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How to Stop the Most Destructive of Relationship Patterns

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One of the most common destructive patterns I see couples get stuck in over and over again is the Request/Withdraw cycle.

Request/Withdraw is when one partner tries to engage his or her mate (e.g. tries to get their partner to talk about or do something) and the other person does not engage.

Partner 1: What do you think of these paint colors for the bathroom? (Request)
Partner 2: I don’t know, you decide. (Withdraw)
What’s Partner 1’s next move?

Typically, Partner 1 tries harder to get a response out of Partner 2 by upping the ante and becoming more overt in their attempt to engage their companion.

Partner 2’s reaction to this increased intensity is usually to withdraw even further.

This continues with Partner 1 becoming more and more frustrated and angry while Partner 2 withdrawing further and further and perhaps eventually leaving the scene entirely.

At the end, both partners feel deeply hurt and misunderstood.

Sound familiar?

What’s Happening Here?

Withdrawal  – not engaging – is any behavior that communicates to the requesting partner that the other is not interested in responding to whatever the requesting partner’s concern/need/want is.

Note that I used the word “communicates”.  This is because the partner who withdraws usually feels overwhelmed, smothered or controlled by the partner making the request but communicates these feelings in such a way that the requester feels rebuffed, unheard, invalidated, unloved.

The interpretation for the requester is usually that his/her partner is intentionally acting in some form of unloving or passive aggressive behavior.

Its important to understand that we are social beings who in times past literally relied on others for survival.  We’re hard wired to feel acute distress in reaction to the level of connection we feel to our romantic partners even if the issue itself is not important. If we feel the right level of connection all is well. Too much connection we withdraw and too little causes us to panic and move forward.

Both of these responses can be thought of as fight or flight survival mechanisms that are hard wired into us.  These are instinctive and automatic responses that cannot be ameliorated without conscious awareness and practice.

Partner 1, feeling abandoned, goes into what appears to be a fight mode. On the surface this person’s behavior can range anywhere from mildly insistent to out and out fury (which is really abandonment rage).

Partner 2, feeling overwhelmed, goes into flight or shut down mode.

Unfortunately couples are rarely aware that they are stuck in automatic responses to one another and instead start to see one another as being deliberately hurtful.  Couples then become acutely attuned to any sign that their partner is attacking or abandoning and these incidents become more frequent and intense until they become a default pattern that leaves both feeling overwhelmed and hopeless.

What You Can Do To Change This Pattern

  1. The first thing you can do is to become aware of the cycle and that your partner’s response has more to do with their instinctive coping mechanisms than wanting to control or shun you. Its important to remind yourselves of this over and over again when you’re calm so that you will be much more likely to be aware of what is actually happening when you are triggered.
  2. Try to develop a sense of empathy for the other’s experience – imagine what it must feel like to feel abandoned or overwhelmed/controlled and how you’d like to respond to someone feeling that way.
  3. When calm have a conversation about what you both need in those situations. Maybe a compromise of taking a brief time out and then returning to the conversation after half an hour could meet both your needs of space and connection.
  4. Be patient and practice! You’ve likely been doing this for years and have had countless experiences in responding the same way. Its going to take time and practice to change things.
  5. If you feel you need further support and help please call me. This pattern is very common and sometimes an outside perspective can help you see things differently and create different patterns.

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