The Push-Pull Relationship Cycle And How To Escape This Dynamic

A little bit of push and pull is common in a relationship.

But it can define the entire relationship dynamic if it’s allowed to get out of control.

The psychology of a push-pull relationship is interesting. Both parties are seemingly unaware of their own behaviors that drive the cycle.

They continue to bounce back and forth between short periods of apparent peace, love, and harmony, and longer periods of discontent and friction.

This article will explore this dynamic and provide some advice on how to reduce the negative impact it has on current and future relationships.

Who Is Involved In A Push-Pull Relationship?

For the cycle to last, two types of people need to become partners.

If only one of these types is present, and the second person in the relationship has a healthier attachment style, things tend not to last long.

But when both of the following people come together, push-pull syndrome becomes a problem.

Person A

– Has a conscious fear of intimacy and an unconscious fear of abandonment.

– Has low self-esteem and so pursues romantic interests in order to feel worthy and lovable.

– Dislikes feeling suffocated by a relationship.

Person B

– Has a conscious fear of abandonment and an unconscious fear of intimacy.

– Has low self-esteem and so likes to be pursued in order to feel wanted and loved.

– Dislikes feeling insecure about a relationship.

How Does The Push-Pull Cycle Go?

The entire dynamic can be present from the very beginning of a relationship, although the cycles may start out taking a long time before growing shorter.

Stage 1 – The Pursuit

At first, person A’s low self-esteem will override their fear of intimacy and lead them to identify and pursue someone they are attracted to.

They may put on the charm, provide lots of attention, and buy lavish gifts.

Person B may initially play hard to get because their fear of abandonment means they are often reluctant to enter a relationship and make themselves vulnerable.

But their low self-esteem means they are eventually won over by the attention of person A. That attention makes them feel good about themselves.

Stage 2 – Bliss

For a while, the relationship seems to go well. Both person A and person B enjoy the excitement.

They spend increasing amounts of time together. They may become physically intimate.

The enjoyment they share is fairly superficial with few, if any, deep conversations.

Stage 3 – Withdrawal

After a while, person A will begin to feel overwhelmed by the relationship. They fear the intimacy that has begun to build.

They will want to escape it – or reduce the intensity, at least.

So they might become distant. They close themselves off physically and emotionally.

Stage 4 – Repelling

Have you ever taken two magnets and pointed the ends of the same polarity at each other?

One repels the other. It pushes it away.

This is a good analogy of what happens in this stage.

Person B, driven by their fear of abandonment, will now become the pursuer.

They will seek out the company and attention of person A.

But person A has the opposite wish – they just want to be by themselves.

So person A will feel more smothered and try to withdraw further.

This is just like one magnet repelling the other as it tries to get too close.

To person A, person B might come across as needy. They might feel criticized or nagged.

Stage 5 – Distancing

Eventually, person B will stop pursuing person A.

They do this to protect themselves. They consciously fear abandonment, but in the event that the relationship were to end, they want to minimize the hurt they feel.

Stage 6 – Reconciliation

At this point, person A gets the space they seek. The intimacy in the relationship has severely reduced.

It is now that person A’s unconscious fear of abandonment makes them look favorably at the relationship again. They see it as a better choice than being single.

Person A begins to pursue person B again. They may extend an olive branch of peace, shower person B with gifts and apologies, or do other things to win them round.

Person B, whilst initially reluctant, still wants to feel loved and wanted and so they begin to let person A back in.

They certainly see a breakup as a far less desirable option.

Stage 7 – Harmony

The relationship returns to a period of relative peace and happiness.

Person A is satisfied that the relationship didn’t get too deep or serious.

Person B is satisfied that the relationship didn’t end full stop.

As you might notice, stages 1 and 2 are very similar to stages 6 and 7. Essentially, they are the same, but stages 1 and 2 relate to a new relationship.

Once the cycle has completed the first time, stages 6 and 7 replace stages 1 and 2 so that the whole thing goes like this:

Stage 6 -> Stage 7 -> Stage 3 -> Stage 4 -> Stage 5 -> Stage 6 -> and so on.

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Why The Cycle Continues

This sort of relationship dynamic offers each person what they want in a roundabout way.

Neither person wants things to get too intimate, and yet neither wants the relationship to end.

The cycle prevents the formation of true, meaningful intimacy, but it also allows the relationship to continue.

Both parties push and pull in their own way and some couples can continue like this for years.

Some might even go their entire lives with this hot and cold strategy playing out.

Why The Cycle Might End

In many cases, a push-pull relationship will come to a natural conclusion when one person finds a way to ignore their fear of abandonment and walk away.

As much as they might not want to be alone, they eventually come to realize that the nature of the relationship is neither healthy nor good for them.

How To Break Free From The Push-Pull Dynamic

Whether you wish to get out of this cycle in your current relationship, or you want to avoid getting into the same dynamic in a future relationship, here are some things you can do.

1. Be more understanding of your partner.

If you’ve read all of the above carefully, you should now know more about your partner than you did before.

Whether you identify as person A or person B, you can hopefully see the reasons – at least at a superficial level – why your partner behaves the way they do.

Understanding is crucial for empathy. And empathy is crucial in changing the way you act and react.

In both of your cases, you fear intimacy and abandonment. Knowing how this feels, you should be able to empathize with the way these fears can consume your mind and influence how you behave.

2. Be more like your partner.

When you enter stage 3 of the push-pull cycle, ask yourself if you might reign in your natural instincts just a little and be more like your partner.

If you are person A, this means learning to maintain a little of the interaction and communication you had, rather than withdrawing and being completely emotionally unavailable.

Perhaps you could tell person B that you are feeling a little bit overwhelmed and that you need some time to yourself.

Reassure them that it is nothing specific that they have done, but that this is your coping mechanism for dealing with your feelings.

If you are person B, this means respecting person A’s personal space, giving them time to themselves, and trying not to force a resolution to the problem.

Perhaps you could learn to make use of this period in which you may not see them as often to do the things you love but find difficult to fit in when fully engaged in the relationship.

Try not to see this time as a sign your relationship is doomed, but rather as a necessary way to keep things as healthy as possible.

3. Become a team.

Always remember this: you are not the problem, they are not the problem… the dynamic of your relationship is the problem.

Don’t try to change them or their behavior. That has to come from them.

Similarly, change in yourself has to come from you.

Motivation to identify and change certain thoughts or behaviors can come from agreeing to work as a team to improve the situation.

There is no blame game in this approach. Neither person should feel like the success of the relationship lay on their shoulders.

It is a team effort.

You can support and encourage each other when you struggle. You can praise and thank each other when you behave in a way that helps to break the cycle.

And when it seems like you are changing more than they are, remember to understand where they are and what they might be feeling and thinking.

They might not be able to adapt their behavior as quickly as you can. Just keep encouraging them and never criticize them.

4. Work on your self-esteem.

In push-pull relationships, both parties tend to suffer from low self-esteem, and this can make the peaks and troughs of the cycle more pronounced.

For person A, their lack of self-esteem makes them prone to grand gestures of love and affection because they don’t think themselves worthy enough of person B’s love.

For person B, it makes it hard for them to accept when person A pulls away. That act makes them feel less wanted and less loved because they take things very personally.

If both parties could work to improve their self-esteem, the emotional impact of the cycle would diminish.

If you need help with this, read our article on building your self-esteem in 10 steps.

5. Practice being vulnerable with each other.

Both of you fear intimacy, and a big part of intimacy is emotional vulnerability.

Often, being physically intimate with each other is not difficult because it doesn’t have to involve any great emotional expression.

Real vulnerability means opening yourself up and laying bear some of the thoughts and feelings you have that you find troubling.

It means sharing your struggles, listening to each other, and being supportive of each other.

If you don’t know where to begin, read our article on being emotionally vulnerable with your partner.

6. Accept your partner’s flaws, but be thankful for their good points.

The push-pull dynamic is partly fuelled by a desire for our partner to be perfect. We expect them to know what we need, how we are feeling, and to act accordingly.

But nobody is perfect. We all have our shortcomings. And we can’t read minds.

One way to soften and then overcome the feelings that drive the cycle is to appreciate all your partner’s good qualities and the good things that they do.

This helps you to be understanding and to accept compromises, which are an essential part of any healthy relationship.

7. Seek personal counseling.

Some changes are more difficult to make than others. Sometimes we need help from someone with the knowledge and/or experience to guide us on a suitable path.

Whether you identify as person A or person B, chances are that you have abandonment issues and a fear of intimacy.

A counselor can help you to identify the roots of these things and suggest ways for you to work through them and change how they influence your thoughts and behavior.

8. Seek couples’ counseling.

Counseling as a couple can also be helpful in breaking the push-pull relationship dynamic.

A counselor may suggest some of the things in this article, but they can also provide more specific advice for issues or challenges you may be facing together.

Yours is the type of relationship problem a counselor deals with every day, and they will have exercises and methods to help your relationship run more smoothly.

Counseling is also a safe space in which you can practice emotional vulnerability and better understand each other.