The main problem I deal with in couple counseling
Updated: Jan 27
Regardless of the specifics involved in any given relationship, ultimately the same toxic pattern is playing out in about 80% of the couples I work with. It's a problem they are both stuck right in the middle of, that is affecting them both severely, and ruining the relationship, but neither of them see the pattern for what it is, much less have any idea how to fix it.
The problem is called a demand/withdraw pattern. I explain it below in an excerpt from an actual case note I did for a real couple. Remember, 80% or more of couples have this dynamic going in their relationship, so you won't have any way of guessing who I'm referring to here.
Cognitive -- Client is a demander in terms of how he behaves in relationships, which comes out of his obsessive thinking. He gets panicked when problems aren't getting resolved efficiently (because he feels unloved/unaccepted), and he makes demands on his wife for time and conversations to solve problems. She is freaked out by his intensity and withdraws, or shuts down. A great deal of his depression results from these withdrawing behaviors his demands spark in his wife. He then obsesses on how her withdrawal creates the need for his demand to begin with, causing deepening feelings of resentment and anger, while not seeing that she would withdraw less if he demanded less, that his demand is largely causing her withdrawal.
Affective -- Client's obsessional thoughts lead to high levels of physiological arousal, initially in the form of anxiety, but landing ultimately in depressive territory, as client feels helpless to "get" his partner to engage with him in resolving conflict, believing her to be dedicated solely to avoiding conflict, when in fact what she is avoiding is his intensity and anger. His high levels of both anxiety and depression are perfect environments for resentments to grow.
Behavioral -- Client's obsessional thoughts compel him to demand resolution more and more stridently, leading him into an escalating cycle of anger and indignance, driving her to withdraw further and further, both out of fear and out of refusal to reward him for his demandingness by acceding to his demands. His behaviors in this dark place may include yelling, hitting and throwing objects around him, and generally making dramatic emotional displays that incite feelings of fear, resentment, and being unloved in his wife.
This is the demand/withdraw pattern in a nutshell. Examine your own relationship and ask yourself if this seems to describe it pretty well.
There is actually a clear way out of this pattern: The demander stops demanding, and the withdrawer stops withdrawing. This is very simple, but couples find it quite difficult, since each plays their part in the pattern out of deep and habitual ways of being. They nearly always need help to see this pattern at work in their relationships, and then to be carefully coached as to how to each stop their own unuseful behaviors.
To learn how to put a stop to this toxic pattern in your relationship, come see me!