Today, I would like to focus on some of the feedback that I’ve been getting on the podcast. In particular, people are writing and asking about a phenomenon that I see a lot in my practice. I’ve certainly gone through it in my own life. It is a situation in relationships where loneliness can creep in or, worse, one of the partners feels like they are doing all the work emotionally. 

What’s very interesting about this is that when couples come to see me, it isn’t normally both partners that feel this way. I may have touched on this a bunch before in the podcast but in the literature on attachment and the ways that human beings organize themselves around the ways that they reach for comfort, there really are different styles. 

When we look at the neurophysiology of emotion, what we tend to see is that this organizes itself around fight or flight. Specifically what this means is that if somebody has the instinct of feeling alone or in need of comfort, one person may up-regulate (go into the sympathetic nervous system and go into action towards, to reach, to ask for help, to pick up the phone, to write an email). Other people will down-regulate (will go into the parasympathetic nervous system, will go read a book, want to go for a walk, not want to talk about it). 

Of course, these lines are not that simple. We can oscillate: sometimes we just want to go for a walk or sometimes we want to talk to somebody. But I can tell you in my thousands of hours of practice, there really is a clear distinction between what somebody does the vast majority of the time. 

Now, where it gets really tricky is when, over time, this very kind of binary dynamic sets hold in a relationship. One person who tends to go into outward action when they need something comes up against another person who tends to down-regulate and really ruminate in a very personal, private, and quiet way. 

There is something we call the pursuer and the withdrawer in relationships. The pursuer is the person who plans everything and comes up with ideas for the weekend or is the one that’s doing the activities for the kids. The other one is more of the silent helper who doesn’t really come out in the same way, doesn’t take the initiative in the same way, and maybe supports through action. There are a whole bunch of threads here for us to bring together and to explore in this regard. Listen in to hear my reflections on them.

Show Highlights:

  • The connection between typology and the fight-or-flight response.
  • The importance of continual self-reflection.
  • Why emotional pain can halt our interior function.
  • How our brains adapt to respond to danger during development.
  • The difference between a sense of urgency and vulnerability.
  • Our body’s capacity to push away discomfort and dissociate.
  • The software our brain develops during childhood.
  • Why some people are so independent.
  • The deep-seated fear of disappointment that is at the root of many up-regulating partners.
  • How transference occurs in relationships.
  • Why putting language to our emotions is so critical.
  • Why vulnerability can be so difficult for some people.
  • How becoming conscious of our internal software can improve our relationships.

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Mitchell Smolkin is a sought-after clinician, speaker, and author. For media and interview requests please contact his publicist Randy Phipps at For all other inquiries, please send mail to


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