00:21:19] I can say to you in an angry way, “Why didn’t you come home tonight?” Which is, as a withdrawer, you’re going to hear as criticism and probably want to disengage.
Laurie Watson: Absolutely.
George Faller: Or I can say to you, “When you don’t come home, I start to go to a place that maybe you don’t want me, that maybe I’m too much for you.” All right?
Laurie Watson: Even as you say that, it like just goes through me like it’s so vulnerable to talk about need and fear and to talk about your anxiety at such a deeper level.
George Faller: Right.
Laurie Watson: But don’t you think in some ways people in the beginning, they’re not regulated? The withdrawer is … it’s going to be hard to hear that, they’re going to still be familiar with the critical, the criticalness of their partner. And they’ll still say something like, “But I’m not enough. No matter what I do. I had to work late, whatever.”
George Faller: Well, the key shift, and you’re right, you want your partner to earn the right for your vulnerability. You don’t want to be reckless with it and just throw it out there if your is going to defend yourself. But the pursuer needs to do this for themselves regardless if their partner can respond or not. They need to make room for these parts of themselves that they’ve been set up to feel this way and they deserve responsiveness there. So even if I stand up to you and you can’t hear it, there’s still a lot of value for me knowing my own deeper truth, that I do have some fear of rejection because that has happened to me too much. I don’t want to be alone and I try to influence my outcome by trying to make sure you don’t go away. I often don’t get the way I do that often does push you away.
George Faller: We’re going to help couples to see this, but right now we really just want to get the world of pursuers that they have good reasons for their pushing and their anxiety and there’s a lot of vulnerability underneath that never gets seen or spoken to. And if they have the courage to go there, that’s the first step. Then we’re going to help the withdrawer or learn how to find their way towards the pursuer. The good news here is, vulnerability pulls our partner. When you love somebody and you see their vulnerability, it’s like a magnet that just pulls you towards them.
Laurie Watson: Absolutely. I think that’s kind of how I found my way in it just personally, was like pretty soon,” it was the vulnerability. It was stopping the criticism, but it was opening up to the vulnerability saying, I love you. I need you. I want you.” Rather than whatever critical words were coming out, “If your not there, how come you … Working late”. All that kind stuff.
George Faller: The heart of the pushing message is really a plea for help. If you can help pursuers get more to their bid for “I need help.” A lot easier it is for the withdrawer to want to get it right and then come forward.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. Thanks for listening. Foreplay Radio Couples and Sex Therapy.
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