It is 8 pm. Mary worked for most of the day, then came home and helped the kids with their homework and got them ready for bed. Tom, her spouse, walks through the door. He had forgotten that his 8-year old son needed help with his show and tell project for tomorrow; Mary is furious. She yells out, “You know you’re late again! You deliberately worked late, and now Michael has to do the show and tell assignment without you. I can’t take any more of you constantly showing up late, and having no interest in the family!” Tom looks at Mary and in a moment, slips into the bedroom far away from her. He later grabs a beer, withdraws from her, and sits with his computer in front of the television, all without saying a single word.
If you pay close attention to this behavior between the couple in the example above, we refer to this behavior as a demand-withdrawal sequence. In this example, the wife is demanding to know why the husband is late and ignores the family, while the husband withdraws emotionally, trying to avoid conflict. Over time, this situation could morph into one where the wife will say to the husband, “Next time you know you’re going to be late, could you please call and let me so I can help Michael with his homework?” Or, she could say, “Please spend more time with the children. Can you choose a specific day where you give them your full attention?” The husband in this case could also apologize, or talk about different ways of handling the situation.
When this is done, it is known as a constructive behavior sequence. The question is whether or not these behavior sequences, demand-withdrawal, constructive behavior, predicts divorce over time when used after arguments. Behaviors are usually categorized as destructive, constructive or withdrawal. “Destructive behaviors include overtly negative reactions to marital problems such as yelling, insults, criticism, belligerence, and contempt. Constructive behaviors involve overtly positive reactions such as saying nice things, calmly discussing the problem, and actively listening. Withdrawal behaviors entail disengaging from the conflict or person, and may include leaving the situation or keeping quiet. These three categories are certainly not the only way of grouping conflict behaviors, but they do subsume other categorizations.
This is not really a surprise to most couples. The research speculates that spouses who use constructive behaviors may perceive their partners, who leave the situation to cool down, as having a lack of investment in the relationship. Birditt, (et al, 2010) researched couples, trying to get a better idea on how marital conflict behavior sequences may affect a marriage and divorce rate. They interviewed 373 couples (53% Black and 47% White American) and reported conflict behaviors in Years 1, 3, 7, and 16 of their marriages. The clients self-reported on individual behaviors (e.g., destructive behaviors) and patterns of behaviors between partners (e.g., withdrawal- constructive).
Let’s get back to Mary and Tom for a moment; what research has found is that if Mary attempts to solve the relationship problems with constructive behaviors like talking about their challenges and finding new solutions, but Tom’s preferred style is to back away, ignore the problems, and leave the situation, this appears to have damaging effects on the marriage over a 16-year period. Engaging in this type of behavioral sequence to solve problems in a relationship may be a harmful conflict resolution strategy over time.
But now comes the dilemma for couples; there is nothing wrong with taking some time out from an argument if that is what is required in the moment. In fact, taking a time–out gives time for the couple to be calm and rational. It can help tone down the emotions of a situation, and allow you to find better ways to deal with your challenges. The real problem comes when a couple, or one person, takes time away from an argument, but does not return or re-engage. This lack of reconnecting within a short period of time is what hurts a relationship.
The study also goes on to state that, “Withdrawal behavior predicted greater divorce rates, but only as reported by husbands.” (Crohan, 1996). To make it more clear, if a wife withdraws, but the husband is constructive, it does not predict higher divorce rates. However, if both the wife and husband withdraw, this is a recipe for disaster. It is vitally important, therefore, for both spouses to acknowledge and identify their behavior sequence in a conflict. It is the responsibility of both parties to recognize how they react in a given moment of time. If you are self aware of your learned behavior response, and have some knowledge of the research data on how a marriage may end up, you will have a better chance of choosing a different response to your partner in the future. Once you see these behavior sequence, recognize them in yourself, and work on changing them, it is incredible how just one small tweak or reaction can turn around a failing marriage.