What happens when a pursuer in a relationship just gets tired and burned out and stops pursuing? Join sex therapist Dr. Laurie Watson and couples therapist George Faller as they talk about dealing with burn out in a relationship.
Laurie Watson: We’re going to talk about the burnt out pursuer who tired of chasing and how do we help them?
Laurie Watson: Welcome to Foreplay Radio, Couples and Sex Therapy. I’m Laurie Watson, your sex therapist.
George Faller: And I’m George Faller, your couples therapist.
Laurie Watson: And we are passionate about talking about sex and helping you develop a way to talk to each other.
George Faller: Our mission is to help our audience develop a healthier relationship to sex that integrates the mind, the heart, and the body.
Laurie Watson: We have another [inaudible 00:00:37], basically a person writing to us, who’s a burnt out pursuer, a female, and she says, “My husband and I, we’ve been together for 19 years, married 16. We married so young that we’re now both nearing 40. Relationship, I’ve always been the one who has been more sexually charged. My husband has always been on the side of sex needs to happen naturally. Over time, we’ve gone from sex two to three times a week to now sexless, basically, the last two years and completely celibate the last seven months. In our relationship, prior, I would say that both of us were equal in our initiation of sex but in the last three years, I’m the instigator 75% of the time. I’ve been feeling hurt and rejected and have talked to him about this about three times over the last 15 months.” Now, that’s not a really bad pursuer, only three times in 15 months.
Laurie Watson: “He always says he’s sorry but he hasn’t had a drive to have sex and he tells me if I want it, I should just tell him to turn off the television.” That’s sexy. “But, as always, my husband is very closed off in communication. It was way better when we were younger but, over time, it’s got to where we don’t even talk about any issues at all. Honestly, I think we’ve just become friends and raised our children. I got so tired of feeling neglected and unwanted that I’ve taken to no longer initiating sex, which is why we have now been celibate for seven months. He tells me he loves me and gives me hello and goodbye kisses but I feel so rejected and in the last [inaudible 00:02:06] my weight gain as an issue but he swears now that that’s not a problem. I asked him about pornography and he even says he has no desire to look at that. Resorted to masturbation and there’s no other sexual release for me.” Basically, she’s saying she’s not having an affair.
Laurie Watson: “Side note, always been [inaudible 00:02:22] to send dirty texts, dress in lingerie. I got no response, basically, again, same. I’ve done everything. I would love to try new things like role play but can’t even get plain old sex on the radar anymore. In my recent withdrawal, I’ve tried to isolate myself and drink wine nightly to go to bed with him. He doesn’t seem to mind as long as he’s always entertained by the television. I’ve contemplated leaving almost every day for the last year. I feel so abandoned but I know I’m abandoning him too. I just don’t know where to go from here.” Painful. So painful.
Laurie Watson: We also had another from somebody after our first couple of podcasts who was a burnt our pursuer who said, “I have talked softly to him, I have approached lovingly. I do try to get beneath his skin in a way that is gentle and soft and loving and it still doesn’t work.” Sometimes we want to help people as best they can because I still often, when they come in, can see ways that they could potentially get through to their partner. I think that’s what I do for a living, right? Is how do you get through? Then there are times when a patient comes in and you may be working with them for a period of time or I listen to them and they have really tried everything and, certainly … Socks. A partner doesn’t pick up their socks, you can hire a housekeeper. If they’re not a good cook, you can takeout. But with sex, if you’re committed to fidelity, a really tough one to do the takeout on.
George Faller: The research is pretty clear on this, when the pursuer starts to give up, that’s a really bad sign for the relationship, right? Yes, I trust pursuers usually working harder, reading more books, trying to do things to get it to work, but you can’t clap with one hand so I certainly believe it’s all of our birthright to have sex, to have somebody connect with us, to be emotionally, physically, spiritually, connected and if you’re not getting that-
Laurie Watson: Especially if that’s the promise, right?
George Faller: Right.
Laurie Watson: Most of us marry and make a promise on to sex. It’s not just … Faithful isn’t just staying away from others, it’s promising our partner that we’re going to be erotic with them, that we’re going to have a sex life with them. Fidelity is a sword that cuts both ways.
George Faller: For me, it’s playing the percentages. What I mean by that is when pursuers start to withdraw because they don’t want to be rejected anymore and they’re sick of fighting and tired and frustrated, then sometimes it feels, in the short term, things improve because there’s less fighting but it’s actually embracing more distance. I’m trying to continue to encourage pursuers to persevere. What they’re fighting for is the right fight. They’re wanting more in their relationship that they’re willing to put in the effort is beautiful but often they just need a voice and some reassurance that says keep going and, yes, it’s helpful if the way they keep going is recognizing how challenged their partner is in engaging, to recognize to take it less personal that they’re trying not to do emotions, not because they don’t want you but because they just don’t like how it feels for them. That kind of takes a little sting out of the attack of the pursuer but I don’t want the pursuer to stop trying, to stop coming forward, because where does that leave us? Nowhere.
Laurie Watson: There’s no energy. When the pursuer backs up … No energy for the system anymore, oftentimes.
George Faller: Exactly.
Laurie Watson: And rather than … I think, the instinct is to say, “You know what? I’m going to give you a taste of your own medicine. I’m going to leave you the way you’ve left me. I’m not going to try anymore and just see how you like it, to be so lonely and left out.”
George Faller: And they’re hoping that motivates the person to try again.
Laurie Watson: And sometimes when there’s been a lot of pressure, space does open up, partner does respond, but sometimes it provides relief and the withdrawing partner goes, “Phew, off my back.” I see that, especially with sexuality. When the sexually pursuing person gives it up and says “Okay, I’m never going to ask.” Partner doesn’t automatically come forward and say, “Oh, now I’m really in touch with my desire now that I’ve had a chance to get in touch with my desire.” They say that, the sexually withdrawing person always says to me, “Well, I can’t initiate because I don’t get a chance.” But then when there’s a three week, initiate? No. “I got busy, the kids were sick,” this, that and the other. I can always count six times that they could’ve had sex and they didn’t.
George Faller: The pursuer’s keeping score, that’s for sure. For me, the recipe is the same for both partners. I always want to keep this simple, right? We talked about this in another podcast. If there’s a problem, we want to listen to the signals and we need our partner to be able to respond to those signals. If you don’t want to have sex because you have this pressure, you’re afraid of failing, we want you to be able to express that so you could have some success. Same with the pursuer, they need to talk about their frustration and their fear of when they keep trying and they keep feeling rejected, right? They need their partner’s response of this. They need to be told from the therapist to understand themselves that what they’re doing is natural and healthy and it sucks when a person won’t meet you there. What can be more rejecting that wanting to be … That’s just the first wave when you want to connect and your partner doesn’t want to connect. Now, here comes all that is second wave of shame and what’s wrong with me? Am I attractive? Did I say it right? Was it the right time? The tapes that play in a pursuer’s head is pretty horrific and they don’t get help.
Laurie Watson: And it’s like she’s trying to make sense of this. In this letter to us, she’s saying, “Well, could it be my weight? He says it wasn’t.” But it sounds like she’s had a history of sexual with [inaudible 00:08:37] for a long time. Maybe weight is secondary. But how can we help her say it, talk about her defeat, without necessarily-
George Faller: It’s so important. Because we can’t talk about this with our friends, we can’t talk about this with family, we have nowhere to go with this. She can hear us saying she’s doing everything right. She’s trying to get closer to her husband, that’s where it’s supposed to be in a marriage, that what she wants is more. It’s so healthy.
Laurie Watson: And sex is so important, she should want sex. So glad she still wants sex after 15 years of rejection. This woman’s in it for the-
George Faller: How nice would for her to hear that from you? That’s so nice that she hasn’t given up, she’s still fighting for the relationship. We don’t want pursuers to hear the message that they’re too much. Yes, we want to soften how they fight but we never want them to stop coming because that is the energy we need to make a relationship thrive. Again, we’re trying to get curious about what’s stopping her partner from engaging. We talked on a earlier podcast, the brain, the heart, the body, how engaged [inaudible 00:09:44] in those three different areas. If he’s refusing to answer questions or to read books or to engage in a process, then where does that leave her? She needs to hear that she has a right to stand up and say, “That’s not okay. That’s not acceptable.”
Laurie Watson: Yeah, absolutely. When I hear this particular scenario, not necessarily generically, but, okay, he’s also not looking at porn. Either he’s lying and is diverting his sexual energy, which I hear a lot too, or doesn’t have any kind of sense of desire inside in which case, in his body, his body is shut down. Absolutely put my foot down and say, “You’re going to the urologist. We got to find out if your testosterone is adequate.” When he’s this age, 15 years into a marriage, something wrong if he’s truly not engaging sexually anywhere.
George Faller: And I would encourage you to say it in a way that was less in that angry tone and more in the vulnerable tone that says, “Because I can’t get you to engage, I start to go to some really scary painful places in myself where I start to feel not attractive, not lovable, that I don’t like myself. I start to hear all messages from when I was younger.” Her partner probably doesn’t know any of that’s going on, right? It’s that doorway into vulnerability that this pursuer’s still trying to say, “Hey, listen, this ghost is coming for me when you don’t want to have sex with me, when you won’t touch me, and if you’re not willing to fight this ghost with me, all of these fears and pain, then where am I at?”
Laurie Watson: And so, what if … And this is the burnt our pursuer, what if she’s done that? Come back and talk about what point to putting her heart out so many times, at what point does she [inaudible 00:11:34] her heart to herself?
Announcer: Speaking with certified sex therapist, Laurie Watson, from Awakening Center for Couples and Intimacy. Laurie, what is an intensive?
Laurie Watson: 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. There’s just so much more you can get done when you have a chunk of time.
Announcer: Overcome the challenges in your relationship and your sex life. Learn more about Intensives and Awakening Center’s other services at awakenloveandsex.com.
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 georgefaller.com.
Laurie Watson: I know you said … Say it such an angry way and true but have you ever tried to get a man to go to a doctor, George?
George Faller: Hey, listen. I appreciate you just trying to reframe it because sometimes we just say things and the ideal … I’m always shooting for a target. We have the best chance at success when we say it in a way that’s softer and it’s about me instead of about my partner. But it’s pretty human when you’ve tried 10 times and you’ve been rejected to get a little frustrated and want to shake your partner. I’m not telling pursuers they’re wrong if they do that, I’m just saying it’s going to be less likely that that’s going to be successful.
Laurie Watson: True. Okay. It’s the tenth time that you’ve said, “Hon, what’s going on? You don’t have morning erections anymore, I’ve noticed, and Laurie says that that’s a big sign of lack of testosterone and a little depressed and maybe you’ll feel better and I want you to feel better and I want us to be connected sexually and I want you to want me.” And she’s been through all that. Okay, this is session 10. Now what is she going to do?
George Faller: Vulnerability demands … Your partner has to earn the right to your vulnerability. We earn the right by responding.
Laurie Watson: This is your other book you need to write. I want us to note this because I think this is a really important point but you have to write a book about it. Okay, keep going.
George Faller: If your partner doesn’t respond to your vulnerability, then that earns mistrust. I’m not going to pour my heart out 10 times in a row just to be rejected each time. Your partner’s going to have a few … And each time your partner doesn’t respond to your vulnerability, that’s what’s going to create more and more of that distance. If you’ve reached the point where your partner has rejected your vulnerability, then you have to stand up for yourself and say, “Listen, this is not acceptable. We can’t have a viable relationship if you don’t want to engage me.” And some people, I think that’s going to lead us into why 20% of couples are considered sexless, that there’s a lot of complications, right? There’s extended family, there’s kids, there’s community, there’s careers, there’s money, there’s so many things that people might decide to stay in a unit even though they’re not being physical. I’d still want to make that more explicit because, wow, to have a life of little touch and emotional connection and safety and that spiritual connection, that intimacy. Just because somebody’s not willing to face their own pain and fear, that’s not okay.
Laurie Watson: That’s not okay.
George Faller: It’s not.
Laurie Watson: It’s too painful. Babies die when they’re not touched. It is what partnership is about is the physical as well as the emotional. It has to be … Yes, it’s fantastic that we raised children together and partner but it has to be something special and unique between us if that’s what we’ve pledged. And that’s who we’re speaking to.
George Faller: And it’s unfair if we’re in a relationship with each other, and I’m willing to respond to your vulnerability, and show up for you and your pain, but when I show you my pain, you won’t show up for me, how is that okay?
Laurie Watson: It is not okay.
George Faller: It’s not so they all these pursuers need to hear that, that’s not okay, that doesn’t make you a bitch or a jerk because you’re dissatisfied with that. Your body’s going to communicate saying, “Wait, this is not where you’re supposed to be. You’re not supposed to live in this place.” You can’t repair, which means your nervous system is getting stuck in distress and isolation, which is not a healthy place to live.
Laurie Watson: Exactly. It’s shut down so are we saying that they have to give an ultimatum and say, “I need out of this.”
George Faller: Yeah, I think that’s everyone’s personal choice. I think I work pretty hard to keep marriages and relationships together but I don’t ethically believe encouraging someone to stay even though their needs won’t be met. If that’s a choice they want to make for themselves, they can make that and I think then they’ll turn towards friends, towards church, towards different places to get some of those needs met and, for some people, if they choose that’s the life they want to leave, but I’d still think-
Laurie Watson: Certainly people make those decisions. They decide to forego sexual connection for the sake of the partnership, for their children, is the one I hear most frequently.
George Faller: I don’t think that’s weakness, I think that’s strength to be able to say, “I’m willing to lose parts of me just to keep everything else afloat.” But it’s tragic because it’s a loss. There should be some mourning of that and I haven’t had that happen too often. I think most of the time, if you have a message, if you love your partner and you see their pain, it should prime that pump to get you to respond to your partner. If it doesn’t, that’s a bad sign. Sometimes people’s hearts numb out, they’re not willing to do it and then I think that you have-
Laurie Watson: Or they’re not capable. Oftentimes, they’re too damaged, their own childhood too repressive, too shut down. They’re the things I think that I’ve seen is the most familiar with a person who’s shut down sexually is that when they were little, they didn’t get enough touch and all little children need a ton of touch. And so, at some point, as a little child, they decide, “I’m just not going to need touch. I’m not going to need that because it’s so painful to me, for my body, literally, as a child, to ache to be touched that it hurts me. It is literal pain to not get that.” And so, they take that vow as a child and maybe they go through periods of time in adulthood, hormones are high, they have sexual encounters and they experience that but then in attachment, in later marriage and partnership, it’s like all that fear of needing comes up again and they just, “I can’t do it.”
Laurie Watson: And so they shut it down and I think if your partner is that damaged, seem would be they’re married to a person who sexually pursues them and is offering them all this touch, wanting them, craving it, supplying all that energy sexually for the marriage, then if they can’t partake of that and the person wants it to be sexual and wants to be within their own ethics of I made this commitment, if they’ve made the vow, and they believe that, then I think they do have to confront their partner, “This is not a marriage. You committed to a sexual partnership as well as a life partnership.” Essentially, in my mind, the partner is breaking the vow of fidelity. The sexually withdrawn partner has broken the vow of fidelity.
George Faller: And they might have really good reasons. There might be trauma or there might be … I remember I was training therapists and we were doing a live session with a navy seal who started the session off by telling me, “Some people say they don’t do emotions. I just want to just let you know I don’t have any emotions.” Again, this was going to be somebody difficult to connect with vulnerability. When you understand the family of origin, he was in foster care and never saw secure attachment and never had people and that really worked well for being able to turn off feelings and what he did professionally but his marriage was a disaster. There were affairs, addictions, you name it. Because he didn’t know how to do this, [inaudible 00:20:47].
Laurie Watson: He’d never gotten it. He’d never been cared for, really.
George Faller: Right. I was trying to get some emotion, trying to get nothing, nothing, block, wall, stop, nothing. Then, eventually, I said, “Oh, but you have a daughter. Tell me about your daughter.” And something shifts in this man and he says, “Oh, Mary. She’s six years old. She’s the most beautiful thing in the world. At night, I sit down on the bed next to her and I read her a story about knights and dragons and I’m her knight and I’ll protect her from anything. And I read her this book and I rub her hair and I give her a kiss on her head and she falls asleep.” How the heck does this man know how to do this for her? Nobody’s ever done it for him. Again, that’s the hopeful message that it’s hard to do this stuff-
Laurie Watson: But we’re resilient as humans, there is a part that wants connection.
George Faller: It’s even harder not to.
Laurie Watson: Oh, that’s beautiful.
George Faller: Yes, it’s this longing that we’re just trying to tap into. I get how frustrating it is for pursuers when they can’t tap into it. That is our birthright to tap into somebody else that wants to engage with us at that level and you can be empathetic and you can be supportive but eventually, you keep leading this person to the water and they’re not drinking, you have to be able to stand up and say, “Hey, listen, what’s stopping you? We’re not having a life we’re meant to be because you won’t face these fears. I know it’s difficult, I know it’s hard, but I’m here to help you with it but I need you to fight for us.” And their partner needs to step up for them.
Laurie Watson: Yeah, they do and if they don’t, it means that the partnership is over and I don’t like that answer. I know our people don’t like that answer because they love these partners.
George Faller: Right. I guess I’m more hopeful. I think there’s a way. That person that’s not engaging, they’re hot, they want it different too, they just don’t know how to do it. Their fears have just kind of made the world a very small and narrow place and they just look towards TV or little outlets to feel some sense of engagement.
Laurie Watson: And I agree with you, as a therapist, I do. I’ve yet to see a couple ever, that I didn’t see the path. I’ve always seen the path, I’ve always seen what was possible, even for the most shut down person, how if they could just do a little bit of vulnerability, how it would open them up and heal them, heal these deep places. But my heart does go out to this woman who’s saying, “I’ve been waiting 15 years for this to happen.” And she’s not … If she’s only talked to him three times in 15 months, she’s not beating him over the head with it.
George Faller: If a couple is stuck in a negative cycle where the pursuer’s critical and angry all day and the withdrawer’s just shutting down all day, both of them are losing. If a pursuer wasn’t willing to go softer and was continued to feel righteous in their anger and their contempt and their criticism, I would tell the withdrawer, “You need to stand up and say that’s not okay.” Why should it be any different to a pursuer? If they can’t get their withdrawer to re engage, they need to stand up and say, “That’s not okay.”
Laurie Watson: That’s right.
George Faller: You can’t change a negative cycle without both people. The thousands of couples I work with, I never met one of them where they didn’t both do it together.
Laurie Watson: And maybe that’s what we say to this woman. First step would be to seek out a therapist, somebody who understands attachment … They’ve thinking about relationship, that there’s a push and a pull, is maybe the leverage of the therapist, the third party who can help your partner maybe see it in a new way. That might be helpful instead of just giving up, get help.
George Faller: Right. And what I want to say is, I’m sorry your partner’s not in a place to see what you’re trying to do but what you’re trying to do is beautiful.
Laurie Watson: And I’m sorry that you haven’t been seen all these years for your effort to love your partner and form something that is deep, sexual, intimate, emotionally connected.
George Faller: Right.
Laurie Watson: We feel for you. Thanks for listening to Foreplay Radio.
Laurie Watson: And Foreplay family, I want you to know, we had our highest download day ever, thanks to you. Our downloads are just increasing by leaps and bounds. We are so grateful for your sharing. Thank you again. Definitely subscribe, that helps our rankings in iTunes, which is important for us.
Announcer: Call in your questions to the Foreplay Question Voicemail. Dial 833 MY4PLAY. That’s 833 4PLAY and we’ll use the questions for our mailbag episodes. All content is for entertainment purposes only and should not be considered as a substitute for therapy by a licensed clinician or as medical advice from a doctor.