Pursuit-Retreat Patterns Will Destroy Your Marriage

It’s the catch-22 of ADHD-impacted relationships (and many non-ADHD marriages, as well!)  For many couples impacted by ADHD, distraction, disengagement and retreat from conflict leave non-ADHD partners feeling ‘stranded’ and lonely.  Their natural response is to pursue their partner for attention…and disaster results.  What do you do?

As a non-ADHD partner I have often felt caught between a rock and a hard place, as the saying goes.  I wanted to engage with my partner in happy, positive ways.  But, particularly before we knew about the ADHD, his normal mode was often distracted and otherwise engaged.  Being someone with a ‘can-do’ attitude (as many non-ADHD partners seem to be!) and not knowing about his ADHD, I just figured that if I ‘reminded’ him of his responsibilities (and that I longed for his attention), I would get his attention.

Instead, he took my reminders as criticism – a demonstration that I didn’t trust him to make good choices, and that I didn’t think he was a good partner.  Over time, of course, as he felt more and more hounded and became more and more resistant to my overtures, he became right.  I didn’t think he was being a good partner to me.  I thought he could be a great partner, but that there was something getting in the way that I simply didn’t understand.  As a result, I was criticizing him, even as I convinced myself that all I was trying to do was get things done.

If you find this downward “pursuit-retreat” spiral in your marriage, you need to seek immediate professional help with someone who can help you speak openly together about the interacting dynamics that are bringing you down.  You need to explore your priorities, your friendship, and your communication style.  A counselor who is familiar with ADHD will be best able to help you – there are some listed in my referrals section.

Expert marriage researcher, John Gottman, notes that the pursuit/retreat pattern (which he calls demand-withdraw) is a good predictor of divorce both early in a relationship and later on.  In addition, he adds a word of warning that is worth sharing here – that dysfunctional interactive conflict resolution patterns such as demand-withdraw have their origins in everyday nonconflict interactions.  He notes that both couples and their therapists make the mistake of assuming that improving the conflict communication patterns will ‘fix’ the problem, but that this is not the case. 

Solving the problem of communication is helpful, but long-term relief from the problem comes from addressing the withdrawal (and the demanding) at their most basic levels, and creating ongoing connections that make both partners happy to engage together.

In other words, it is not enough to “fix” how you speak to each other or simply to be more friendly, though that will help.  Couples must, at a very deep level, become friends again – accepting and appreciative of what each individual contributes to the couple and to life outside the framework of the relationship.  They need to regularly see the positives in each other (at a ratio of about 5 positives to 1 negative, according to Gottman.)  As ‘friends’ they should be eager to share with each other, and know the constantly changing details about each other and their individual lives.

And that, perhaps, is why getting out of pursuit-retreat patterns is so tricky.  It’s too easy to focus on solving the problems of how you communicate…and too easy to forget about re-locating your underlying respect, friendship, and love for each other.  To succeed, you must tackle what’s underneath as well as the most obvious issues.