In many relationships, women become surprised when suddenly their partner becomes stone deaf during an argument. When men stop listening, women naturally turn up the volume, hoping to blast the wax from their husbands ears. What’s aggravating is that this makes it worse. Instead of understanding what’s bugging their wives, men dig in their heels and defend their actions. This is when most women get really mad, so they crank their emotional thermostat to the max and blast their husband with more heat. This makes it worse and for most men they become more deaf, more defensive, or they just completely withdraw emotionally for physically for the discussion and sometimes the relationship.
Many couples are all too familiar with the way their partners – particularly the male, and yes sometimes the women – distances themselves when heated relationship conflict erupts. If this pattern is left unchecked, Partner Withdrawal leads to more heated arguments that result in feelings and attitudes of contempt, which the research of Dr. Gottman has found to be the number one predictor of divorce.
Why do men withdraw?
Heated arguments trigger a biochemical imbalance in men’s bodies that can cause them to flee from conflict. This occurs because their bodies are hard wired to be hyper-reactive to stress and danger. The perceived danger is the angry wife or girlfriend, and when she comes at him, baring her teeth and berating him with criticisms, his body sees danger and involuntarily switches into autonomic nervous system (ANS) arousal, which triggers the fight-flight response.
Some of you may be saying, “I don’t escalate or scream and he still withdraws.” His or hers withdrawal is about the perception of danger or conflict. If they perceive that you are accusing, attacking or demeaning them, they will withdraw. This is not about your intent but their perception.
Since most men don’t want to physically fight their partners, they withdraw instead. There are three ways that men withdraw from conflict.
- Physical Withdraw – the man leaves the room or the house, hides out in his workshop, or avoids coming home.
- Mental Withdraw – in which the mind takes a hike. In this case, the man is physically present but mentally gone, sometimes called “stonewalling”.
- Verbal Withdraw – in which a man justifies, makes excuses, and defends himself in order to verbally escape responsibility.
Many women feel that their partner is doing this intentionally. They believe that he is hightailing it because he doesn’t care enough about her to stick around and resolve the issue. Her hurt morphs into anger, but when she blasts him with more intensity, she unwittingly sets off more biological fire alarms and more fleeing. This is how the cycle of out-of-control fighting is born.
Okay let me emphasize again – women can withdraw also. The stereotype is men, but women can do this also.
How can you break the cycle?
- Calm Down / Take a Time Out – The only thing you can control is yourself. Focus on trying to know when to step away, not withdraw but step away to control yourself and then come back. Decide together to step away and when you will come back you will be able to problem solve by trying to understand each other.
- Speak Non-Defensively – You have to get to understanding before you can ever get to agreement. Be a good listener who tries to understand your partner before being understood.
- Validate Your Spouse – Even when you disagree, learn to say, “I understand why you feel that way.” Learn to build a bridge of understanding toward your spouse.
- Don’t Give Up – Don’t let go, keep trying. Couples that struggle with this have to rebuild trust.
Here are some other resources that can help if you want to understand more.
Other Blog Posts
- Love and Respect by Dennis Eggerichs
- How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It by Steven Stosny