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The Most Toxic Pattern in Any Relationship

Why you need to watch out for this powerful predictor of trouble.

My last (failed) relationship, it turns out, is a psychological cliché, which is disheartening but at least it gives me plenty of company. If you’d peeked through my windows, you would have seen me—imploring with tears in my eyes or angry with my voice raised—demanding that we address the problems we were having. You’d also have seen my partner, his arms folded across his chest, silent and unresponsive, with a dismissive look on his face.

In its own unhappy-making way, this pattern of interaction is as classic as a Little Black Dress, and it has a moniker and an acronym: Demand/Withdraw or DM/W.

It isn’t a new pattern, of course—the so-called “nagging” wife shows up in folklore all over the world, in many varied (and misogynistic) forms—but research shows that DM/W is a powerful predictor of marital dissatisfaction and divorce.

It’s also associated with depression, physical abuse, and the mental health symptoms of young adult children, according to a meta-analysis review conducted by Paul Schrodt and his co-authors. Of all the troubling relational patterns, Demand/Withdraw is truly worthy of HazMat status.

Some individuals are far more likely to find themselves in this kind of conflict than others. It’s not a familiar pattern in a healthy relationship, but common in one that’s already distressed.

It seems to be separate from other negative behaviors, such as screaming and yelling, although it often appears with them. There’s evidence that it’s more common if a spouse is depressed. As a pattern, DM/W seems to have a gender bias: most of the research shows that the Demand role tends to be played by women, the Withdraw by men. (The shorthand for this in marital studies is WD/HW, or wife demand/husband withdraw—as opposed to HD/WW, or husband demand/wife withdraw.)

Theorists have proposed that the differences in how women and men are socialized may account for the skew—in this scenario, women seek out affiliation, are more expressive, and fear abandonment while men are more autonomous and afraid of engulfment in relationships. While this may be true in some cases, this socialization argument, explored in the late 1980s and 1990s, seems to echo the cultural tropes of the times, epitomized by the enormous success of John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.

Other research has investigated how power and the nature of the issue at the center of the conflict contribute to this particular pattern with its two polarized roles. In a relationship characterized by an imbalance of power—with one person more dependent on the other, either monetarily or emotionally, or with one partner making the lion’s share of decisions—the less powerful member of the couple is likely to find her or himself in the demanding role.

As to conflict, if one person wants change and the other is perfectly happy with the status quo—whether that’s the division of labor in the household, the level of intimacy and sharing, the frequency of sex or anything else—the person seeking change will make the demands. Needless to say, the more the partner is invested in either holding onto the power he or she has or keeping things the way they are, the more he or she will withdraw from the discussion.

Personality differences, in addition to individual needs and goals, clearly play a factor too. Securely attached people who are emotionally confident, accustomed to being both loved and valued, and who believe in their own worthiness tend not to engage in the pattern. Alas, that is not true of the avoidantly attached—individuals who, by virtue of their childhood and life experiences, are uncomfortable with intimacy and are disinclined to pursue it—especially if they are men.

A study by Robin A. Barry and Erika Lawrence found that avoidantly attached husbands withdrew in direct proportion to the amount of negative affect expressed by wives in demand situations. This was true both in conflict situations and in those that required the husband to support and take care of his spouse. Similarly, avoidantly attached husbands who perceived discussions about solving problems in marriage as potentially destructive were much more likely to withdraw and disengage.

This latter point strikes me as very important too, since the individual’s attitude toward discussing marital difficulties is central, and whether he or she sees airing problems as potentially useful or just a battleground in the making. Certain marital behaviors are those transmitted by our experiences in our families of origin; someone who has grown up in a household in which all discussions were fractious or, alternatively, one in which there were never any discussions about problems or crises may find even the idea of a discussion threatening. (The marital literature calls these “intergenerational transmission effects.”)

Regardless of one’s original intention—let’s assume it was to have a quiet, reasonable, and civilized talk about a relationship—escalation is built into the DM/W pattern, and the pattern itself effectively straps each member of the couple into a reserved seat on an ever-spinning merry-go-round. Withdrawal is likely to spark an increase in demand—a voice that grows louder with every moment of frustration at not being heard which eventually devolves into what marital expert John Gottman calls “kitchen-sinking,” a catalogue of every flaw your spouse possesses and a litany of every transgression and misstep—which, in turn, provokes greater withdrawal and so on.

I think you get the picture.

An interesting study by Lauren Papp, Chrystyne D. Kouros, and E. Mark Cummings, that asked married couples to keep a diary of their conflicts and to code them, revealed new insights into the pattern. As they hypothesized, it was “marital topics”—such as intimacy, communication, commitment, habits, and personality—that triggered the demand-withdraw pattern and not other issues such as work, children, relationships with others, and money. (It should be noted that wives did report this pattern but only when it came to talking about money.) That said, the presence of the pattern in the couples’ interactions lowered their overall ability to resolve conflict constructively. The pattern does, it would appear, poison the well.

Two other salient points emerged from the study:

  1. They did not find the gender bias other research had noted; instead, they observed that it was the initiator of the discussion—whether wife or husband—who determined the role the other spouse would play.
  2. They confirmed other research, which showed that the likelihood of the pattern increased if one member of the couple was depressed.

Sobering, isn’t it?

While it’s true enough that some friction, even fraction, is inevitable in an intimate relationship, even among people who love each other, the how of conflict appears to matter much more than the why. Recognizing the pattern is the first step toward extricating you and your partner from it, but it’s been noted that most couples will need a therapist’s help to try to change it once it’s been established. To borrow from gardening, Demand/Withdraw is both tenacious and invasive.

On a personal note, I can’t say that the pattern is what wrecked my relationship; I see it more as a symptom of other dysfunction. But, gee, I wish I’d understood it better at the time.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2014

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Barry, Robin A. and Erika Lawrence, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me: An Attachment Perspective of Disengagement and Avoidance in Marriage,” Journal of Family Psychology (2013), vol.27, no.3, 564-494.

Bradbury, Thomas N., Frank D. Fincham, and Steven R.H. Beach, “Research on the Nature and Determinants of Marital Satisfaction: A Decade in Review,” Journal of the Marriage and the Family (November 2000), 62, 964-680.

Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside, 1994.

Nofle, Erik E. and Philip R. Shaver, “Attachment Dimensions and the big five personality traits: Associations and comparative ability to predict relationship quality,” Journal of Research in Personality (2006), 40, 179-208.

Papp. Lauren, Chrystyna D. Kouros, and E. Mark Cummings, “Demand-Withdraw Patterns in Marital Conflict in the Home,” Personal Relationships (June 2009), vol.16, no,2, 285-300.

Schrodt, Paul, Paul L. Witt, and Jenna R. Shimkowski, "A Meta-Analytical Review of the Demand/Withdraw Pattern of Interaction and its Association with Individual, Relational, and Communicative Outcomes, Communication Monographs, 81,1 (April 2014), 27-58.

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