How to Reverse the Demand-Withdraw Dynamic in Relationships

How to Reverse the Demand-Withdraw Dynamic in Relationships August 22, 2019

Many couples are stuck in an unfortunate vicious cycle where one partner become more distant as their partner steps up the intensity of his or her pursuits. Unfortunately, if this pattern isn’t reversed it can damage a relationship beyond repair and lead to breakup or divorce.

Kyla, 34, put it like this: “The more I ask Conner to hug me and be more affectionate, the more he pulls away and goes into his shell. I love him and we’ve talked about marriage but when Conner retreats, it makes me fear that things will end and then I start issuing ultimatums and feel like leaving.”

Conner, 37, reflects: “I love Kyla, but she can be pretty intense and when she demands more affection or time to talk, it feels like I’m being smothered, and I just want to be alone. My dad was the same way and it was a big issue in my parents’ marriage.”

While Kyla and Conner love each other and are committed to their relationship, over the last several years they are triggering one another’s emotional vulnerabilities. Kyla’s fear of abandonment causes her to seek more contact when she needs reassurance or is feeling anxious, whereas Conner’s vulnerability is fear of entrapment, which causes him to withdraw and give her the silent treatment. The more Conner shuts down, the more Kyla pursues him, and the vicious cycle continues.

In Hold Me Tight, Dr. Sue Johnson explains that you can tell when one of your “raw spots” has been hit because there is a sudden shift in the emotional tone of the conversation. She explains, “You and your love were joking just a moment ago, but now one of you is upset or enraged, or, conversely, aloof or chilly. You are thrown off balance. It is as if the game changed and no one told you. The hurt partner is sending out new signals and the other tries to make sense of the change.”

For instance, when feelings of disconnection arise, instead of being vulnerable and sharing your true feelings, you might become demanding rather than asking for what you need. A demand-withdraw pattern then develops. According to Dr. Johnson, the longer this pattern persists, the more negative it becomes.

In The Science of Couples and Family Therapy: Behind the Scenes at the Love Lab, Dr. John Gottman’s research on thousands of couples, revealed that partners who get stuck in this pattern the first few years of marriage have more than an 80% chance of divorcing in the first four or five years.

Why is this relationship pattern so common? John Gottman found that men have a tendency to withdraw and women tend to pursue when they are in intimate relationships. Further, he explains that these tendencies are wired into our physiology and reflect a basic gender difference.

In his classic “Love Lab” observations, John Gottman noted that this pattern is extremely common and is a major contributor to marital breakdown. He also warns us that if it’s not changed, the pursuer-distancer pattern will persist into a second marriage or subsequent intimate relationships.

How to Cope with Triggers and Change the Demand-Withdraw Dynamic

The following is a list of four ways you can cope more effectively with extreme emotions such as anger and fear so that you will be able to be calmer and more reflective when you are feeling triggered and seek to either pursue your partner or withdraw from them.

  • Focus on your breath. One thing is certain, your breath is always there with you and slow breathing can help you relax. Keep focusing on your in-breath and out-breath for a few minutes. Breathe in through your nose and exhale through your mouth as you count to ten. Thinking about a pleasant place can help you relax. Try imaging yourself in your favorite place. If your attention goes back to the triggering person or situation, pull your attention back to your breathing.
  • Take a break. Remove yourself from the situation. Walk away for five minutes and cool down. If you’re speaking with someone, excuse yourself temporarily and say that you need to go to the bathroom or somewhere else. Return when you are feeling more centered and calmer.
  • Ask yourself why you are being triggered. Your emotional triggers may have a way of blindsiding you. To offset this, ask yourself, “Why am I feeling so fearful or angry?” Understanding why you’re being triggered will help you to regain a sense of calmness, self-awareness, and control. For instance, do you fear abandonment because you were left as a child or betrayed by a former partner?Or, do you fear entrapment because you had a parent or partner who didn’t respect your boundaries?
  • Do not ignore your feelings, but do not act on them. Trying to resist your feelings isn’t the solution. However, you can delay your emotional reactions. For instance, if you’re feeling enraged by your partner, instead of exploding at him or her, consciously set those feelings aside to experience and unleash later in a healthy way. You might choose to express this anger by screaming in your room or doing an intense workout. However, be very careful not to repress your emotions. There’s a fine line between consciously delaying your emotions and unconsciously suppressing them – eventually it’s a good idea to process what happened.

Healthy intimate relationships provide couples with a safe place for speaking out and voicing both positive and negative emotions without fear of negative consequences. Often, having gone through a divorce (your own but also your parents’) can leave you with a fear of failure in relationships. This fear may make it difficult to be vulnerable with an intimate partner.

If It’s Intense, It’s Your Own

When you feel intensely hurt or angry with your partner, it is common to want to blame them. It may seem obvious to you at that moment that your spouse is the person who needs to change. However, it’s often your own baggage that’s impacting your emotions.

According to marriage counselor Mona Barbera, Ph.D., author of Bring Yourself to Love, the truth about that kind of pain doesn’t come from your partner’s words or actions. In her cutting-edge book she explains, “As I like to tell my clients, if it’s intense, it’s your own.” Barbera explains that when you deal with your own internal pain, your partner won’t easily trigger an intense reaction when they do something that hurts or disappoints you.

It’s no wonder that many of the interactions between couples become deadlocked in the pursuer-distancer pattern. Partners can end up in a stalemate and are left feeling bitter and disillusioned about their marriage. Repair work begins with expressing your intent in a positive way and taking responsibility for your part in this negative cycle. This can be done by saying things like “I’d really appreciate it if you’d shop for groceries tonight since I’m have to work late and we don’t have much in the fridge.” Keep in mind that we all have flaws. True intimacy and love can be attained through examining your own part in a dynamic and spending more time listening than talking to your partner.

Follow Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and Terry’s award winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy A Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship was published in January of 2016 by Sourcebooks. Terry’s forthcoming book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds true in February of 2019.

I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here.  Thanks! Terry 


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