In this blog series, we are discussing four fighting patterns that are extremely destructive to relationships. If you want to read more about these patterns as well as many other marriage communication techniques, check out Fighting for Your Marriage.
Destructive Pattern #4 – Withdrawal and Avoidance
Withdrawal and avoidance are two outcomes of one underlying mentality where one partner is unwilling to get into or to stay involved with important (and most commonly, stressful or intense) conversations.
Withdrawal is when one person decides that he or she no longer desires to participate in an argument or even normal conversation. The person might “shut down” and stop listening to the person who is talking to them, or he/she could simply walk away without saying a word. Withdrawal could also play out by a person getting quiet during an argument or by agreeing to any means of ending the conversation with no intention of following through.
Avoidance also describes a person who is unwilling to participate in certain conversations or arguments, but this kind of person attempts to prevent those conversations from occurring in the first place. The avoidant person will try to make sure that a certain topic does not come up in conversation, and if it does, he or she might revert to withdrawal.
Here is an example of withdrawal and avoidance from Fighting for Your Marriage. In this example, Paula and Jeff, who have been married for three years, discuss having problems in their relationship, and Paula is afraid that it will begin to affect their 2-year-old daughter, Tanya.
PAULA: When are we going to talk about how you are handling your anger?
JEFF: Can’t this wait? I have to get these taxes done.
PAULA: I’ve brought this up at least five times already. No, it can’t wait!
JEFF: (tensing) What’s to talk about, anyway? It’s none of your business.
PAULA: (frustrated and looking right at Jeff) Tanya is my business. I’m afraid that you may lose your temper and hurt her, and you won’t do a thing to learn to deal better with your anger.
JEFF: (turning away, looking out the window) I love Tanya. There’s no problem here. (leaving the room as he talks)
PAULA: (very angry now, following Jeff into the next room) You have to get some help. You can’t just stick your head in the sand.
JEFF: I’m not going to discuss anything with you when you are like this.
PAULA: Like what? It doesn’t matter if I am calm or frustrated — you won’t talk to me about anything important. Tanya is having problems, and you have to face that.
JEFF: (quiet, tense, fidgeting)
JEFF: (going to closet and grabbing a sweater) I’m going out to have a drink, and get some peace and quiet.
PAULA: (voice raised, angry) Talk to me, now. I’m tired of you leaving when we are talking about something important.
JEFF: (looking away from Paula, walking toward the door) I’m not talking; you are. Actually, you’re yelling. See you later.
As seen in this example, in a relationship there is often a person who pursues dealing with an issue (Paula) and there is someone who avoids or withdrawals from dealing with the issue (Jeff). This kind of argument is extremely common in relationships and is often a lot more subtle than this example. No matter how subtle this destructive pattern is, however, it is one of the strongest predictors for dissatisfaction in marriage and ultimately, divorce.
How can withdrawal and avoidance be prevented?
The first thing to realize is that this destructive pattern is often a downward spiral. “That is because as pursuers push more, withdrawers withdraw more. And as withdrawers pull back, pursuers push harder” (Fighting for Your Marriage). In order for this crazy cycle to end, one person has to decide to change.
Secondly, it is extremely important to realize that most everything comes down to how conversations are started. Researcher John Gottman did a series of studies over many years and discovered that the way a conversation is started can predict the course of 96 percent of the conversation. If a concern is brought to someone, it is found that you will get a much better result if you start the conversation directly, but with meekness and politeness. “This is particularly important for wives when raising concerns with husbands, and in turn, it’s particularly important for men to respond with attention and concern for what the wife says” (Fighting for Your Marriage).
In the example above with Paula and Jeff, how does this principle work out? Some might say that when Jeff asked if the conversation could wait, that Paula should have let him finish working on the taxes. Or, some might argue that Jeff should have stopped what he was doing and listened to her. The fact of the matter is they both handled the situation poorly. But the root of the emotional explosion can be traced to the very first sentence: “When are we going to talk about how you are handling your anger?”
This is not a very good way to start a conversation with somebody, especially when you are confronting a sin issue in his or her life. This antagonistic approach will, just as we saw, put the other person on the defensive and will cause him to close up and also become antagonistic.
How should Paula have brought up this conversation? What are good techniques to confronting somebody and maybe having an argument? These past four posts have discussed poor patterns of fighting; now it is time to discuss the right way to fight.
To be continued…