The most toxic relationship pattern is the demand/withdraw pattern, research finds.
One partner — often, but not always the woman — makes demands, trying to pressure the other to change.
The other partner — often, but not always the man — wants to avoid discussing the issue, so withdraws.
In other words, the women nags while the man gives her the silent treatment.
Naturally, both behaviours are bad for the relationship.
The pattern is dangerous because it automatically escalates and self-perpetuates.
Since the demanding partner is still dissatisfied, they increase their demands.
The increased demands make the other person retreat even more into their shell.
Dr Sarah Holley, the study’s first author, said:
“This can lead to a polarization between the two partners which can be very difficult to resolve and can take a major toll on relationship satisfaction.”
Indeed, couples who display the demand-withdraw pattern have the worst relationship satisfaction, along with lower intimacy and poor communication.
Which person makes the demands tends to be down to who wants change.
Dr Holley explained that there is…
“…strong support for the idea that the partner who desires more change … will be much more likely to occupy the demanding role, whereas the partner who desires less change — and therefore may benefit from maintaining the status quo — will be more likely to occupy the withdrawing role.”
Changing the toxic pattern
This toxic pattern, though, can change as relationships mature.
Couples who have been together longer learn to avoid these sorts of demand-withdraw interactions.
The conclusions come from a study of 127 middle-aged and older couples who were followed over 13 years.
The results showed that more established couples learned to steer conversations away from toxic areas and towards more pleasant, or at least neutral topics.
Avoidance is sometimes seen as a problem, but in this context it may be better for couples who know each other very well to simply avoid pressure points.
Age tends to make people seek more positive experiences and reduce the importance of arguments.
Couples may also learn to deal better with certain issues, Dr Holley things:
“It may not be an either-or question.
It may be that both age and marital duration play a role in increased avoidance.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family (Holley et al., 2013).