This Communication Pattern Kills Relationships

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Picture this: a couple is arguing, and one person seems to be on the attack…complaining, demanding, or trying to argue with the other. His or her protests or comments get louder and more frustrated, but the other partner is cold and unresponsive, refusing to engage. After a while, the other partner stops talking or even walks away.

Have you ever been in this situation? Maybe more than once? How did it make you feel?

The "Demand-Withdraw" Pattern

Experts call this “demand-withdraw” behavior. It happens when one member of a couple criticizes, demands, and attacks, while the other member withdraws or ignores him or her. And if it sounds familiar, that’s not surprising! It’s considered one of the most common problems in close relationships. But it’s also one of the most destructive.

The Damage It Does

A recent large review of over 70 studies of the pattern shows the damage the demand-withdraw habit can cause. Couples who are in this pattern are less satisfied with their relationships and report feeling that they don’t communicate well. Demand-withdraw behavior has also been linked to mental health issues like depression and anxiety, and physical health concerns like problems with digestion and the urinary system. It may even be a sign of impending divorce. Once couples get into this pattern, it can be tough to get out of.

What Can We Do?

So, what can you do if this is happening in your own relationship? First, the basic rules of fighting fair should be a big help: avoid sarcasm and contempt, remember to use I-statements, and avoid “You always…” or “You never…” remarks. It can be okay to take “time outs” if someone is getting upset or overheated—but if you do this, don’t storm out. Calmly say that you need a break and you’ll be back later. Return to the conversation when you’re both calm.

Also, take a look at this list of 10 Rules for Constructive Conflict and see if you are following them.  You even might consider making your own list of “ground rules” for how the two of you will talk through a disagreement.

Getting Started with Active Listening

The practice of “active listening” could help you get out of the demand-withdraw rut, too. In active listening, you restate what the other person says as a way to be sure that you understood. You also check on what you think the other person may be feeling. For instance:

Partner comment: “I hate it when you’re late and you don’t tell me where you are! I was texting you all night and you never answered!”

Active listening response: “Sounds like you were really worried that I didn’t contact you--it made you mad.”

Although active listening may take a little while to learn, and can feel awkward at first, it can really improve relationships.

Couples who are “stuck” in a demand-withdraw pattern may also want to consider counseling, which is known to be effective. To locate a therapist near you, visit Therapist Locator.

By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida

References

Grohol, J. (n.d.) Become a Better Listener: Active Listening. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/lib/become-a-better-listener-active-listening/

Schrodt, P., Witt, P. L., & Shimkowski, J. R. (2013). A Meta-Analytical Review of the Demand/Withdraw Pattern of Interaction and its Associations with Individual, Relational, and Communicative Outcomes. Communication Monographs, 81(1), 28-58. Doi: 10.1080/03637751.2013.813632