In this guide, we’ll explore what a push-pull relationship is, why you should avoid them and what to do if you’re already stuck in one.
As a professional life coach, I have a lot of experience helping people through push-pull relationships.
Hopefully, this article can help you identify and fix a push-pull relationship too.
First, let’s start by exploring the definition.
What Is A Push-Pull Relationship?
To really understand a push-pull relationship, we must first come to understand push-pull theory.
What Is Push-Pull Theory?
This is based on the idea of pulling people closer to you, then pushing them away.
The push-pull dynamic is used outside of love and relationships.
For example, a salesman might entice someone to buy a product (pull), only to tell them that he’ll have to check the stock room to see if it’s still available (push). A lot of the time, the customer then wants the product even more. That’s human nature.
Remember this example as we explore how the push-pull dynamic works in relationships.
There are definite similarities – although the emotions involved typically become way more intense.
Push and pull behavior in relationships – a summary.
A push-pull relationship is where one person pushes a romantic partner away, only to pull them in again after they become cold and distant.
This is most commonly due to a fear of intimacy in the pusher.
However, in any instance of push-pull, it takes two to tango. The only reason this type of relationship lasts is because the partner allows it to – and it’s most commonly due to a fear of abandonment on their part.
A push-pull relationship is stressful, chaotic and emotionally draining. Yet, it can often last many years.
We’ll come to explore the reasons why in more depth later…
For now, just know: it’s mostly because both partners hold a fear of abandonment on some level.
Below, I will walk you through what happens on a stereotypical push-pull cycle.
To make it more digestible, I’ll create two fictional characters.
- Joe has a conscious fear of intimacy.
- Alison has a conscious fear of abandonment.
I’ll use them to illustrate what a typical push-pull cycle looks like.
Step 1. The Pursuit
Joe makes an effort to pursue Alison. He summons the courage to ask her on a date. Perhaps she plays hard to get (due to her fear of abandonment). But Joe decides to keep trying and eventually they start regularly dating.
Step 2. The ‘Good Times’
Things are going well. Joe and Alison become closer and start to spend more time together. A deep emotional connection builds.
Step 3. Anxiety: The Pushing Begins
Joe’s fear of intimacy begins to kick in. This is all too much for him. Anxiety takes over. He begins to sabotage the relationship. Maybe it’s just by being cold and distant. Perhaps he takes more extreme measures, like starting arguments or flirting with other women.
Step 4. Fear: The Pushing Intensifies
In an emotionally healthy relationship, Alison may choose to warn Joe that he’s not meeting her emotional needs. She could perhaps give him a chance to change his behavior, and finish the relationship if he doesn’t.
However, due to her fear of abandonment, she tries even harder to win Joe’s affection back.
But it’s too much for Joe. It only serves to push him further away.
Step 5. Withdrawal
Eventually, Alison will stop pursuing Joe. At this point, she wants to limit the pain of being abandoned by him. So, she withdraws.
Step 6. The Pursuit
Having been given the space he apparently wanted, Joe now begins to fear losing Alison.
He makes a grand gesture to try and win her back. Alison accepts his apology, as this feels a lot easier to her than life without a partner.
Step 7. The ‘Good Times’
The deep emotional connection returns. Things are seemingly back to normal.
But it’ll only be a matter of time until Joe begins feeling anxious again. In no time at all, they will be back at Step 3.
This pattern may never cease until one of them is courageous enough to end the relationship.
Why Does The Push-Pull Cycle Continue?
In order for this pattern to continue for so long, we can safely assume that:
- Joe has a conscious fear of intimacy (and a subconscious fear of abandonment)
- Alison has a conscious fear of abandonment (and a subconscious fear of intimacy)
Joe must surely fear abandonment in order to reinitiate his pursuit of Alison whenever he senses her slipping away.
And Alison must surely fear intimacy if she continues to take someone like Joe back.
It’s fair to say that low self-esteem probably also plays a role, as it does in most toxic love stories.
On some level, neither party believes they deserve better, so they cling to each other in a mostly miserable and drama-fuelled relationship, because they think this is the best they’ll ever get.
What Type Of People End Up In A Push-Pull Relationship?
The question that really needs to be asked is: what type of people end up with a fear of intimacy, fear of abandonment and low self-esteem?
Well, there’s no one-size-fits-all box for these individuals…
But it’s commonly those who experienced pain and/or abandonment in a previous relationship.
This might be a romantic relationship or a relationship with their parents.
- If one had their heart badly broken in an intimate relationship, that could easily lead to a fear of emotional intimacy in the future. In such a situation, their subconscious mind could link a loving emotional connection with heartbreak and pain.
- If one was abandoned by a parent in childhood, that would likely lead to fear of being abandoned in adult life. These children regularly grow up feeling terrified to make a loving connection in case that person leaves too.
Why Do Narcissists Often End Up In Push-Pull Relationships?
A stereotypical narcissist might easily fall into a push-pull relationship as either the pursuer or the withdrawer.
Their desire to be adored by everyone often causes them to chase affection with great intensity, only to pull away due to their fear of intimacy. For narcissists, this fear often stems from thoughts of only receiving affection from one person.
What’s more, a narcissist’s grand sense of self-importance makes it hard for them to accept someone pulling away from them. A lot of the time, they’ll fight to keep a lousy relationship, rather than accept that their partner doesn’t want them. Even if they could easily find someone else, their refusal to accept rejection will stop them from doing so.
Narcissists in push-pull relationships tend to get into the most aggressive arguments. They might engage in gaslighting or other psychological manipulation. They will happily crush the self-esteem of their partner in order to protect their own ego.
A lot of this behaviour is subconscious. The narcissist may really believe they’re acting this way out of love.
Why Do Borderlines Push And Pull?
A person suffering from borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a prime candidate to end up doing a lot of pushing and pulling in their relationships.
After all, a key sign of this mental illness is experiencing intense and unstable emotions.
Borderlines tend to be very social and outgoing, and will develop strong feelings when meeting someone they really like. However, their intense mood swings often result in them pushing their partner away.
Is It Possible For These People To Change?
Thankfully, these unhelpful fears and beliefs caused by past trauma can be healed. It is possible to stop feeling like this.
Many people will seek therapy. Some might choose to work on their self-esteem, so they are more able to accept love in the future, without always feeling the need to pull away.
However, it is also possible to work on these issues as a team within a relationship.
In the next section of this article, I will share some thoughts on how to do that.
How To Change A Push-Pull Relationship
The first step is to recognise that you are susceptible to falling into a relationship like this. Remember, it takes two to tango in a push-pull relationship.
Next, you need to be able to see the issues in your partner and recognise them for what they are.
Once you can see you’re in a push-pull relationship, you can start to take steps to change it.
The toughest part of the process might be getting your partner to see things the way you see them.
It is never easy for them to admit to their own issues, and your partner will have to want to fix the problem.
The good news is that most pursuers do want love. They just have to learn to give themselves fully to their partner. They need to accept and address their fears. Therapy can prove useful for addressing these feelings.
Also, most withdrawers know on some level that the pattern of being pushed and pulled is not good for them. It will help them to acknowledge that their low self-esteem and fear of abandonment is part of the reason they accept this behaviour.
They then have to decide whether to stay and help the pursuer, or to leave and find someone who will love them in the way they deserve.
Either way, it would help for them to seek assistance with their self-esteem issues. By doing so, they would prevent themselves getting sucked into a similar experience again. Therapy might help them address his problem, for sure.
In many ways, it’s best for both of them to be without their partner for a while. By going their separate ways and beginning to work on their own issues, it becomes easier for them to know and love themselves. That in itself will solve a lot of their problems.
With that said, these two partners might love each other enough to try and patch things up together. Many people find it easier to overcome their demons with support from a loving partner.
Perhaps they will choose to spend time in couples therapy. Here, they each get to share however they’re feeling and say whatever they want in a non-judgmental space. The therapist will ask questions and mostly work as a mediator. The therapist will be fully aware of how the push pull dynamic works – and the various ways it can harm a relationship.
If only one partner really wants to come to couples therapy, it is rarely effective. However, if both partners are willing to share their feelings in this trusted space, they may get a lot out of it. In fact, couples therapy could even be the best decision they ever made.
Any More Questions About Push And Pull Relationships?
Thanks for taking the time to read this article!
I hope it gave you all the information you need to know about push-pull in relationships.
If you feel like you may be in a push and pull relationship, don’t panic. If you want to make things better with your partner, you’ve been given the steps to follow in this article.
If you want to ask me a question about couples therapy or push and pull in relationship dynamics, you can do so by leaving a comment below.
I would love to hear your thoughts and feelings on this topic. As always, I’ll be trying to answer every comment.