Murphy’s Love: Advice on Intimacy and Relationships Withdrawers and Pursuers: Compatible?


*Dear Stacy,*

*I am very much in love with my boyfriend and want to get married. We’ve been together for three years and throughout that time we have had a lot of angry arguments about all kinds of things. These moments have been so painful, but also helped me see that I needed to do some work on myself to be a better partner to him, so I found a counselor and have been working on my issues since earlier this year. Even though most of the time things are great, my boyfriend doesn’t see enough progress yet to agree to get married. He tells me that I’m not changing fast enough and we are still having explosive fights. He says that if I don’t get there after I’ve been seeing my counselor for a year, we are going to have to make a decision about whether we’re compatible enough. I am incredibly anxious about this and have talked to my counselor, but I wanted an outside perspective about how much change is likely to happen after a year.*

— Counting Down

**Dear Counting:**

This is one of those times when half of me really wants more context. What exactly are these issues you are working on? What kind of progress does Boyfriend demand? What makes it okay for him to demand that kind of progress? I could go on and on.

But the other half of me knows that none of those details really matters. This is a process between the two of you, an agreed-upon dynamic — what master couples therapist Dr. Sue Johnson describes as “a dance” — that you both are agreeing to perform. I imagine it goes something like this: he withholds, then you protest, which causes him to criticize and then you explode. Sound familiar?

While you have taken his criticisms to heart, you also had some expectations of your own. You expected that he would see your efforts for what they are, a valiant attempt to make things better. But now he’s saying you’re being graded, and if you don’t come through it’s a reflection on your compatibility.

While I get why he sees it that way (he’s bought into the mistaken idea that constant harmony is a sign of compatibility and any disruption predicts doom), I also get why he sent you on the errand for self-improvement and isn’t joining you in that process. He’s a withdrawer and you are a pursuer. This is your dynamic, and because you share it with the majority of couples in our society (seriously, the research shows us this), I’d say your compatibility is undisputed. What needs work is your understanding of how that dynamic works and doesn’t work, and how you can make improvements together. This is his work, too. He needs to join you in that counseling room.

*Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor in Georgetown. Visit her on the web at This column is meant for entertainment only and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Send your confidential question to*

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