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Published March 25, 2011, 12:00 AM

Val Farmer: Demand/withdraw lock on pair can be loosened

One common problem in marital or close relationships is called the “demand/withdraw” pattern of interaction. One partner in the relationship uses emotional requests, criticism and complaints to create change. The other partner uses withdrawal, defensiveness and passive inaction to avoid the conflict and/or changes.

By: Val Farmer, INFORUM

EDITORS NOTE: Val Farmer is on vacation. This column was first published in August 2005.


One common problem in marital or close relationships is called the “demand/withdraw” pattern of interaction. One partner in the relationship uses emotional requests, criticism and complaints to create change. The other partner uses withdrawal, defensiveness and passive inaction to avoid the conflict and/or changes.

It is helpful to know that one’s behavior in this pattern accelerates a partner’s reaction. The more this pattern occurs in a relationship, the more marital distress will be present.

The person who lacks power in the relationship is usually in the “demand” role while the person less interested or less invested in change is in the “withdraw” role. Women in close relationships traditionally have been in the demand role, while men have been in the withdraw role.

How can demand/withdraw be changed to a pattern of cooperation, mutuality, empathy, dialogue and problem-solving?


Problem. One partner avoids conflict and consequently problem-solving because of his or her own emotional arousal when their partner shows anger and other negative emotions.

Research has shown that men are more likely to take conflict-avoiding positions in disagreements, while women feel more comfort in expressing emotion in an emotionally charged atmosphere.

Solution. The person wanting change needs to bring up and discuss problems in calm, unemotional, nonthreatening ways. Respectful, mannerly communication softens the impact and minimizes defensiveness. This shows respect for the withdrawer’s emotional limits.

On the other hand, it may be just as hard for the demander to contain and channel his or her feelings. The withdrawer can take active steps to ease the distress of the demander by being willing to listen and understand the problem.


Problem. The lack of problem-solving because of the demand/

withdraw pattern will take its toll on one of the partners. The dissatisfied partner steps up the pressure only to encounter more resistance.

Solution. The couple can benefit by a communication exercise where one partner takes a speaker role and their partner a listener role.

The role of the listener is to paraphrase or reflect back the meaning of the speaker and wait for confirmation before proceeding. The listener can’t interrupt, give their own opinion, rebuttal or counter-argument. Their role is to understand the speaker and to draw him or her out further.

After a period of time, roles are reversed. The avoidant partner takes a turn in the speaker role – whether it is wanted or not – and shares feelings and opinions in an atmosphere where he or she gains a fair hearing.

The possibility of a genuine dialogue is created by the mutual exchange of feelings. The clear speaker/1istener guidelines equalizes power between the couple. The underlying conflict is addressed and the demand lessens.

Sometimes couples may need assistance from a third party to improve their communication and problem-solving skills. It is a definite skill to be able to listen to emotionally arousing material and refrain from inserting one’s point of view.


Problem. The person with less investment and/or more resources uses power tactics to get his or her needs met while not expending much effort to meet the needs of their partner. The emotionally dependent partner tries a variety of strategies to correct the imbalance in the relationship.

Solution. The demand/withdraw cycle can be broken when the avoidant partner aggressively meets the needs of their mate and trusts that his or her own needs will be met without reliance on their inherent power advantage in the relationship.

When a spouse consistently shows anxious concern for the well-being of one’s partner and lovingly meets those needs, demands will fade or will be expressed more lovingly. When needs are being met, power differences in the couple are minimized and cooperation, negotiation and mutual decision-making follow.

For trust to develop, each partner surrenders their ability to secure their interests and allow themselves to become vulnerable to the goodwill and benevolence of their mate. Trust is the opposite of control.

If there is trust that one’s needs will be taken into account, then a partner’s behavior will be judged as well-intended and basically caring, rather than as a power move to gain one’s self-interest. In high trust relationships, an attempt to influence is seen as an effort to solve a problem. In low trust relationships, the same behavior is seen as an attempt to control.

If you don’t get the changes you want on your own, you may want to try a professional marriage counselor to break the demand-withdraw pattern.


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website, www.valfarmer.com.

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