Do you ever feel like you and your spouse fight the same way every time? Almost like, “here we go again?” Can you predict how the argument is going to happen before it happens? Chances are you may both be caught in a negative pattern that may be common but can be destructive.
For couples who are caught in a severe pattern (i.e. they don’t know how to stop it, or it leaves one or both partners feeling angry or upset or alone), therapy may be helpful. These couples may need a therapist who can address these patterns in one way or another (in a future post I will address the issue of finding a therapist that suits you and your spouse). Even spouses that have relatively happy marriages may find therapy helpful for their relationship if they see these patterns in their relationships. These patterns can get in the way of solving problems and discussing difficult issues.
Two weeks ago I wrote about agency, including a type called “collective” agency. This fits with the concept of patterns in marriage. Each spouse can be immensely affected by the pattern in the relationship. To be sure, each spouse contributes some of their own agency to these patterns, but they are also the victims to it. Here are some of the most common patterns… If you can’t see your own relationship in one of these, chances are you either have a more complex pattern that is more difficult to spot, or you have a great “collective” relationship, full of positive patterns of emotional accessibility and responsiveness! In case of the latter, pat your relationship on the back!
This is a very common pattern. Some other names for it are demand/distance, criticize/stonewall, or complain/placate. Each partner usually takes one position or the other. The position one takes may also change with different relationships.
The pursuing partner is often more emotionally expressive, demanding, critical, and blaming. They often pursue their spouse out of protest of a loss of connection in the relationship. They sometimes feel that it is all up to them to work on the relationship, and when they sense something is wrong they want to fix it. They may also feel like they are never listened to. They may go after their partner with questions, criticism, and attempts at making their partner respond. Even an angry response is better than silence for them. Underneath their anger, anxiety, demands, and blame they often feel hurt, abandoned, alone, not wanted, or disconnected. Those underlying feelings often become fuel to the fire of their pursuit.
The withdrawing partner is often less emotionally expressive, and tend to need space to think things out on their own before they can talk. They distance themselves from conflict, and while they may look unemotional, during conflict they are often filled with overwhelming emotion that they do not always know how to show in a safe way. They often “stonewall” and become less responsive and try to retreat. Sometimes they shut down in order to protect the relationship. They may feel helpless and trapped, or that they won’t be able to satisfy their partner. Some of the underlying emotions beneath their apparent stonewall stance are rejection, fear, feeling frozen or numb, judged, or criticized. Shame can also be a big issue… for both sides.
You can probably guess how this pattern plays out. The pursuer goes after the withdrawer because they withdraw, and the withdrawer withdraws because they are being pursued, and around and around they go. Sound familiar? In the majority of cases, roughly 60-80% of pursuers are women. However, there are plenty of men who are pursuers as well. Notably, in female pursue/male withdraw patterns, the male may still often be the partner who pursues for sex. It is often the only arena the male partner feels emotionally safe enough about. These same patterns occur in gay and lesbian relationships as well.
This pattern is more of an emotionally disconnected style, and may be the result of a pursue/withdraw pattern that has burned out. The pursuer may decide to finally give up and withdraw as well, thus creating this pattern. A friend of mine (in a great marriage) described this one as the “cold war.” In their former pursue/withdraw pattern, she would pepper him with questions and concerns during conflict, to which he would often retreat out of fear of getting angry, so she decided to stop pursuing and wait it out. For some couples this doesn’t take long to get out of—a few minutes or a few hours. Some couples spend a day, a week, or even longer in this cold war, which can leave both feeling very lonely. Some couples find themselves stuck in a withdraw/withdraw pattern around specific issues, such as sex. They may be fine in every other area, but chronic avoiders of certain topics in order to keep the peace.
This is also often an offshoot of the pursue/withdraw pattern. In many cases, the usual withdrawer will become frustrated enough that they will come out swinging back, sometimes in a vicious way in order to protect themselves and stop the pursuer. Once this happens, the withdrawer will withdraw again until the next argument. The results of this can be devastating for both. At the same time, some of these couples balance out this high-intensity style with enough positive interaction and romance to overcome these encounters. John Gottman says that partners need at LEAST five positive interactions for ever one negative for a healthy relationship. Unfortunately, many cannot keep this balance, and this cycle does its damage. These cycles by nature can’t last very long without one or both partners eventually being flattened or just giving up and walking away.
Most couples, even happy couples, get caught in these or similar patterns from time to time. Some people find it helpful to recognize these patterns, and when they are stuck. If they are unable to get out, many find therapy to be helpful. Next time for this series I will talk more about why it is that we almost automatically take certain positions in relationships.
- Have you seen any part of yourself or your relationship in these patterns?
- For those who are fortunate to not be caught in these patterns, can you recognize the positive patterns of interaction in your relationship—times when you each are able to be open, accessible, and responsive to each other?
Reference: Johnson, S.M., Bradley, B., Furrow, J., Lee, A., Palmer, G., Tilley, D., & Woolley, S. (2005). Becoming an emotionally focused couple therapist: The workbook. New York: Routledge.