“Michael, do you know what time we’re supposed to be at my mom’s?”
In a relationship I am almost always both very happy with and very comforted by, I can sense the contrast as I’ve started a habit of waiting minutes after asking Michael for something before following up on my request—not out of patience, but to prove a point. After ten minutes or more of waiting, when I finally do follow up, Michael can’t say that he was about to respond or that he was just finishing up a task before getting back to me—though sometimes, contrary to my expectations, I find out that he was just taking a little longer to respond and that he did, after all, just need to finish up a task.
About ten minutes after asking Michael when we were supposed to be at my mom’s house, I speak up again, but all I say is his name: “Michael?” He continues typing at the laptop for a moment before looking up and turning his head around. I don’t say anything (but probably, my head is cocked to the side or my lips are pursed), and he senses something is wrong. He shuts the laptop and I say, clearly annoyed, “do you know when we’re supposed to be at my mom’s?”
He sighs in relief and smiles, “oh that! I heard you and I messaged your mom on chat and she hasn’t gotten back to me yet, but we shouldn’t need to know for a few more hours.” He turns back to his laptop. He had listened, and he had acted on my request—but I still feel unanswered.
Michael almost always meets my requests (with an occasional, understandable exception), whether that be retrieving information or helping me clean up or playing music from his laptop. He always has. But the interaction above, which happens less and less often now, was taken from one of a number of frequent, similar interactions that mostly started while I was pregnant. It took months for me to admit to myself that 1) as much as I didn’t want to be hurt by that interaction, I was, and 2) as much as I wanted to stay warm and affectionate in those moments, I was starting to act passive-aggressively in a way that wasn’t helping me or Michael.
Our interaction was far from unique for couples and even has a name: the demand withdraw cycle. I had studied this in my family studies classes, but like many family studies and human development topics, I found it much more difficult to recognize in my own life than on paper.
The demand/withdrawal cycle is, as its name evokes, a continued pattern in which one person demands something of another, and the person receiving the demand avoids it and withdraws from the conflict. In general, “demand” can be broadly categorized as anything which communicates an expectation for something that is not already the case. Demands can be communicated in a variety of ways, from simple questions to accusations to statements of desired help. Someone could be demanding anything from a change in behavior to a sacrifice to an admission of guilt.
“Withdrawing” in response to a demand can be anything that is intended to postpone or block the conflict, or perhaps just, as I believe was often Michael’s case, simply being distracted. Withdrawal might take the form of avoiding eye-contact, leaving the room, offering short and curt answers, or ignoring the demand by moving on to another topic.
By and large, withdrawing is a linear, one-time-fix intervention for dealing with a conflict that is a pattern—and, sometimes these linear solutions have their place, especially in avoiding an imminent crisis. However, generally, the demand withdrawal pattern self-perpetuates itself, bringing about distance between spouses and anger as underlying discontents to grow in the dark–especially in romantic relationships and marriage.
As (I believe) uniquely good our marriage is, the kind of pattern Michael and I had started was fairly standard, albeit at an earlier and milder level. Namely, 1) I was the consistent demander and he the consistent withdrawer and 2) I had much less power than Michael during pregnancy; I was physically ill, he was usually on the working computer and able to do so without aggravating nausea, and he was the sole financial provider. Research shows that yes, women demand more often while men withdraw more often, and just as strongly, the person with less power demands more while the person with more power withdraws more (who would have thought that women and less power would occupy the same position? I’d love to see research that addresses both of these trends together, but I haven’t yet).
In the temporary state of pregnancy, there wasn’t much we could do about the practical power imbalance. If I wanted something, I often needed Michael’s help and it was going to be that way for a while. Not only that, but Michael’s care and support was incredibly building to our relationship—if I wasn’t as dependent on him, I would never have felt just how much he was willing to do for me. In other words, the physical imbalance of power was more of a good thing for us than a threat.
Many couples will find themselves in a position where they can’t easily fix a power imbalance, or even might choose not to. Even when it comes to wives working, the book “The Second Shift” illustrates how, rather than affording women more resources, working a full-time job is often piled on top of the household and family expectations a woman was already carrying—something as a society we could do much better with (even for women who aren’t working, I believe.) So, how does the cycle get better?
First, there is a way to even out the power, despite whatever the physical circumstances are. In general, the person who does the demanding and wants the change is the person who doesn’t have the power to evoke a change. For instance, the spouse who wants to spend more time together as a couple is the one who is already trying and doesn’t have power to make the other spouse comply. Likewise, the spouse who wants to live somewhere else is the one who doesn’t have the relationship or financial power to make that happen. But, though some of this power imbalance is financial or practical in nature, another explanation is that if one partner cares less about the relationship, they have more power. Either the husband or the wife could choose not to be invested and exhibit that by withdrawing or ignoring their partner, forcing the other to initiate attempts at change. I’m definitely not recommending that one spouse becomes less invested, and one spouse “demanding” that the other invest more likely won’t work. But, research shows that if you invest more in the relationship, your partner will too. Ironically, allowing yourself to have less power by caring deeply about your spouse could be one of the things to get out of a demand-withdrawal pattern.
However, such an approach is fairly capricious by nature, and even at its best would probably work better alongside other efforts. Perhaps the next most obvious solution is for wives, or the spouse in less power (as husbands can be, perhaps rightly, when it comes to sex) to demand less. In fact, probably everyone can demand less, in the right areas and right times. After all, does it really matter if the couch cushions are in the right place after a newborn is welcomed to the family? Or, can my spouse really decide not to cough in the middle of my friend’s wedding? Or, do I really want to make-out with my spouse when I know they would only want to for me and when what they really want is a cuddle session and a movie? Lowering our expectations is terrible for the essential things, but wonderful and right for the nonessentials.
All that said, however, research suggests that, above the rest, the bulk of power does remain in the withdrawer. And the answer is simple: don’t withdraw. Whether it means giving eye contact, acknowledging your partner’s feelings, or staying in the room and listening it out—stay present.
Once I realized that it did hurt when Michael didn’t respond, even if he met my request, I voiced how I felt. A solution which had never presented itself to me became immediately obvious: all Michael needed to do was respond. It didn’t matter if he couldn’t meet my request. It didn’t even matter if his response was, “can we wait to talk? I’ve got to finish this assignment in an hour,” or, “I’m really tired, wanna talk tomorrow?” What mattered was that he responded socially and emotionally; even if the request wasn’t a pretextual bid for social attention (which it sometimes was), a lack of responsive interaction left me feeling hurt, lonely, and more dependent than ever. In contrast, closing his computer to look at me or taking me by the hand, let me know (again and again) that he was there for me. All of me.