Reading Your Partner Better Can Change the Way You Fight
Anger and withdrawal are often indicative of a deep desire to connect.
Posted Feb 13, 2015
As we get to know people more deeply, we tend to get better at translating them. I know, for example, that my best friend always tells me she’s “done” with her marriage whenever she feels acutely rejected by her husband. I also know that my daughter gets viciously angry (often at me or my husband) when she’s done something of which she’s ashamed. These translations help me feel empathy, at the same time that they increase my patience for these comments and behaviors.
But skill at decoding may not always have a positive correlation with intimate knowledge of a person. Our decoding capabilities, for example, may seem to get worse over time with our romantic partners, particularly if the relationship is in any kind of distress.
The ability to decode another person typically works well when we’re doing well, and works less well (or not at all) when we’re emotionally activated or impaired. This is why so many couples in distress have trouble making things better. They take at face value the comments and behaviors and emotions they’re confronted with.
Words spoken in anger and actions taken in anger are, by nature, the hardest to translate. They consistently read as aggressive, attacking, rejecting, and punitive. They’re often perceived to be the catalyst for damaging attack-withdraw cycles that are consistently judged by researchers to be the most corrosive kind of conflict (Christensen & Shenk, 1991). In these cycles one partner appears to come on too strongly emotionally (nagging, shouting, or verbally attacking) and the other partner pulls back, shutting down or outright disengaging. A review of 74 studies that included more than 14,000 participants suggests that the demand-withdraw pattern is one of the most significant predictors of divorce (Schrodt, Witt, Shimkowski, 2014).
But what’s the alternative?
One solution is to reframe anger as certain therapists do. According to emotionally-focused therapists—those subscribing to a theoretical approach developed by Drs. Sue Johnson and Leslie Greenberg—it might be counterproductive to take anger at face value. Instead, it’s useful to read it as a protest against feeling disconnected (Johnson, 2006). According to the EFT perspective, anger is actually a product of an intense desire for connection, and a frustrated attempt at feeling connected. Such an intense desire could only exist with a deep investment in the relationship and the partner, and a deep sense of hurt at being rebuffed.
In their work with couples, Greenberg and Goldman find it easier to deal with anger, or even attack and withdraw, than mutual withdrawal. They argue that for a couple to affect meaningful change, “the process must be hot: Emotion must be activated (Greenberg & Goldman, 2008).” Most therapists would agree that conflict is not the biggest problem a couple can have; a bigger problem is disengagement (Whisman, Dixon, & Johnson, 1997).
As she does with anger, Johnson (2004) frames withdrawal and defense in the context of a deep desire for connection. She doesn’t see it as coldness, hostility, or indifference. Without an abiding interest in and overarching value of the other person, she argues, partners would not feel the need to withdraw so abruptly or self-protectively.
Although they may feel representitive of drastically different coping styles, anger and withdrawal are essentially two side of the same coin. According to EFT therapists, both are motivated by a strong need for attachment with the other person. Both are indicative of care rather than lack of care, and desire rather than lack of desire. Both approaches tell you, if you let them, that you still matter to your partner, that they care enough to be hurt by you, that want so much for something better.
Decoding your partner’s anger or withdrawal is unlikely to solve all your problems, but it can be an important first step in staying engaged. It might also help you keep perspective, cope more calmly, have more patience, and feel more empathy, all of which (when placed in the context of toxic relational patterns) can have dramatic effects on good you feel about your relationship.
Christensen, A. & Shenk, J. L. (1991). Communication, conflict, and psychological distance in nondistressed, clinic, and divorcing couples. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 59(3), June, 458-463. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.59.3.458
Greenberg, L. S. & Goldman, R. N. (2008). Emotion-focused couples therapy: The dynamics of emotion, love, and power. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/11750-000
Johnson, S. M. (2005). The practice of emotionally focused couple therapy: Creating connection, second edition, New York: Brunner-Routledge.
Schrodt, P., Witt, P. L. & Shimkowski, J. R. (2014), A meta-analytical review of the demands/withdraw pattern of interaction and its association with individual, relational, and communicative outcomes, Communication Monographs, 81(1) March, 28-58.
Whisman, W. A., Dixon A. E., Johnson B. (1997) Therapists’ perspectives of couple problems and treatment issues in couple therapy. Journal of Family Psychology,11, 361–366.