The Strident Male Pursuer

Oh, the Strident Male Pursuer. They are the toughest of the tough for me. The hardest client for me to get traction with. They are my Everest. They are what keep my thoughts running through every move imaginable at 9pm at night. I am sure there are lovely, gentle, flexible male pursuer therapists who might be reading this, and to you I say – you are the rare unicorns and this probably doesn’t apply to you.  

I’ve started noticing a pattern with my male pursuer clients, and I wanted to write about them in case you also see clients like this and have some insights I don’t.

The Components of a Strident Male Pursuer:

1.     They are pretty verbal. They enjoy talking and will come in saying things like, “I’m not the typical guy, I am more of the talker in the relationship.”

2.     They TALK about vulnerability pretty well. They might come in and say, “this makes me feel insecure,” or “this makes me really anxious,” much more so than I usually see with male clients. This often gives me hope at the beginning, and I think we will get somewhere. But then I realize …

3.     They talk about vulnerability, but they don’t experience their vulnerability. It’s like I’m talking with the Mayor of Vulnerability Town but they never actually live there. They talk about vulnerable emotions like insecurity and anxiety, but from a more intellectual place, not from an emotional place. And no matter what I do to try and drop them down into feeling the emotions they are talking about, I fail. I try body sensation, I try felt sense, I try conjecture, I try sharing my own feelings, I try disquisition (telling them a story about a made up client similar to them). By the end of 6 months, I am exhausted in a perpetual failing effort to get them to connect to their feelings.

4.     This is not because they are bad in some way, they think they ARE connecting to their feelings and think they ARE self-aware.  They have been the most emotionally in-tune and self-aware member of their family and friend group forever. Most come from trauma, and people have given them a lot of praise for being a more emotionally in-tune male and being where they are now. And it’s true, they absolutely are light years ahead of where most of them come from and what their fathers were like. Yet they are unaware of how incredibly protected and defended they are.

5.     They have usually pursued some kind of therapy or self-help before coming in, and this has given them a lot of language about emotions and adds to their belief that they are the more evolved partner. Whether it’s through AA, reading books, or participating in some kind of group, they are proud of their ability to verbalize their emotional selves and proud of their self-awareness.

6.     They are RIGHT. Seeing how different they are from their fathers and male friends, pursuing their own personal growth, being naturally intelligent, and knowing the “best” way to interact with each other or with their children, makes them the arbiter of all right ways to be in the house with others. Their withdrawer partner therefore feels wrong all the time. And exhausted of feeling parented by their partner.


With all of these, you could argue that regardless of gender these are Pursuer qualities. But there is something I have come across over and over with strident Male Pursuers that I don’t see with other pursuers, and that is the rigidity of their minds and relentless fixation on their partner’s behavior.

MP: “I tell her this makes me anxious and insecure, and she doesn’t change anything!”

We unpack the cycle, and realize that when he feels anxious and insecure, he tells her he’s feeling that in a lecturing, angry way, not in a vulnerable way. He doesn’t understand this, doesn’t see the difference. He knows his frustration is way different than the anger he saw in males in his life, so this doesn’t look bad to him. He's telling her how he feels, why doesn't this seem to matter to her?

I validate, and this only makes it worse. I say, “Of course you feel anxious and insecure when you see her texting her male friend, and wonder, ‘is she really mine?,’ and then you want to share that with her, but maybe it comes out a little harsh, or demanding? You start telling her how to do it better?” They seem to feel validated that it’s ok to be sharing with their partner because the magic words “anxious” and “insecure” justify their behavior. It increases their sense of rightness, but does not soften them.

No matter what I do, I can’t seem to get them to take in the perspective that they are actually pushing their partner away with their action tendency. They continue to be profoundly anchored to their partner’s behavior as the way in which they need to be soothed. “If she changed this, I would feel better.” I can help their Withdrawn partner share the impact of this on them, and do all sorts of amazing emotional reassurances, but it makes no difference, the Male Pursuer only wants to see that behavior change. Until that happens, they won’t feel safe.

After about 6 months of this, of seeing their Withdrawer partner increasingly go into their vulnerability, increasingly show up, increasingly reassure, but not seeing it affect the Male Pursuer at all, I have an individual session with the Male Pursuer.

This is what I say:

“Look, what you are is a miracle. Compared to where you came from, how you interact with your partner and others is miraculous. And this sucks, because here I come in, and I’m telling you, it is not enough. It is not enough to create the emotional safety and security you are so desperately longing for. For months, I have seen your partner try to reassure, and want to come close to you. But your mind seems to be locked into there being only two solutions: 1) my partner needs to change their behavior for me to feel safe, or 2) I have to swallow this pain and somehow get over it, which I know I can’t.

 I am offering a third solution, and I know it’s a radical thought shift. This radical third option is, can I vulnerably reach for my partner, and have her emotionally reassure me, and feel better? I know I am asking you to consider something totally different to the options your mind is giving you, and it’s difficult to hear. What do you think of us working on this third path?”


I am not writing this because I think this is the best option.  I’m telling you what I do, but I have no idea if it’s the best way. I get supervision constantly with these clients, and other than the advice to validate more, I haven’t heard any other tactics.

In trying to think through why this is the case, that for some reason I cannot crack through the strident Male Pursuer, versus the strident Female Pursuer, I have two theories. One is, that I am the first person who is telling them that their vulnerability is not actually vulnerable. I am trying to wedge in some feedback about something they feel really proud about, which may make it hard to take in. I don't see women have the same sense of pride in their ability to be verbal about their emotions, because it's seen as something they're supposed to do.

My second theory is based on Gottman’s research (1999) that shows that even in unhappy relationships, women still accept influence from their husbands far more than men accept influence from their wives (check out Gottman’s 12 Year Study on data for same-sex relationships). There might be something to women being more conditioned to accept influence from others that makes it easier to accept influence from me.

There is also the very real possibility that I am doing something different with these clients, or not doing something enough. I am very open to your influence, so please, share in the comments below if you have been able to work with the strident Male Pursuer successfully!

Gottman, J., Gottman, J.S. (2014) Level 1 Clinical Training, Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Seattle, WA: The Gottman Institute




Working With Rigid Pursuers

Oh, Pursuers! I could spend every single supervision session on how to work with Pursuers. They are such a challenge for me, even though I am one. There is something about us kids that become perfectionistic and responsible, who learn how to stay safe by being really good at things, and who rarely mess up in life, that makes us so convicted that we’re justified in our behaviors. We’re great at many things but we are not so great at seeing how we contribute to the cycle. And when Pursuers comes from childhood trauma, and didn't get their needs met, I think it can create more rigidity in their cycle. I've had some more rigid pursuers lately, and they are the toughest of the tough for me. 

I try to remind myself, sometimes hourly, that Pursuers don’t really soften until Stage 2. But we have to help them soften a little, and do Step 2 in Stage 1 successfully, and that requires a little movement and self-awareness from them. And since I haven’t done much Stage 2 work, I really don’t have the lived experience of them softening to help me trust the process. They do eventually soften, right?

Here’s my current process with rigid Pursuers:

  • REALLY REALLY validating the secondary emotion – “That would be so difficult to feel like you don’t think she cares that you’re hurting,” “It would be so confusing and frustrating to feel like no matter how many times you talk, you don’t think she really understands you.”
  • Gently looking at Step 2 and seeing their action tendency. “What do you do next?” (this is where they might start the jack hammer interrogation of their partner who is slowly being nailed into the floor, but in EFT language, we might phrase this as “repeatedly ask questions?” or “explain what you need over and over?”)
  • Slowly, slowly touch the primary emotion, and link it back to the cycle. “Ohh, so deep down, inside, you’re feeling this panic in this moment that she might leave you, but on the outside you express this intense frustration, and then that’s when you start asking questions over and over?”
  • Help them hear from the Withdrawer what it’s like for them when they do the repeated questions or stern demands.

What I see is that the Pursuer can do all these steps, but like a rubber band comes quickly back to his/her stance. They can fixate on their partner’s behavior, and so come back to, “yeah, that’s how it happens, and so she/he needs to change this x.y.z behavior because I feel bad about it!” And they don’t seem to see their action step as problematic, simply as justified, based on their partner’s actions. I would expect this in the first 5 or 6 sessions, but after 6 months it’s really tough to see some not connect with their action step as being part of what negatively fuels the cycle. This is where I put my head in my hands and start sinking into some despair. And think I am the woooooorrrst therapist ever. Surely everyone else is easily melting their rigid Pursuers into puddles of warmth like a blow dryer on an icicle. 

If the Pursuer doesn’t ever own that their action tendency is problematic, can we really do a fruitful Step 3, or does it just make it seem like I’m validating their action tendency? If a Pursuer doesn’t see their action step as negatively contributing to the cycle, then I’m afraid they won’t experience the impact of Step 3.

What I might say summarizing the cycle after Step 3:

“Oh, so am I getting all this right? You get panicky in that moment that you might lose your partner, and that’s when you come in and repeatedly ask questions. That makes so much sense, it's really anxiety provoking in that moment to not be able to reach them. And when you do that, it’s so tough for your partner, they feel so overwhelmed, they start to shut down. So this is the cycle, then, the more you ask questions, and ramp up, the more she gets overwhelmed, and shuts down?”

What I’m afraid they might hear if they haven't really done Step 2:

“It’s totally ok that you’re repeatedly asking questions because you’re feeling panicky and frustrated. Your partner should get that and not shut down on you. They should change all their behaviors so you feel comfortable.”

Here my mind goes down two paths, and I’m trying hard to stay on the optimistic, patient path.

Stuck Path

I see the rigid Pursuer as have a neon sign flashing over and over in his/her mind that says, “I’m Right!” and that nothing I say or do, or their partner says, will soften them into seeing that while their feelings are understandable, their action tendency is unhelpful to their cycle. I want to give up, and go home and drink a big glass of wine. I fantasize about becoming an executive assistant to someone appreciative.  

Optimistic Path Forward

I feel like the piece I’m missing is to come in and process the rubber band moment. The moment when they say, “I hear what she’s saying, that I can get overwhelming for her, BUT I’m hurting and I’m needing and she is at fault.” Right now, I reflect their dual feelings (I hear her, but I still need x.y.z). I feel like this is not getting us anywhere, it seems to lose the thread of what we’re doing in the room and all the attention gets sucked back into the Pursuer.

I think it might be fruitful to instead try reflecting the pull away from partner’s vulnerable need. This might sound like:

“Can we slow down for a minute? You briefly acknowledged your partner’s experience, but then quickly moved to your experience. Can we go back? What is it like to hear your partner’s experience of your repeated questions in this cycle?”

And hold them to that space of hearing their partner’s experience. And then ask them, “What is it like to hear that in this cycle, that’s how your partner can feel at times?” 

My goal would not be to guilt or shame them, but I'm worried I sound like that. My goal would be to hold them more firmly to the process in the room so the Withdrawer’s feelings and experience don’t continue to get lost in the wind.

What have you guys found, other than validating the secondary emotions, that help the tougher Pursuers own their action tendencies? What helps you trust in the process that they will eventually soften?

The Escalated Pursuer in Stage 1

Netflix, via Pinterest

Netflix, via Pinterest

Oh man, I have been working with some very frustrated pursuers in the last few weeks. I’ve been seeing the Withdrawers open up, start connecting to their feelings, and give the Pursuers exactly what they have been asking for. Then as soon as the Withdrawer shares, the Pursuer, who understandably can’t take this change in quite yet, bulldozes the Withdrawer.

I watched Rebecca Jorgensen and Sue Johnson's Trainer Talk on "Strident Pursuers" and it was such a helpful reminder of how to work with amped up Pursuers. First Sue reminded us that when the Pursuer is minimizing and batting away this vulnerable piece the Withdrawer has given them, they are feeling threatened.  She counsels us to slow down at that moment, and reflect what just happened. Sue reminds us that our job is to describe what is happening instead of blaming them for what is happening. Um, guiltyyyyyy. I’ve been getting too controlling with my Pursuers this week and this one hit close to home.

Sue says she’ll repeat a version of this about five times, making it much harder for the Pursuer to dismiss what the Withdrawer said. I’m imagining something like:


“It’s so difficult to take this in, when (repeat cue)?”

“When you hear your partner say (repeat cue), something happens for you?”

“So your partner just opened up, he just said I do feel hurt when you do this, and then you (repeat Pursuer response)?”

“It’s such a big risk for him to say that to you, but for you, am I understanding this right? Somehow it doesn’t quite click into place inside, it doesn’t tell you what you’re needing to hear?”


And the ultimate evoking:


“When he comes and puts his heart in your hands, it’s so hard to take that in? What happens in this moment?”


Sue reminds us that in The Strange Situation, with insecure attachment the child does refuse the comforting from the mother. So we see that play out in the room. The Withdrawer starts offering comfort, what the Pursuer has wanted all along, and the Pursuer isn’t feeling securely attached enough to take it in. The Withdrawer is a stranger to them in this moment – this isn’t the person they know! They might even feel angry- where was this all these years they’ve been making do on very little emotional connection, thinking it was all their partner has been capable of? It helps me remember that what I’m seeing play out is normal and expected with insecure attachment.  

In this trainer talk Sue also gave me a good kick in the pants, because she and Rebecca were talking about how the therapist can start to get fatigued after validating the frustrated Pursuer five times in a row, and still seeing the Pursuer fire a bullet at the opening up Withdrawer. Sue reminded us that our job is “relentless empathy”, and no matter how many times they need it, our job is to go in with that really intentional validation and slowness. I tried it last night and I could definitely feel a shift with calming down my Pursuer better than in my previous sessions this week when I was getting stern with my Pursuers.

Man, that is a muscle to build, isn’t it? I thought I was empathetic but working with strident pursuers is helping me realizing that that muscle needs to get even stronger in the room.


* The above picture is from Parks and Recreation, and one of my all time favorite Pursuers – Leslie Knope. 

When The Pursuer Thinks They Are Clearly Communicating Their Needs

Something I’ve been trying to stay aware of is that the Pursuer does believe they have been clearly communicating their needs, even though their message does not seem to be connecting with the Withdrawer.


“I’ve told her this a thousand times, I just need more help around the house.”

“I’ve told him for years I just want to be held when I’m crying.”


 And it can get confusing for me, the pursuer therapist, because in my head I’m thinking, “Yeah … you have told him/her, that is what you need in that moment. You need him to do the dishes or give you a hug!” And then I go into wanting to find out what is blocking the Withdrawer from giving the Pursuer what he/she needs instead of trying to go deeper and clarify and distilling what is happening for the Pursuer.

I often think of Pursuers as The Little Red Hen – did you all have that story when you were younger? The Mom Hen asks for help with various chores in making bread, and no one will help her, and she ends each denied request with, “Then I’ll do it myself.” At the very end, when the bread is made, everyone wants to eat it with her and she denies them, and explains since she made it all herself she’s not going to share the bread with them.

I see the Pursuer (and definitely myself as a Pursuer) this way. They make a request for an action, it’s met by refusal or non-response, they say to themselves, “I have to do this (emotional soothing, chore, etc.) by myself.” They might make meaning of this by saying, “he/she doesn’t care or he/she might care but isn’t capable.” Then they stuff in their feelings or blow up their feelings. Later, when their partner reaches to them for some connection (sexual, fun, emotional) they find an icy, condescending statue. “Are you serious that you think I’m going to be fun for you when I’ve been doing xyz all by myself all day? You don’t care about my needs, I’m not going to care about your needs.”

I was reminded in Core Skills that Pursuers often hide their needs while complaining about not getting their needs met. I still struggle with discerning what “the need” actually is. I hear the surface need – I need help with the dishes, I need a hug – as the actual need. Because they do need help with the dishes and need a hug. So I think this is where I could slow down and ask the Pursuer, “how do you make that request?” and, “what are you feeling the split second before you make that request?” And really try to distill, what/how are they communicating in that moment, and how is that hitting their partner? What is happening in the cycle that is preventing a clear communication of need and response?

I’m wondering if in the moment the Pursuer is actually not communicating the need, not reaching, but instead saying to themselves, “he/she should I know need this right now when I am banging the dishes or hunched over crying.” And then quickly moving into frustration when the Withdrawer is not responding. All of this helps me realize that I need to go slower still with my couples, and really try to understand – what is happening in this moment, and what is happening in the cycle at this moment?

If you have any insights into the reasons the Pursuer's need is not being communicated clearly, please share below!