By Katie Hrapczynski, Ph.D., LCMFT
In my years of being a therapist working with couples, there is one dynamic that seems to rear its ugly head time and time again. It’s called the demand-withdraw cycle. Often one partner plays the “demander” (more colloquially and pessimistically considered the “nag”) and the other partner plays the “withdrawer” (often incorrectly labeled as “emotionally unavailable”). Although not always the case, women tend to demand and men tend to withdraw, but certainly either member can play either role. What’s interesting is that it is a cycle, meaning that what Partner A says or does perpetuates Partner B to respond in his or her respective role followed by Partner A responding in his or her respective role and then Partner B…You get the point. It just keeps going and the couple gets stuck!
Let’s take an example. [Because this is a cycle, I could start with either the withdrawer or the demander. In this case, I’ve decided to start with the demander.]
Lisa says to her husband Andrew “Let’s plan a vacation. I think we both need to get away and relax together.” The demander is often in search of connection, affirmation, support, or information. Lisa is looking for Andrew to engage with her. Instead, Andrew cocks his head and say “Eh, maybe.” The withdrawer is often flooded with emotion but instead of expressing it, attempts to avoid dealing with it, and pulls away. Perhaps Andrew is nervous they do not have the money to spend on a trip or perhaps he does not think they will agree on a place to visit. Whatever his reason, he is trying to avoid talking about it, which allows him to keep his anxiety to a minimum. However, this sends Lisa’s anxiety alarms off. She interprets his lackluster response as a message that he does not want to spend time with her. And what better way for her to decrease her anxiety, than to ask more of him. She says something like, “What’s the matter? You want to have fun with me, right?” Oh man. Now Andrew is being flooded with more emotions, which propels him to pull away further. He may say “Let’s talk about this later” or he may leave the room as a signal to end the conversation. And what would any “good” demander do? Lisa asks “Why isn’t now a good time?” and follows him out of the room. And on and on…
Luckily, the demand-withdraw cycle can be broken. Part of my job as a couples therapist it to help the couple realize when they are experiencing this dynamic and to change it.
Do your interactions sound eerily similar to those between Lisa and Andrew?
If so, then one of the first things you can do is map out the cycle. How do your actions influence one another? In what ways do you each demand or withdraw? How does anxiety play into your dynamics? Getting the lay of the land by examining your interactions is the first step to being able to change it.
Once the cycle is mapped out, then it is important for each of you to acknowledge and take responsibility for your own contribution to perpetuating the cycle. This encourages the recognition that it is not one person who is the problem but the dynamic between the two of you.
Both of you are part of the solution and can begin to make clear choices to react differently to one another in the moment. Often just a conscious recognition of “Here we go again. Let’s do it differently.” will empower each partner to recognize that a little anxiety is manageable and disrupt the cycle. Andrew could challenge himself to stay present and honestly discuss his perspective with Lisa. Lisa could note Andrew’s reticence to talk and suggest they come back to the conversation later that night.
The specifics of what you change depend on the specifics of your mapped out demand-withdraw cycle. But I hope you get the gist. You and your partner can break this cycle. I’ve seen couples do it before my eyes. It’s not easy to change, but it can be done.