Essential Reading About Relationships Psychology: How to Understand 3 Common Patterns

One of the first things I do when I’m working with couples who want to have a happier relationship is to help them understand the following info.

Couples who are having problems are typically stuck in one or more (often all 3) of these three patterns of interaction.

The type of Couples Therapy I do in part involves teaching people how to recognize when these patterns are occurring (at the time they’re occurring) and what to do about it.

Interaction Pattern 1. Demand/Withdraw

Partner 1: What do you think of these paint colors for the bathroom? (Demand)
Partner 2: I don’t know, you decide. (Withdraw)

Demand/Withdraw is when one partner tries to engage the other partner (e.g. tries to get their partner to talk about something or to do something) and the other person refuses to engage.

You can see that I’m using the term “demand” to mean something much broader/different than what people usually mean by it.

You can also think of this pattern as request/withdraw.

The withdraw part – refusing to engage – can be in the form of ignoring or any behaviour that communicates that the withdrawing partner is not really interested in responding to whatever the demanding partner’s concern/need/want is.

How People Get Stuck

Partner 1 demands
Partner 2 withdraws
What’s Partner 1’s next move?…

Typically, Partner 1’s next move is to try harder to get a response out of Partner 2. Partner 1 ups the ante on their attempts to engage Partner 2 to see if something else (or more of the same) works in getting a response.

In an evolutionary sense, we’re pre-programmed to have a level of distress when we get a withdraw response from a partner (*even if the issue itself is not important*). It’s like we’ve asked “Are you there for me?” and our partner has responded “Maybe not”.

Through evolutionary mechanisms we’ve been hardwired to be hyper-attuned to communications that someone who we trust to be there for us might not be, because back in our evolutionary history such a situation was incredibly dangerous for our physical survival.

When Partner 1 ups the ante on their demanding, what’s Partner 2’s next move?

Partner 2 might maintain their withdrawal or withdraw further
Partner 2 might attack (more on this below)

Some demand/withdraw interactions aren’t a problem. Some are benign and not hurtful (e.g. the paint example I used).

But, when there are problems in a relationship it puts both partners on hyper-alert for signs of demanding or withdrawal: Partners responses to each other become not about the events/specific issues but about the basic emotional issues of “Are you there for me? Are you interested in what’s important to me?” and “Can I/Do I want to be there for you?”.

Important: Although it might seem like one partner in your relationship is the demander and one is the withdrawer it’s rarely that black and white. If you think of yourself as demanding, as you go about your everyday life in the next few weeks try extra hard to identify times when you’re the one doing the withdrawing. Withdrawal responses can be subtle e.g. not turning to look at a Partner who is talking to you.

Interaction Pattern 2. Attack/Attack

Criticism and contempt are particularly vicious forms of attack that are common in distressed couples.

Below is how to understand the differences between a complaint (ok), a criticism (not helpful), and contempt (really not helpful).

A complaint is about a specific behaviour.

A criticism is

– An explicit or implied statement about some fundamental fault with your partner’s personality (e.g. lazy).
– Can be in the form of “You never” “You should” “You always” “Why don’t you ever”
– Attempts to make the partner who is on the receiving end feel guilt/shame
– Elicits defensiveness from partners

Contempt (even worse than criticism, and toxic to love and trust) is things like

– Hostility
– Putdowns, insults and name calling, mocking, sarcasm, ridiculing, and hurtful teasing.
– Phrases like “”You’re nuts”
– Can be nonverbal: e.g. rolling eyes, sneering.

(for more info you could read this book – The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work).

Interaction Pattern 3. Withdraw/Withdraw

I like to use this analogy to describe this pattern: If you go to a water well and keep finding the well is dry, eventually you’ll stop going to the well.

When people start to think its not possible to get an engaged and validating response from their partner, they stop trying. They stop seeing their relationship as a potential source of emotional and esteem support (esteem support meaning a partner who helps you feel confidence in yourself).

Any of the following can be an indication of withdraw/withdraw,

– instead of utilizing your partner when you need soothing or have thoughts you want to share, you look elsewhere (which could be food, alcohol, the garden/a bar/staying at work, an affair, friends, within yourself etc.). A partner should obviously not be your only resource for soothing/sharing thoughts etc but your partner should be one of your resources.
– you don’t tell your partner your life dreams for fear of being mocked
– you live together but have little emotional interaction
– you tune out when each other is talking
– you’ve lost respect for or confidence in your partner. You don’t see them as having thoughts and ideas that could be useful to you or thoughts and ideas that could open you up to new ways of seeing the world/life.
– you don’t have dreams for the relationship anymore e.g. projects you want to work on together, dreams for how the relationship will grow. Or, you have dreams but have given up on ever achieving them.

What you can do

Seeing a relationships psychology PhD is obviously the best option.

I’ve written quite a few other blog posts about relationships that are available for you to read for free. You can find them here

If you’re having relationship problems and it’s really impossible for you see a relationships psychology PhD, I recommend trying using these two self help books in combination. They’re quite different and nicely balance each other.
The feedback I’ve had from clients lately is that Hold Me Tight has been extremely helpful to them in understanding their demand/withdraw and withdraw/withdraw patterns.

If you concerned about the attack/attack pattern, then I recommend this book The High Conflict Couple: A Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy, & Validation in addition to the two above.