Fighting in a long-distance relationship
Illustration: Catherine LePage
She made big plans; her boyfriend made excuses. She pushed; he pulled away. But when Darby Saxbe trained to become a couples therapist, she learned to put down her weapons, lean in—and collaborate on a winning cease-fire.
"Research is me-search."

That's the joke in my psychology department. Among my graduate school classmates, our research interests reveal our insecurities with eerie accuracy. The anxiety specialist is a jittery driver. The quiet one studies shyness. The ADHD researcher switched careers. My work focuses on marriage and health—what could be a better match for the child of divorced doctors? Everyone has emotional demons to battle, but psychologists get to build up a specialized arsenal: statistics, clinical protocols, plenty of jargon.

It was fitting, then, that I started couples therapy training while my own romantic relationship was on the rocks. At the time, my boyfriend, Dan, and I had a continent between us: He'd stayed in New York to pursue his music career after I moved west for grad school, with the understanding that he would join me in Los Angeles when he felt ready. "Ready" turned out to be a hazy concept, one that shifted definitions over the course of a year, while I went through my graduate school paces and wondered how long I should wait. Worse, our conversations about the move devolved into arguments that always started and ended the same way: I would issue my latest ultimatum; he would stall with elliptical nonanswers until he found an excuse to get off the phone ("Uhh, the band's tuning up"). The more I pushed and prodded, the staler our stalemate grew.

Maybe, I thought—just maybe—if I could help unstick a few troubled couples in therapy, I could also pry myself out of a 3,000-mile deadlock.

The first sessions, alas, did not bode well. One client, Amanda*, was convinced that her workaholic husband, Jon*, preferred his job to her. Before my co-therapist and I could even take the couple's history, Amanda was in tears; 20 minutes later, she was still rehashing her anger about a business trip he'd taken two years before. When we finally wrapped up, Jon—who had barely said a word—walked out of the room at arm's length from his wife, as if allergic to her touch.

An hour of watching Amanda lob accusations at her husband left me feeling more than a little bruised myself. It wasn't until after the session, though, that I saw how closely her frustration mirrored mine, and the realization knocked the wind out of me. Dan loved his work as much as Jon did, and I wondered, like Amanda did, whether I had fallen into second place. I had started making to-do lists for Dan—check out studios in L.A., meet producers, e-mail musicians—that only irritated him. He'd planned a monthlong visit, then canceled after a last-minute gig came up. Whenever we talked about the future, he sounded evasive. Would he grow allergic to me too?

I fretted that I couldn't help my clients see past their anger when my own relationship lenses were all fogged up; that week's meeting with my couples therapy adviser couldn't come soon enough. "Your couple sounds really polarized," he said, and then explained that polarization happens when the differences that initially draw a couple together become a wedge that divides them. Amanda had been attracted to Jon's ambition, while Jon appreciated Amanda's nurturing. A few years later, his ambition seemed compulsive, and her nurturing felt smothering. We are often drawn to qualities that we lack in ourselves, my adviser said, but when conflicts develop and partners dig in their heels, mild distinctions crystallize into differences that feel insurmountable.

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.

couples couseling

So how to break the cycle? Simply recognizing it is a big first step. Polarized partners can get so caught up in blaming each other that they fail to acknowledge their own role. Shifting focus from what the other person is doing wrong to where the system is going wrong can edit out the mutual maligning that makes polarization so toxic. Couples learn to see the source of their disagreements as existing outside themselves: The problem becomes an "it" rather than a "you."

With my lists and my nagging, I had slid right into the demander role. And Dan's vagueness was a maddening form of withdrawal. Our stances were reinforcing each other: The more I put my foot down about L.A., the more Dan put his foot on the brakes. But finding our polarity—realizing I'm a more impulsive decisionmaker than Dan—gave me patience with his vacillations. No matter how much I prodded, he wasn't going to book the next flight to the West Coast, and I had to make peace with that. The problem wasn't him. It wasn't me, either. We just made decisions differently. In better times, I treasured his thoughtfulness. As I'd been telling my clients for months, it's easier to change the "system"—by changing yourself—than to change your partner.

We started small. One couples therapy technique is to take issues off the table temporarily when they become too loaded—to get a bit of breathing room, relieve the tension that's choking off a relationship's oxygen, and stop feeding the demand-withdraw beast. So Dan and I put a moratorium on talking about his move. In the phone calls that followed, we talked about his music, my classmates—anything and everything but the specter of Los Angeles. I felt as though I was talking to a friend again.

Then, a few weeks into our self-imposed hiatus, I broached the Big Move as carefully as I could. "I know this is hard, and we don't want to get into another rut where I'm confronting and you feel attacked," I began. "So let's talk about when you'll feel ready to come out here. No matter what you say, I'll listen and I won't try to argue with you."

Dan's response floored me. He'd been struggling with the prospect of the move more intensely than I'd ever suspected. And he hadn't been dragging his feet because of doubts about our relationship. It was fear—not an allergic reaction to me—that was holding him back: He felt terrified that if he left his New York contacts behind, he'd never find steady work in L.A.

Couples therapists talk about the "soft" emotions—like fear, shame, and sadness—that can lurk behind the "hard" anger and defensiveness that couples wear into conflict like armor. Getting a glimpse of Dan's softer side, the side that dreaded failure, made me see his perspective more clearly than any of our pre-moratorium arguments ever had. Empathic joining is the psychologist's term for when couples share their real feelings instead of sticking to their argumentative guns. By focusing less on scoring points and more on how an issue makes both partners feel, they can dissolve a standoff by finding common emotional ground. After all, Dan didn't like being apart any more than I did. By bonding over our frustration with the distance between us, we could work together to end it.

I wish I could say that, in enlightened couples therapist fashion, I graciously allowed Dan to take all the time he needed to move to L.A. (and, dear reader, it took three long years). It's more accurate to say I learned to temper my nagging, pestering, and cajoling with a little compassion. But once we became aware of our tendency to slip into demand-withdraw, our conversations felt more collaborative. If I got too pushy, I'd take a time-out—and Dan agreed that if he felt attacked, he'd tell me instead of just racing to get off the phone. The Most Useful Communication Technique of All Time saved us a few times too.

Since we've settled in L.A., where we share our guacamole-colored house with an old drum kit and a collection of amplifiers, Dan—who's now my husband—and I still argue about everything from politics to dinner plans to names for the baby we're expecting in a few months. But we've learned how to fight with, not against, each other. Here's an image I like: If conflict creates a tug-of-war, with both partners yanking in opposite directions, imagine leaning toward your mate instead. You might get thrown off balance, but you've also created some slack in the rope. Couples therapy taught me to lean forward instead of back, to shift the balance of power toward the center. That lesson was well worth a little extra me-search.



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