By Clay Culp, Relationship Rx facilitator
One of you really wants to talk about a problem and the other one really doesn’t. Sound familiar? If so, you and your partner may be struggling through one of the most common problem patterns for couples: demand/withdrawal. This pattern can have such a grip over a relationship as to make even small disagreements feel like a tangled knot that just can’t be undone. The good news? Like most patterns, small changes by either party can pay major dividends, unlocking the “mutual trap” you and your partner have fallen into and allowing you to resolve issues more gracefully.
What does it look like?
As a facilitator, I often hear couples describe their thoughts and feelings when struck in this pattern. A woman, married for more than 10 years, once described the feeling of pursuit as an “overwhelming desire to work things out immediately.” She went on to say, “I love him so deeply and he’s such a good friend that I want to undo the hurt.” On the other hand, her male partner described their tense arguments by saying “I think I raise my voice and say things that are hurtful. I just want to cut if off and go away, and it’s not in a good way,” he says.
These feelings and behaviors can be triggered by small events, but this pattern is more likely to emerge when the conversation to takes a turn toward the deeper issues which often lie beneath the surface of seemingly minor disagreements. It’s one thing to talk about why the dishes didn’t get done and another thing to talk about the deeper issues that might bring up, like respect, recognition, or control.
The pattern takes hold when one partner withdraws from this type of conversation, triggering the other partner to turn up the intensity which only tends to make the first partner withdraw even more. This sequence often continues, with each partner ratcheting up their pursuit or withdrawal in response to the other. And just like that, you’ve found yourselves on opposite ends of the communication cycle.
Why does it happen?
First, it’s important to acknowledge that there are usually understandable reasons for both demand and withdrawal behaviors. It’s not so much that either partner’s response is inherently wrong, but the problematic way in which these behaviors collide.
The term demand is not intended to imply that a request is not reasonable or legitimate. Actually, demand motivations often arise from a genuine desire to “talk things out” and come to a resolution of deeper issues for the betterment of the relationship. When something is bothering you, but your partner won’t talk about it, the experience can be highly frustrating. All you want to do is fix the issue but it seems that you can’t even begin to address it. Maybe it feels like your partner is “running away” from the discussion on an emotional level, or maybe even a physical one. The natural response is often to raise the emotional intensity in an effort to get your partner to engage in the conversation and realize the importance of the matter at hand.
On the other hand, withdrawal can stem from an inability to effectively meet what may feel like unreasonable demands, feeling pushed too quickly to a resolution, or feeling overwhelmed by emotional intensity. Feeling unprepared or unready to go where your partner is trying to steer the conversation, the natural response can be to take a step back emotionally (or physically) in an effort to prevent continued emotional escalation. This desire to flee can be further motivated by a fear that something bad will happen if things get too emotional, like yelling, name-calling, or even hitting.
You may have already guessed this, but in male/female partners, women are much more likely to be in the role of pursuer while their male partner withdraws. Gender does indeed seem to play a major role in this pattern. Perhaps surprisingly, findings by noted relationship scientist John Gottman indicate that men are actually more likely to become flooded (physiologically overwhelmed with emotion) than their female partners. Rather than a lack of caring, a man’s withdrawal is often a desperate attempt to avoid a situation he feels emotionally unprepared for — and even perhaps scared by. (Think back to the man in our example couple who just wanted to “cut it off and go away.”) As Gottman notes, women are often more skilled and practiced at resolving emotional conflicts, and therefore less easily flooded during the course of them.
Finally, the demand/withdrawal pattern is often closely related to another common pattern, closeness/distance. The closeness/distance pattern relates more generally to people’s emotional needs, rather than to how they deal specifically with conflict and problem solving. Some people naturally desire more intimacy and quality time with their partner. One partner seeking more closeness than the other can result in a similar demand/withdrawal pattern.
What can we do?
This pattern usually leaves both partners feeling more distant and lonely, but small changes can make a big difference in moving partners away from a problem pattern and closer to one another. Here are just a few strategies that can help you and your partner sort through the demand/withdrawal pattern. For more help, consider a Relationship Check-up, or if you’ve already done the check-up, participate our weekend couple’s workshop, Pillow Talk (Within Our Reach).
- Recognize the pattern: Seeing this communication problem as a pattern allows partners to unite against the pattern rather than blaming one another. Identifying the pattern doesn’t mean it won’t ever come up again. But it can allow you to take steps to avoid getting caught in it. Even if you find yourself actively engaging in the pattern, catching yourself and pointing it out — out-loud and by name — can provide the necessary space to see your way out of it in the moment.
- Practice acceptance: Communications styles can be so deeply embedded that our partner’s way of handling things can feel flat-out wrong. Remind yourself that the demand/withdrawal pattern is one of many examples of what James Córdova calls “natural flaws in the fabric” that exist in all relationships. In other words, it’s not so much about whether you argue but how you argue. Recognizing that your partner has naturally different communication style can cue you to be more mutually compassionate toward one another, paving the way for more graceful arguments and discussions.
- Use communication techniques: Communication strategies such as the “Speaker-Listener” technique (as explained in Howard J. Markman’s Fighting For Your Marriage) and XYZ statements from the Within Our Reach curriculum can help grease the wheels for more productive communication. Many people say these techniques feel unnatural, and that’s the point! Using these techniques helps to guard against our natural weak points in communication, including interrupting, not paying attention, premature problem solving and getting off topic. Communication techniques can be particularly useful for the demand/withdrawal pattern because they help limit emotional flooding and negative anticipation of intense conversations (which can be a trigger for withdrawal) while simultaneously providing reassurance that the issue at hand will be discussed in a substantial way, rather than avoided (which can be a trigger for demand).