Photo Credit Alexi Berry, used with permission
Source: Photo Credit Alexi Berry, used with permission

This post was co-written by Dr. Limor Ast, LMFT. It came out of a discussion we had about relationships, and the pattern of approach and then distancing, only to approach again. It combines two theoretical approaches to counseling.  

This pattern of approach and distancing is common in relationships. There are “games” newly dating partners engage in. At times this results in one or the other, or perhaps both partners, coming closer and withdrawing to establish that one isn’t more interested than the other. In a video on Facebook posted by philosopher / television personality Jason Silva, he relates a story about people either being cats or dogs. A former lover described him as a cat: someone who wants to cuddle and love when he wants to, but who when he doesn’t, has little to do with his partner. In her seminal book, “Gift From the Sea”, Anne Lindbergh writes, “We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationship. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity…” (p.100).

Though this is true in relationships in general, it is perhaps most exemplified during instances when a man has sexual relations, then withdraws emotionally, psychologically, and perhaps physically, from his partner. While research on behavioral interactions after sexual intimacy are scarce, (Hughes & Kruger 2011) clinical encounters with couples who attend therapy indicate some habitual interactional patterns. It is important to note this approach and distancing behavior can happen with either gender, but is stereotypically the male partner.

According to Gottman's scientifically based research, the way intimate couple conflict is managed will determine the success of a relationship (Gottman, p. 202). Counseling methods informed by systemic couple’s therapy is a brief approach developed by the Palo Alto group in California. The systemic approach to counseling is not indoctrinated by dominant social assumptions regarding normality or pathology. Nor do the practices attempt to identify underlying causes, develop insight, strive to challenge dysfunctional thinking, or teach new skills.  Instead, practices are focused on attaining clear descriptions of identifiable interactional cycles around the problem. These practices are based on the premise that problems in the relationship stem from faulty patterns within the interactional cycle of communication.  Specifically, counselors focus their attention on identifying the repeated attempts clients make to solve the problem.  In essence, the belief is that individuals can resolve their issues by addressing problems within the relational context. Often one small and momentous change will have ripple effects altering problematic patterns in the interactional cycle.

Counselors utilizing the Systemic approach are not invested in delving into the problem. Instead, they are looking to alter a communicational cycle of interaction.  Counselors practicing this approach are also aware of broader social norms about sexuality and intimacy that may influence a couple’s expectations, along with defining and constraining their sexual expression. Social discourse influences couples’ beliefs about right and wrong ways of being, often seeding doubts and suspicion into natural experiences they have. 

This is perhaps best exemplified in a fictionalized clinical case:

A year into their marriage Ann and Ted came into the family clinic for couples counseling. The couple expressed having intimate relational distress, feeling frustrated and stuck, which seemed to stem from communication difficulties. They described their problem as follows:

Ann stated that before and during coitus she felt highly attended to, however, after sex, she felt largely discarded. Well meaning, she would ask Ted to speak about it. Ted in turn felt Ann was crowding him, and felt pressured by her questions. Ann, feeling shut out, would then try again and again, intensifying her need to understand what is going on. This exasperated the situation in Ted’s opinion.

Both Ann and Ted are engaging in interactions they individually feel are appropriate to alter their partner’s behavior. This is in reaction to what they each perceive the other is doing inappropriately. Ann feels Ted does not show her affection after they are sexual intimate, and she desires an emotional connection to preserve the closeness she feels. Ann cuddles next to Ted, kisses him and professes her feelings for him. She expects the same from him. Her desire for intimate talk, cuddling and affirmation about their love to one another were met with disengagement from Ted. Ted sees Ann’s requests as “emotionally needy and controlling”, making him feel uncomfortable.  In turn, he detaches himself from her (perhaps intentionally, perhaps unconsciously) by withdrawing and engaging in another activity away from her, such as watching sports. However, this does not make Ann back down. The more he detaches, the more reassurance about the relationship she will demand, in return the less he will opt to give.

A Brief Systemic therapy intervention with Ann and Ted will utilize the following steps: (1) ask each for clear definition of the problem in observable terms. (2) Set attainable expectations for change (3) ask about any attempted solutions thus far (4) identify exasperating solutions maintaining the “problem” (5) introduce small change to interrupt the cycle (6) expand and support the new behavioral interaction. 

After articulating the problem to help identify their expectations for change, the counselor may ask Ann and Ted “what will be the first sign that the things are improving?”.

Interrupting the cycle of interaction, Systemic Counseling may often opt to normalize certain behaviors. Normalizing can also provide comfort by depathologizing the couples experience; reducing the tension and the immediacy to respond. While remaining in accordance with Ann’s position “to preserve the closeness” and Ted’s position to “preserve his autonomy” counselors can introduce new information by reframing the couple’s interaction. A counselor could suggest for example, that Ted’s withdrawal after sexual intimacy can be a natural physiological gender based behavior that occurs after close intimacy as something innate to the male species. Ann’s desire for closeness is innate to females.

Dr. Robert Wright postulated that in the realm of social behavior at least, that according to evolutionary theory and the modular theory of the mind, one of the challenges is to have offspring, to perpetuate one’s genes. This challenge begets a mind module for procreation.

The idea expressed in, “You aren’t You at All” is that there isn’t a consistent personality, and instead behavior is dictated by the situation. When the need to procreate is prominent in a man, that module becomes the dominant drive, and, in accordance with his conditioning on how to secure sexual relations, dictates his behavior. He may be more attentive, flattering, loving. He is more willing to put in the work that a partner might feel necessary. However, once this need is met, other modules take control. He may seem like a different person.

Such a reframe can help redefine Ann and Ted’s understanding of their partner’s behavior. Rather than experience Ted as distant, Ann may experience him as vulnerable, and choose to be more considerate of his needs.  New information into the couple’s cycle of interaction can also provide a premise to further support each other’s “natural tendencies”.

Systemic counselors maintain maneuverability while engaging in the therapeutic process. Hence, they recognize the uniqueness of each situation. Counselors avoid being drawn into any particular social discourse about truths. Nor do they proclaim to have expert knowledge about any given experience clients have. In the case discussed above, an evolutionary psychology explanation of the couple’s experience seemed to resonate with them, thereby helping them change.

In line with the evolutionary theory explanation, and as discussed in, “You Aren’t You at All”, according to the modular theory of the mind, there is a module that is the default mode network. This state of mind is calmer and more objective, and may assist in controlling behavior. This may allow for a change in behavior. In the Jason Silva video mentioned earlier, he suggests that to combat the drive to withdraw, one can focus on being grateful for love, for the relationship. As such, one will withdraw less, and perhaps meet a partner’s needs more. Although this may be helpful, it is still important to understand the nature of the mind, and that one rarely has absolute control over it. It becomes a delicate balance, like most of life, of acceptance and change.

As a side note, it is important to mention that some patterns such as the ones discussed in this post have also been identified as equally common among same-gender couples (Holley, Sturm,& Levenson, 2010).

Copyright William Berry, Dr. Limor Ast, LMFT, 2017


Gottman, J. M. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically-based marital therapy. New York: W.W. Norton

Holley, S. R., Sturm, V. E., & Levenson, R. W. (2010). Exploring the Basis for Gender Differences in the Demand-Withdraw Pattern. Journal of Homosexuality, 57(5), 666–684.

Lindbergh, Anne Morrow; (1975). Gift From The Sea.

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