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The Demand-Withdraw Couple

Helping Couples Thrive

Emotionally Focused Therapy devised by Dr. Sue Johnston[i], suggests that there are three ways or ‘Demon Dialogues’ in which couples communicate with each other. Here we are going to explore one of those ways – the most common – the Demand-Withdraw Couple. This is a dance of Demand-Withdraw or which could equally be called the Criticize-Defend Couple.

The dance that takes place between the Demand-Withdraw couple is all about trying to get a response from the other – a response that connects and reassures. One partner reaches forward (in a negative way) and the other steps back in response, and the pattern repeats. These patterns are universal because of our primary needs and fears and our responses to perceived loss and separation.

Partner 1’s dance moves look like this (often the female but not always) –  Pursuit and protest. Which manifests itself as one or more of the following: push; pull; slap; attack; criticize; complain; pressure; blow up; yell; provoke; try to get close.

Partner 2’s dance moves look like this (often the male but not always) – Withdraw. Which manifests itself as one or more of the following: move away; shut down, get paralyzed, push the feelings away, hide out, space out, try to stay in his/her head and fix things. If I stay aloof and apart I leave Partner 1 separate and alone and pull her/him into pursuing and pushing for connection.

Marriages/partnerships/relationships may fail because of a decreasing affection and lack of emotional responsiveness. It begins with a growing absence of responsive intimate interactions. When our primary love relationship is threatened we become very emotional – the need for reconnection can become desperate.  We protest against the loss of a sense of secure attachment.

This dance style is marked by resentment, caution and distance. Every difference and disagreement is seen through a negative filter. The partners are consumed by catastrophic fears and doubts, and constantly on guard and defensive. These couples are starving emotionally. This style can create such havoc that partners cannot resolve problems or communicate clearly about anything. There can still be moments of closeness but not frequent enough to counter the harm that’s being done. E.g. men will often initiate sexual intimacy in the bedroom, but for women sexual relations are not enough to fulfil their attachment needs. The problem is emotional distance. The one partners’ silence sparks rage and aggression in the other.

Ambiguous messages are what keeps the Dance Going. It is easier to criticize the other and say ‘why aren’t you more talkative’ ‘Don’t you have anything to say to me’ than to open up and ask that our need for loving connection be met. You have to learn to recognize the call for connection.

Common Sentiments for Partner 1 – Frustrated, enraged, upset.

Common Sentiments for Partner 2

One is hammering on the door protesting her sense of separateness, while the other holds the door firmly shut. Partner 2 doesn’t understand what’s going on but feels hopeless about their situation. He’s decided that it’s either his fault or that they’re simply not meant to be together. They hardly ever have a real fight. Partner 1 tries to coach him. When things are bad they puzzle over themselves trying to figure out what that particular moment says about your relationship. He thinks a lot about pleasing her. But it just doesn’t work. She says “if I don’t make it happen then nothing will happen”. He just doesn’t take his part.  The pattern of wanting him to respond and him standing there still speaking quietly or unconfidently keeps her feeling demoralized and both feeling unsafe with each other. It’s as though she has become the dance instructor, telling him how to move and how to be. And you do it because you are afraid that he will stay distant and there will be no dance between you. You keep waiting for him to come and connect with you and when this does not happen you feel really alone. So you try to fix it and to teach him how to respond. But this gets pushy, even critical. When he hears the criticism that he’s getting it wrong- that he talks wrong, that he dances wrong – he does even less. The more he freezes the more she instructs. So she prods and pokes and he freezes and responds less and less. He shuts down. The more he shuts down the more she feels shut out and the more she pokes him. The cycle spins and spins and eventually takes over the relationship. He is so afraid to do anything- he is paralyzed. Whatever he does will be wrong so I he doesn’t do anything. He goes into his shell. Then she feels so alone. She prods to try to get any kind of response from him.

Can you help each other stop this spiral? Can you see when you’re caught in it and move together to take the relationship back?  If she was less worried about the connection between you she would express herself in a softer and clearer way. If he was responsive to her protest he would not hear her distress or disappointment as a sentence of doom for him as a lover or for their relationship, but as a sign for her need for closeness with him.

Stop. Recognize the dance. Say ‘wait a minute, what is happening here’? You have to see the whole dance and understand how each of you participates to keep the dance going. Each of you is trapped in the dance and helps the other to be trapped. Recognize the music of the dance.

The pattern of behaviour is your enemy not your partner. Give Your Dance a name – understand it and it will no longer control you.

The Steps:

If you want help with breaking the cycle, do give me a call.

We are in difficult times, these issues are only exacerbated by the everyday stresses such as the COVID pandemic and the potential threats of war.


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