Warning: Steer clear of this relationship wrecking ball!

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By Angelica Shiels Psy.D.

We’re all familiar with this cliché scenario: A wife stands there, “nagging” her husband with her hands on her hips, and her husband simply turns up the TV volume while he continues to look straight ahead at the football game.

This pattern in a relationship, where one partner criticizes and the other partner ignores, is actually so common that couples therapists have a name for it. Labeled the “demand-withdraw cycle,” this dynamic is something that some researchers suspect is the most common pattern in distressed relationships.

The “demand-withdraw cycle” happens any time when there is a pervasive pattern of one partner pursuing the other with requests, criticism or complaints and the other partner responding with avoidance or silence. It is the “demand-withdraw cycle” in action if a wife frequently tells her husband that he is not doing enough around the house, and in response, her husband begins to stay later and later at work to avoid her criticism. His avoidance then fuels more criticism, and her increased criticism fuels more avoidance on his part.

Here’s what we know about the “demand-withdraw cycle” and how to go about addressing it:

  1. Women are most likely to be responsible for the “demand” part, and men are most likely to be responsible for the “withdraw” part of this cycle.
  2. Women’s criticism/demanding/attacking generally stems from a sense of urgency (or some might say “anxiety) and a feeling of not being considered. Once she begins to learn to manage any unnecessary sense of urgency and begins to feel considered by her husband, a woman is generally less likely to be demanding/critical.
  3. A man’s avoidance/withdrawal is typically his defense against an intense physiological stress response and not feeling considered adequate/competent by his wife. Once a man learns how to tolerate and manage his anger/upset and begins to feel that his wife finds him adequate/competent, a man is generally less likely to be avoidant.
  4. This cycle affects all aspects of a relationship, including communication and sex. Couples who demonstrate this pattern experience lower relationship satisfaction, less frequent and less satisfying sexual intimacy, and poorer communication.
  5. The damage of this cycle can be emotional and physical (It is associated with anxiety, aggression, urinary, bowel and erectile dysfunction).
  6. Partners get locked in this pattern, largely because they each see the other as the cause instead of identifying and addressing their own roles in the cycle. (i.e. the wife often complains that her husband is closed off, emotionally unavailable, and the husband says the wife is critical and demanding.)

If you suspect that the “demand-withdraw cycle” is affecting your relationships, there is hope for turning this pattern around. Couples therapy can help guide each member of the couple to understand their own role, empathize with their partner’s needs, and make necessary emotional and behavioral changes.

Journal Reference:

  1. Paul Schrodt, Paul L. Witt, Jenna R. Shimkowski. A Meta-Analytical Review of the Demand/Withdraw Pattern of Interaction and its Associations with Individual, Relational, and Communicative Outcomes
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One thought on “Warning: Steer clear of this relationship wrecking ball!

  1. Pingback: Does my unhelpful, selfish husband have ADHD? | Maryland Family Psychology

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