Did you know that some of the very things you do to try to save your distressed marriage are in actual fact destroying it? Seriously. What is even more shocking is that they exist in every marriage.
One of those things that we see everyday is called the pursue-withdraw cycle.
Very simply, you have:
A pursuer: I am going to keep coming at you because I am afraid of losing you. Negative emotional connection feels better than no connection.
And a distancer: I am overwhelmed, I can’t fix this. Maybe if I retreat (withdraw), it’ll be calmer and I won’t lose him/her.
See how they both are trying to keep each other?
Unfortunately, things don’t work out the way each spouse is hoping. The pursuer desperately wants connection, but instead prompts distance. The distance also wants connection (but with the calm, soft part of his/her spouse) and by withdrawing prompts anger and attacking.
For Caleb and me, this is what it looks like:
I flood Caleb with a ton of emotions. I don’t necessarily start out mad, but I’m usually loud and have tears. I just want him to understand how huge this is for me, and how much I hurt.
All he sees is the loud part of me, and he feels completely overwhelmed. He is just trying to process everything, and would love to find a hole to hide in until I blow over as he doesn’t like to see me upset.
He doesn’t respond, so I get louder and (usually, mad by now) try to break through his calm exterior.
It really is a spiral that can escalate quickly. We both want each other, but our ways to attain it are pushing each other away.
So, how does this demand-withdraw pattern work?
The Nature of the Demand/Withdraw Pattern
The demand-withdraw pattern can be defined in the following way: “One member (the demander) criticizes, nags, and makes demands of the other, while the partner (the withdrawer) avoids confrontation, withdraws, and becomes silent.”[i]
Eldridge et al (2007) studied this demand-withdraw pattern in 128 couples who were divided into three groups: severely distressed, moderately distressed, and nondistressed. The researchers used self-report and video-taped discussions of relationship problem topics and analyzed them to come to the following results:
- The more distressed the couple, the more demand/withdraw tactics they used.
- The pattern of wife-demand/husband-withdraw was more common than husband-demand/wife-withdraw.[ii]
There are a small group of couples that demand-demand or withdraw-withdraw. The first looks very volatile. The last looks like one nasty storm cloud that never actually does anything. It could also be just a plain/stony feel to the marriage.
So, typically, most marriages have a wife that finds herself demanding and a husband that withdraws. Hence the proverbial man-cave and the proverbial nagging wife. They’re proverbial for a reason: we all do this!
Research completed in 2009 gives further information on demand-withdraw patterns. The researchers studied “116 couples who completed diary ratings of instances of marital conflict occurring at home.”[iii] The results of these diary ratings were as follows:
- The individual who initiated the conflict predicted the demand-withdraw pattern. When husbands initiated the conflict it led to the husband-demand/wife-withdraw pattern. When wives initiated conflict, it led to the wife-demand/husband-withdraw.
- Demand-withdraw patterns were more likely when disagreements concerned the marital relationship, and less likely when it was disagreements about issues outside the relationship.
- Demand-withdraw patterns were consistently related to greater likelihood of negative tactics (i.e., threat, physical distress, verbal hostility, aggression) and higher levels of negative emotions (i.e., sadness, anger, fear) and to lower likelihood of constructive tactics (i.e., affection, support, problem solving, compromise) and lower levels of positivity.[iv]
In other words, we all do this, and it doesn’t work that well!
The authors concluded that “couples who express demand-withdraw are at heightened risk for experiencing a cycle of increasingly hostile and unresolved conflicts”[v] which in turn leads to relationship distress. Couples in distress are also more likely to engage in demand-withdraw patterns during marital conflict in the home.
This pattern of conflict isn’t just something new to North American culture. Back in Bible times (2 Samuel 6) David and Michal engage in this pattern. In the back half of the chapter, she gets upset with him and as soon as he steps into the house (or palace), she blasts him! He responds with anger, so he does attack back, but the last verse in the chapter is very, very telling: it states that she had no child to the day of her death. In other words, they never had sex again. There was no intimacy – he completely withdrew from her.
That’s an extreme example but it showcases the demand-withdraw pattern. If you look closely at the story of Michal’s life, all she wanted was to be close to David and to be special to him. He let her down a number of times, and significantly so, and in their marriage this was the breaking point as far as intimacy.
Demand-withdraw patterns perpetuate conflict. They don’t ever work to solve it.
To prove that point, some other researchers looked at some of the consequences of demand-withdraw patterns. They found that:
- Most conflicts that involve demand-withdraw patterns do not result in resolution.
- Most resolutions do not involve agreed-on change.
- Demand-withdraw predicted less satisfaction with the outcome of the discussion.
It just does not work. If you can see this in your marriage, you know this to be true as well. It does not work!
So, how can couples move out of this demand-withdraw pattern?
To move forward here, we will focus in on the common gender difference for this issue to see how husbands can move out of their avoidance and stay engaged, and how wives can move out of attack mode and pursue in healthier ways.
From Theory to Practice
You’ve got the theory on the demand-withdraw pattern, this PDF will give you the language to use – the words you can actually say to your spouse.
How Husbands Can Stay Engaged
In 2005, Weger completed a study that showed the important role of feeling misunderstood in the demand-withdraw pattern. He found that demand-withdraw patterns lead to a “disconfirmation of the demanding spouse’s identity (i.e., feeling misunderstood).”[vi]
Husbands – if you don’t do anything to validate your wife’s claim to truth, then she’s shouting at a wall. That makes her feel unacknowledged, unvalidated and it erodes her identity because she is receiving a signal that she’s not worth responding to.
Wives, before you start in with, “Yes! He is such a jerk for doing that to me!” – remember one thing: your husband is doing this because he is desperate to save the marriage and he wants you to be happy. He believes doing nothing is better than making it worse.
Of course, it’s not helpful, but the motivation is genuine. Caleb has yet to see an exception to that in any couple that he’s counseled.
But, don’t miss the point: if the wife doesn’t get validated, she not only feels misunderstood, but it actually disconfirms her identity. It sends a signal that she’s not a person worth giving attention to. She’s a nag, not a person.
This applies to guys in the case that the wife withdraws too. Weger’s results shoed that “both husbands and wives feel less verified by their partner when their partner withdraws from conflict.”[vii] So this goes both ways. With some couples, of course, (and we may do this too…cough), the wife demands, but then withdraws and stonewalls. So it works for both genders.
Okay, what can a husband do when all he wants to do is shut down?
Most of the time when a husband is withdrawing, he is trying to come up with a solution or to just figure out what went wrong. So, if a husband needs some time away to think, how can he verify an affirm his wife before or instead of withdrawing?
Husbands – here is the clincher!
Remember, in every argument, your wife has SOME claim to truth. She may be exaggerating, she may have just dumped a laundry list of your failures on you, she may be globalizing or catastrophizing or just exaggerating. I’m not saying this is easy – it’s actually really hard work, but you’re used to hard work, and this is hard work that’s worth doing.
You see, in every situation, you should be able to say this one line: “I can see how you feel the way you do.” Or, at the very least, “You may be right.”
(By the way, don’t fake that. You need to be able to say that honesty or with conviction.)
Think about what that statement does. It says, “You’re not crazy.” “Your feelings are valid given your beliefs and perceptions.” And, “I am hearing you.”
What did you just do? You confirmed her identity. You also sent a powerful signal that says, “You don’t need to yell at me to get me to engage. I’m here. I’m hearing you, and because I’m hearing you, I am with you.
That will break you out of this pattern.
I don’t want to over-simplify here. If you’ve been doing this for years and you think that one line is going to put your marriage back on an even keel within the next 14 days… good luck! If you’re in that situation you need to find an Emotionally Focussed Couples Therapist like myself. I’d love to help you if you want to do virtual counselling.
The principle is here though; if you can figure out how to convey empathy and confirm her identity, it will help a lot.
Remember, withdrawing perpetuates the conflict. Even if you can just stop and validate and make that connection that you understand her, and then ask for a half-hour or a day to think about it, it’ll go way better.
How Wives Can Reduce Hostility
The trick here is that it also helps the husband a lot if the wife can be less hostile. She wants connection and wants to be understood – those are valid feelings – but the need is so desperate that she ends up coming across in a way that prompts his withdrawing.
As we have seen from the research, negative tactics such as hostility and aggression are common in demand-withdraw patterns, typically coming from the demanding individual – typically the wife.
One way a wife can move forward is by reducing the hostility and attack qualities of her pursuit. Based on the research which showed the detrimental effects of hostility on couple’s mental and physical health, Motely (2008) gave the following recommendations:[viii]
- Avoid negative start-up. Negative (or harsh) start-up is a term that Motley took from Gottman et al. Negative start-up is when an individual, often a wife, begins an argument in a “highly intense and negative way.” Before starting the conversation, wives should consider how to start it calmly, without hostility and unnecessary anger.
- Discuss how to handle arguments before they happen. This can include talking about difficult subjects when you are not in the middle of them. For example, couples often argue about in-laws around the holidays. Instead of waiting until a time of stress (right before the in-laws are about to arrive) these conversations should happen in advance. That way you’ll be talking about them when you’re NOT in the middle of those raw emotions. This requires forethought and planning, but Caleb has seen this work really well for couples.
- Built awareness of escalation patterns. Motely advises couples to become aware of the communication patterns they typically go through. Building awareness of how communication typically progresses can lead to determining “danger signals.” These danger signals are something that comes right before an escalation in hostility and demand patterns. You’re watching for the trigger that sets you off and what behaviours, emotions, and thoughts you experience right before escalating.
- After awareness is built, find ways to break the pattern. Once a wife has gained awareness of these danger signals, she can then try to notice when they arise and use them as a reminder to break the demand pattern.
Ask yourself what you need to do. For the immediate moment, this might include taking a break from the conversation to calm down and coming back to it later. It might include reflecting on past arguments to consider how you wish you had done them differently, and then implementing that change in the current argument. It might mean engaging in a stress-reducing activity before having the argument. As you learn these danger signals, you are also teaching yourself to catch issues at a much earlier stage, and have conversations about them when they’re not as hot.
That is a simple but huge tip you can implement today.
[i] Kathleen A. Eldridge et al., “Demand-Withdraw Communication in Severely Distressed, Moderately Distressed, and Nondistressed Couples: Rigidity and Polarity During Relationship and Personal Problem Discussions,” Journal of Family Psychology 21, no. 2 (June 2007): 218.
[iii] Lauren M. Papp, Chrystyna D. Kouros, and E. Mark Cummings, “Demand-Withdraw Patterns in Marital Conflict in the Home,” Personal Relationships 16, no. 2 (June 2009): 285–300.
[vi] Harry Weger, “Disconfirming Communication and Self-Verification in Marriage: Associations among the Demand/withdraw Interaction Pattern, Feeling Understood, and Marital Satisfaction,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 22, no. 1 (February 2005): 19–31.
[viii] Motley, Studies in Applied Interpersonal Communication (2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks California 91320 United States: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2008), http://sk.sagepub.com/books/studies-in-applied-interpersonal-communication.