How to Avoid the Demand-Withdraw Pattern in Marriage

How to Avoid the Demand-Withdraw Pattern in Marriage April 2, 2022

When Kelly, 42, sits on the couch in my office for a couples counseling session, she seems hesitant to talk but opens up after I ask “Why are you here?” She glances at her husband, Jack, age 41, and explains that they have been experiencing tension in their marriage for over one year since Jack lost his job.

Kelly puts it like this, “My counselor told me that we have a destructive relationship and I’m tried of being the person who makes all of the effort to try to draw him out. Whenever I ask Jack to do dishes, or spend time with me our two kids, he says I’m being a nag and he’s got bigger stuff to deal with.”

Kelly and Jack’s story illustrates the value of being able to turn toward your partner when they make a bid for emotional connection. According to Dr. John Gottman, a tendency to turn toward your partner when they reach out is the foundation of trust, love, and intimacy. After studying thousands of couples for over 40 years, he found that we generally have three ways of responding to our partner’s overtures. These are turning toward, turning away, or turning against our partner’s efforts to reach out.

Turning toward your partner is an antidote to them feeling emotionally disconnected because it can increase mutual understanding and communication. On the other hand, turning away or against your partner can increase emotional distance.

For instance, when Kelly attempts to discuss something important with Jack and he looks the TV (he turns away), or when he leaves the room (he turns against), Kelly feels disconnected from him. Because Jack often gives her the silent treatment, she feels like she can’t be vulnerable or authentic. As a result, she doesn’t often share feelings with Jack, and rather than asking for what she needs in a positive way, she criticizes him or threatens to end their marriage.

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 demand 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 Demand-Withdraw dynamic will persist into a second marriage or subsequent intimate relationships even after a divorce.

Here are 4 Ways to Break the Demand-Withdraw Dynamic:

  1. Listen to Your Partner’s Side of the Story. Instead of focusing on your partner’s shortcomings and looking to blame them for your problems, try spending your energy fostering a deeper connection. Avoid digging your heels in. Ask yourself, is it more important to be “right,” or to put your energy into showing love and acceptance through your words and actions.
  2. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood. Many people have difficulty validating their partner’s thoughts and feelings because they’re too eager to prove a point. Slow down the conversation and check in to make sure you understand and validate your partner’s point of view before you express your own.
  3. Partake in a recovery conversation after an argument. Author Daniel B. Wile, Ph.D. explains that listening to your partner’s perspective and collaborating promote good will. A recovery conversation can reveal information about your partner’s feelings and desires, lead to a compromise, and restore intimacy. Sometimes this conversation needs to take place several hours or a day after a disagreement, when both partners are ready to talk. Be careful not to rehash the details of the dispute.
  4. Plan Rituals of Connection Each Day. These can range from small moments of showing affection (a 6 second kiss or quick hug), or a morning coffee, to a 30-minute walk. If you can afford it, plan to have a meal out a restaurant once a week or a picnic in a nearby park. The main objective of these rituals of connection is to focus on improving communication and closeness.

No matter the frequency and ferocity of the conflicts in a relationship, it’s clear that resolution in the face of the silent treatment is difficult — but possible. Combatting non-verbal tactics with open, measured communication is central to bringing the temperature down, restoring harmony, and laying the groundwork for a relationship dynamic that allows couples to increase emotional connection.

Find Terry on Twitter, Facebookand, Terry’s award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Her new book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds True on February 18, 2020.

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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