A Couples Therapist Screws Up
As I continued to see more couples in therapy, I began to find polarities everywhere. It became like a game: Meet a couple, figure out how they're polarized. A buttoned-up lawyer dates a free-spirited writer? They might be polarized around issues of responsibility: how to handle their finances, for example. Every time they disagree on their hot-button topic—money—the conflict refracts onto their images of each other, until the lawyer gets pigeonholed as a miser and the writer as a flake. A social butterfly marries a mellow homebody? In a healthy couple, those differences might balance out: The butterfly learns to enjoy quiet nights, the homebody goes to more parties. But in the fun-house mirror of a souring relationship, the butterfly becomes a needy attention seeker, the homebody a hermit.
As my confidence in couples therapy grew, it was easy to see how Dan and I had gotten polarized around his move to L.A. I'm impatient and optimistic: I tend to jump quickly into new situations and expect luck to sort things out. I couldn't understand why Dan couldn't just relocate already and start setting up gigs. But Dan likes to deliberate, and he needed things to "feel right" before he could book a one-way ticket west. I felt as though he'd never make up his mind; he felt as though I didn't appreciate how hard it would be to uproot his whole life.
And we weren't just split about Dan's move; we were also trapped by how we talked about it. Every unhappy couple may be unhappy in its own way, to paraphrase Tolstoy, but there's an overarching form of polarization that marital researchers, who have studied this beast for decades, call demand-withdraw. It's a polarization not of personalities or values but communication styles. One person takes the role of demander—the one who nags, criticizes, and, yes, makes demands—while the withdrawer ignores, avoids, and generally sticks his head in the sand. The more the demander demands, the more the withdrawer withdraws, and vice versa.
Notice that I said "his head in the sand." Researchers have discovered that women are more likely to assume the demanding role and men the withdrawing role. That's true across cultures, races, and age groups. Power is a factor: Men tend to bring more social capital to relationships (earning potential, status, etc.), so they have less to gain from upheaval. Because women often don't have as much negotiating power on issues such as living arrangements, housework, and childcare, they're more likely to desire change in the status quo—which means they also initiate more disputes. When experimenters manipulated whether the topic of a conflict discussion was chosen by the wife or the husband, the demand-withdraw pattern cropped up more when the wife's topic was up for debate.
Another explanation of demand-withdraw centers on men's "autonomic arousal" in the heat of conflict: Their hearts beat faster, their blood pressure rises, and as their fight-or-flight response kicks into high gear, they seek escape. Women are socialized to be more comfortable hashing out issues verbally, so they're left confused by an escaper's exit. If you've ever found yourself fuming at someone on the other side of a slammed door, you may have experienced a demand-withdraw dynamic firsthand.