Starting today—and running for the next four weeks—I’m doing a 4-week Make-Up-Monday series, one topic each Monday, about communicating through conflict and how NOT to be a WENI (W=Withdrawal; E=Escalation; N= Negative Interpretation; I=Invalidation).
Studies have shown that these four negative communication styles, when used to “manage” conflict in a marriage, are high predictors of future distress in the relationship or even divorce. Most of what I’ll share comes from the book A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage by Stanley, Trathen, McCain & Bryan. It’s a very honest, helpful tool. I’ve even picked up this book in the middle of a conflict and read it to try to figure out what I was doing wrong that was standing in the way of us resolving. I highly recommend it!
Today’s topic is Withdrawal and Avoidance. First, what it is: Stanley et al. describes withdrawal as “an unwillingness to get into or stay with important discussions.” Specific behaviors might include getting up and leaving the room or shutting down (refusal to speak) during an argument. The withdrawer is the one in the relationship who gets silent. Similarly, the avoider is the one who refuses to participate in difficult conversations.
When there’s a withdrawer in the relationship it often means there’s also a pursuer—the partner who tries to pull out of the other person what he or she is feeling or why they are avoiding. If it’s the husband that withdraws, the wife might respond in way that feels to him like she’s nagging or escalating her tone.
Additional destructive patterns can result when one partner’s avoidance or withdrawal becomes a source of frustration for the other. In fact, either partner can begin to fall into another destructive behavior—Negative Interpretation—if he assumes that she’s trying to pick a fight (even though, in her mind, she’s just trying to resolve an issue so they can reconnect) or if she assumes he doesn’t care (when, in fact, he might just wish to stop the conflict). In addition, if both partners are avoiders, their lack of ability to discuss issues can contribute to a loss of intimacy and closeness between them.
As you might guess, behaviors like these are learned. The good news is learned behaviors can be unlearned. The first step is identifying that it’s happening. The second step is understanding why.
Why do people withdraw or avoid? I can speak for myself. It’s generally because I don’t want to participate in a difficult conversation. A Lasting Promise suggests another deeper reason—it’s because the conversation / argument / relationship doesn’t feel emotionally safe.
I had a relationship in my 20s in which I was often the one bringing up difficult topics. I didn’t handle it well, mainly because those difficult topics were a source of insecurity for me. My boyfriend at the time didn’t want to talk about any of it. I often escalated and yelled at him because I was so frustrated with his lack of communication (and my own fear and insecurity). I’m fairly certain my behavior did not provide a safe place for us to be able to talk things through.
Today, I do a lot less escalating. But now, at times, I’m the avoider/withdrawer. Difficult topics are difficult to talk about. Part of me thinks it’s just easier not to talk about them. But I know in my heart that’s not part of the recipe for a healthy marriage.
Sometimes I withdraw because I’m too angry to speak. Sometimes it’s because I’m really thinking through what he said and/or I may have no idea what to say next. Maybe sometimes it’s because I feel unsafe. I fear sounding stupid or irrational to my very intelligent Husband, and in the midst of conflict it’s not always easy to remember that he is trustworthy and kind and doesn’t intend to hurt me emotionally.
Stanley et al. suggest ways to learn about and deal with each of the four key patterns. If you and your spouse are struggling with the withdrawal/avoidance pattern, they offer the following questions with the recommendation that each of you write your answers on a piece of paper and then come together afterwards to discuss your responses.
- “Is one of you more likely to be in the pursuer role? Is one of you more likely to be in the withdrawer mode?
- “How does the withdrawer usually withdraw? How does the pursuer usually pursue?
- “When are you most likely to fall into this pattern as a couple? What particular issues or situations bring out this pattern?
- “How are you affected by this pattern?
- “With some couples, one or both partners may both pursue or withdraw at different times. Is this true of your relationship? Why do you think this happens?”
I would add #6a, b, & c - Is one of you prone to avoid difficult topics? What particular topics generally yield the avoidance response? How can you, as a couple, work to make it safe for these topics to be discussed?
If your relationship is particularly volatile right now—maybe too volatile to deal in a healthy way with these questions—I can tell you that the Husband and I have had lots of success taking conversations like these to another couple we trust and respect who can help us talk through the issues in a healthy way.
What are your thoughts/experiences with withdrawal or avoidance? Is this one of your defaults in the midst of conflict?
Photo credit: © Doruk Sikman – Fotolia.com