Mark and Cathy are really no different than many other couples. Their problems started early in their relationship: right after their honeymoon.Cathy brought up an issue of concern for her, and Mark felt criticized. He was quiet, not because he didn’t care, but because he felt the sting of her words and didn’t know what to say.
Cathy felt the sting, too. When Mark ignored her, she felt like he just didn’t care. She finally gave up and withdrew, hoping that Mark would see how badly she felt.
Cathy was the “pursuer,” and Mark was the “withdrawer.” When Cathy gave up on talking to Mark, she also withdrew. When both partners withdraw, neither one is available to the other, making it impossible work on the relationship.
All of us need a time-out on occasion. We may feel overwhelmed with feelings and need to regroup. However, withdrawal can also be a defensive maneuver, and the number one problem in relationships is defensiveness. It keeps couples in a mode of self-protection that prevents intimacy. Partners take on the “withdrawer” role when the relationship doesn’t feel safe.
In fact, Dr. John Gottman’s marriage research identified the following characteristics of couples who divorced:
- Wives raised issues harshly and tended to make generalized statements, such as “You never …,” “You always …,” or “What’s wrong with you?”
- Unhappy husbands got upset more easily (as indicated by heart rate, breathing, etc.) during arguments and had a harder time calming down.
- As a result, husbands tended to shut down and become as blank as a wall or to withdraw from their wives.
- Sometimes, wives shut down and/or withdrew. It was particularly disastrous if the wife was the one to withdraw.
- In short, when arguments started with a harsh comment, 94% of the time they only got worse!
We’ll share more on how to create safety in marriage in a future post.