Why Does Conflict Escalate Between Men and Women?
Answer: Avoidant men and anxious women
Posted Jul 04, 2019
A couple is having an argument. The woman is hurt and angry. Her partner can clearly see that she’s upset, and her tears make him surprisingly uncomfortable.
While he would like to feel empathic, there is something about her strong feelings that is distressing to him and gets in the way. Because he is uncomfortable with his own strong feelings, the man begins to emotionally withdraw and detach to protect himself. For reasons he doesn’t fully understand, it becomes increasingly important to him to remain rational and unemotional, and he is increasingly critical of, and irritated with, his wife for being “too emotional.”
The wife can feel her husband withdrawing, and the more he withdraws, the more anxious she becomes and the more urgently she pursues him, trying to find a way to make some kind of emotional connection with him. Now they are locked in a mutually destructive cycle; the more she pushes for the emotional connection that she yearns for, the more he detaches. The more he tries to control his own fear by detaching, the more anxious she gets.
One way of understanding these escalating dynamics is through the lens of attachment theory. Attachment theory suggests that the quality of a child’s emotional attachment to his or her early caregivers can set the pattern for how that child will respond to perceived hurt, separations, or threats in adult love relationships. To oversimplify:
- If your early caregivers were consistently available and attended to your needs, it is likely that you will be securely attached. Securely attached people desire intimacy as an adult and are not prone to worrying a lot about conflict or temporary breaches of connection.
- If your early caregivers were inconsistently available and unpredictable in the ways they attended to your needs, you may be anxiously attached. People who are anxiously attached crave intimacy and closeness but worry a lot about conflict or anything else that suggests a potential break in the connection.
- If your early caregivers were generally inattentive and did not do a very good job of attending to your needs, you may be avoidantly attached. People who are avoidantly attached feel uncomfortable with too much closeness and may even see closeness as a threat.
Research suggests that 70 percent of the difficulties in heterosexual relationships are caused by men who are avoidantly attached being partnered with women who are anxiously attached. The man in the example above is probably avoidantly attached (Gottman, 1995). He is uncomfortable with his partner’s open expression of emotions, so he modulates his discomfort with his preferred strategy of withdrawing. The woman in the example is probably anxiously attached. Her partner’s withdrawal confirms her worst fears of being abandoned and escalates her level of emotional distress. The conflict escalates because what she needs most terrifies him.
In these relationships, when women’s interest in connection and intimacy is not met by their partners, it puts the woman in a vulnerable position. The less powerful person is inevitably in the demanding position, pushing for change in the relationship that would put her on a more equal footing. Since men benefit from the emotional status quo in the relationship, they often withdraw to resist any change.
The way out of this escalating conflict is for each partner to claim aspects of the other's position in order to depolarize the couple. For men, this means relinquishing some of the privilege inherent in the withdrawn, avoidant position and allowing themselves to be more aware of, and then risk acknowledging some of their own needs for intimate connection and their dependency on their partners.
Gottman, J. (1995). Why Marriages Success or Fail: And How You Can Make Your Last. New York: Simon & Schuster