Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Fear of Intimacy: Cat and Mouse Games in Relationships

Tom and Jerry. Sylvester and Tweety. Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny. These famous unlikely couples exemplify the tortured relationship prototype of pursuit and flight. Despite the frustration on the part of both the pursuer who can never be gratified, or the pursued who is constantly made anxious and must be on guard, the individuals in the couple are seemingly unable to exist without the other. Their pursuit of and escape from each other is what ultimately defines their relationship. They are engaged in a 'cat and mouse game.'

The term 'cat and mouse game' is an English-language idiom dating back to 1675 that means "a contrived action involving constant pursuit, near captures, and repeated escapes." So many couples seem to construct their relationship around this very dynamic of pursuit, near capture, and flight. One client recently remarked to me, "I really like the beginning. Trying to get him interested in me. But the moment he becomes too interested and starts to pursue me, it's over. Yuck. I'm just not interested anymore. But then if he wants to break up, I start to feel a little panicked and I start being really nice to him." Another noted, "I always seem to find the most difficult women. I guess I must just like women who are hard to get. But when I get them..." A third revealed, "Every time my husband and I are getting along for a little while, one of us always seems to pick a fight for no reason. It's like we can't get along well for too long, without one of us opting out. It's almost like we're not comfortable unless we're fighting."

The truth is that these relationships reflect an unarticulated struggle that exists within the participants. They are both fearful of intimacy and their cat and mouse game allows them to engage in this unspoken dance, where each of them participates in maintaining a certain distance in the relationship. The truth is, unconsciously, the cat is interested in the mouse because it flees, and the mouse is interested in the cat because it chases. As long as one is fleeing and the other chasing, they can each be reassured of a connection between them, but also that a certain distance will be maintained.

Relationships like these may often reflect an underlying ambivalent attachment of childhood. Children who are ambivalently attached tend to be extremely suspicious of strangers. These children display considerable distress when separated from a parent or caregiver, but do not seem reassured or comforted by the return of the parent. In some cases, the child might passively reject the parent by refusing comfort, or may openly display direct aggression toward the parent. This is also consistent with the rapprochement phase of separation-individuation as described by psychoanalyst Margaret Mahler. During this developmental phase, the child's pursuit of independence is tempered by its feelings of separation anxiety, which then serves to regulate the space between the mother and the infant.

As adults, those with this ambivalent attachment style often feel reluctant about becoming close to others and worry that their partner does not reciprocate their feelings. This leads to frequent breakups, often because the relationship feels cold and distant or too engulfing. However, these individuals feel especially distraught after the end of a relationship. As a result, the relationship that is often maintained is like the one of Tom and Jerry, a cat and mouse game in which the partners often switch off between who will be the cat and who will be the mouse. The underlying fear for the couple is as follows. The cat fears that she/he will be abandoned by the mouse, and therefore must maintain a certain proximity in order to feel secure, but sufficient space in order to survive the inevitable abandonment. The mouse fears that she/he will be overwhelmed or consumed by the cat and therefore must maintain a certain distance in order to maintain connection yet preserve the self. The truth is that neither one of the couple really knows how to be intimate without fear of abandonment or fear of merger or consumption. They, therefore, manage their fears by unconsciously regulating the space between them.

Cat and mouse games in relationships are exhausting and do little to deepen the connection between the parties. They are simply a way of the fearful couple playing at a relationship, without really having to risk true intimacy. In addition, each party might be unconsciously more gratified by other aspects of their role of cat or mouse. The cat feels powerful with the possibility of being to catch the unattainable, that there is something about his or her talent that is able to convert the unwilling into the willing. The mouse delights in being the object of such intense interest, that he or she has the capacity to motivate this drive to pursue in the other.

Yet, Tom never really ever gets Jerry, and Jerry is never really gotten. They never really get close enough to each other for true satisfaction and therefore never really have a truly intimate relationship, even if they marry. The work for each in the couple is to address their underlying fears of abandonment or merger/enmeshment that likely have their roots in their early lives. It is with this examination and working through that they could become ready to truly participate in an intimate relationship.


  1. Good and interesting article, thanks. I was recently told I was engaging in this activity, possibly without realising it.

  2. Been there, done that, and will suffer. :( All my relationships has been like this. Endless cat and mouse -games.

    Thank you for this article.


  3. For those who have the same situation be strong enough to face the life we deal with.. I have mine too.. in the end we caught up in confusion n stressful.. enjoy ur life while u can..


  4. This very interesting. For someone like myself who has a definitive approach on relationship I wonder rather I am the cat or the mouse. This so-called relationship is burdensome. I enjoy being chanced. But I sometimes more than I like, I find myself doing the chasing. I am frustrated. Your definition is on point. I am ready for counseling to get to the root of the problems of not being able to trust. If I can ever get him to commit to counseling. In the meantime I will not chase. I will pray.

  5. This hit me in the same place I claim to hold feelings for the mouse I love. Thanks, Dr..

  6. thank you so much for your article, at the same time I have worked on myself for a long time and found a man who is both cat and mouse at times, thank God for God and His Love and Jesus Messiah and The Cross and Life, without it i would really feel abandoned, this article is confirmation for me today, I can do nothing but pray for my husband he will not get help or believe or admit to having any problem especially of abandonment and is a compulsive lier and secret hidden person and controlling, i use to give in to this but not anymore, I pray for him but it is time to let go and Let God, this saddens me to know that he needs this cat and mouse relationship to survie with me, its amazing because when i do not give in to it and act like I dont care he wants to care when i care he doesent, no one can live with this type of crazyness, i will hate to have to end this relationship with the man but it is over, the crazy part, when asked would he worked on the marriage he just acts like he did not hear anyone especially me, many have tried to help him but he will not do it, what they say, Im also very at peace and happy for my new life and looking foward to getting my daughter back in my life as she will not speak to me because of him, if he will get help we have a chance, other wise im starting the grieving process of moving on and at the same time i have finally cried because i know its all a game and not love it sure has hurt but i do deserve more than this, thanks for listening, peace,

  7. Boil it down to this: whoever is first to say "I love you," loses.

  8. I have lived this way for 20 years w my husband. He couldn't get enough of me initially and could barely be separated. Then we marry, and it's like he locked the door and never let me back in. I spent years chasing him, going to him, being the initiator. We had kids and he withdrew further. If I hold him, he crosses his arms. When I finally get aggravated and get up, he's all over me. He dislikes kissing and foreplay. And now has E.D.. It's been 8 months since he touched me at all. I'm over this relationship. I don't feel bonded to him any more. If his affections are such a national treasure, he can just keep them. I just want out. When I talk about leaving him if he continues to act like this, he acts like it's the end of the world. It's completely depressing and a losing situation!

  9. Brilliant! Thanks for sharing! Happy hunting! Squish the bugs and increase your score. Squish the right bugs as quick as you can and be the next bughunter extraordinaire! Try to play I Fear No Weevil, an Android Wear Game on your wearable Device. Great game to spend time and have fun.