A push-pull relationship involves alternating patterns of drawing a partner close and then pushing them away, leading to emotional turbulence and instability.

Have you ever felt embraced by your partner’s affection, only for them to become emotionally distant just a few weeks later, leaving you bewildered and uncertain? And then, just as quickly, the cycle repeats itself?

This push-pull dynamic can create an emotional roller coaster, making it challenging to maintain a sense of stability in the relationship.

Here’s how to spot this pattern and navigate it effectively.

A push-pull relationship is a dynamic characterized by alternating patterns of drawing a partner close (pulling) and then pushing them away (pushing). People may engage in push-pull dynamics for various reasons, including:

In a push-pull relationship, one partner may oscillate, move back and forth between two points, between moments of pulling, like:

  • intense closeness
  • affection
  • attention

Followed by periods of pushing, such as:

  • distancing
  • aloofness
  • hostility

This cycle repeats, creating a pattern of instability and emotional highs and lows within the relationship.

This type of relationship is often considered toxic because it can perpetuate cycles of emotional manipulation, insecurity, and dependency. The push-pull dynamic can erode trust, intimacy, and communication within the relationship, making it challenging to maintain a healthy and fulfilling connection.

The push-pull dynamic can be particularly damaging to relationships. Research from 2017 suggests that individuals who withdraw after a conflict have a harder time emotionally recovering, and this withdrawal behavior also negatively affects their partner’s recovery.

Additionally, when withdrawal is used as a form of punishment, it worsens the emotional recovery process for both partners, leading to prolonged negative feelings and a refusal to forgive.

Examples of push-pull relationships

Romantic relationship:

  • Push: Andrew may become distant or aloof when feeling overwhelmed or afraid of intimacy.
  • Pull: Andrew may then seek reassurance and closeness from his partner Jessica when he feels her moving on with her life.


  • Push: Sarah may withdraw from family gatherings or conversations when feeling stressed or overwhelmed by familial expectations.
  • Pull: Sarah may then seek emotional support and connection from her family members (e.g., parents, siblings) when she feels lonely or in need of reassurance.


  • Push: Alex may cancel plans or distance herself from Emily when feeling insecure or uncertain about the friendship.
  • Pull: Alex may then seek validation from Emily by initiating contact or expressing vulnerability when she’s feeling lonely or notices that Emily has gotten a new friend.
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People may engage in push-pull dynamics in relationships for various reasons, often stemming from underlying emotional or psychological factors. Some common reasons for this behavior may include:

Fear of intimacy

Individuals may have deep-seated fears of vulnerability, rejection, or abandonment. Leading them to fluctuate between seeking closeness and withdrawing to protect themselves from potential emotional pain.


Low self-esteem or feelings of inadequacy can contribute to a fear of being unworthy of love or acceptance. This insecurity may drive individuals to push their partner away as a form of self-protection or to test their partner’s commitment.


Conflicting desires or feelings about the relationship or the partner can lead to ambivalence, causing individuals to vacillate between wanting to be close and needing space.

Power dynamics

Some individuals employ push-pull behavior to exert control or power in the relationship. This alternating pattern of drawing their partner close and pushing them away is a manipulation tactic to uphold a sense of dominance or superiority.

Communication difficulties

Poor communication skills or an inability to express needs and emotions effectively can contribute to misunderstandings and conflict in relationships.

Push-pull behavior may arise as a result of frustration when individuals have difficulty articulating their feelings.

Unresolved trauma

Past experiences of trauma, neglect, or inconsistent caregiving can leave lasting emotional scars and affect one’s ability to form secure attachments.

Anxious-preoccupied attachment

Anxious-preoccupied individuals may seek constant reassurance and closeness from their partner (pulling). But they may then become anxious or insecure when they fear rejection or abandonment, leading them to push their partner away.

Fearful-avoidant attachment

These individuals may crave intimacy but fear dependency or vulnerability, leading them to oscillate between seeking closeness and withdrawing to safeguard themselves.

2018 research indicates that avoidant individuals tend to withdraw or exhibit avoidance behaviors when confronted with stressors that jeopardize emotional intimacy or demand emotional support.

Here are steps to mend a relationship with a push-pull dynamic:

  • Open communication: Initiate honest and compassionate conversations with your partner about the push-pull dynamic. Express your feelings, concerns, and desires for a healthier relationship.
  • Set boundaries: Establish clear boundaries that promote respect, trust, and emotional safety. Communicate these boundaries to your partner and reinforce them consistently.
  • Seek understanding: If your partner is exhibiting push-pull behavior, try to understand the underlying reasons behind it. Practice active listening to validate their experiences and emotions.
  • Encourage therapy: Suggest couples therapy or individual counseling for both of you to explore deeper issues, improve communication skills, and learn healthier relationship patterns.
  • Practice patience: Understand that healing and change take time. Be patient with your partner and yourself as you navigate the challenges of mending the relationship.
  • Rebuild trust: Take steps to rebuild trust by demonstrating honesty, reliability, and transparency. Address any past breaches of trust openly and work together to repair the damage.
  • Celebrate progress: Acknowledge and celebrate small victories and positive changes in the relationship. Focus on the progress you’ve made together and remain committed to ongoing growth and improvement.

A push-pull relationship involves alternating between drawing a partner close and then pushing them away, leading to emotional turbulence. This type of relationship dynamic often stems from unresolved emotional issues, fear of intimacy, or poor communication skills.

If you suspect you’re in a push-pull relationship, communicate openly with your partner about your feelings, set boundaries to protect your emotional well-being, and consider seeking support from a therapist.