The Demanding Wife, Withdrawing Husband Trap

Posted on 06/25/2012 by


Recently, I came across an article written by Dr. Val Farmer, a clinical psychologist who works with farm families and writes a regular column for the Farm and Ranch Guide. No, I do not normally read the Farm and Ranch Guide magazine or journal, but an internet search led me to his article and the title seemed interesting enough for perusal. The title of the column was “Understanding the ‘wife demand, husband withdraw’ pattern.”

In the column, Dr. Farmer explains that “One of the ongoing struggles between couples is to find a satisfying level of closeness (intimacy) or distance (autonomy) each partner wants in a relationship. When one partner’s need for intimacy is not realized, he or she presses for change through emotional demands, criticism, and complaints. The other partner retreats through withdrawal, defensiveness, and passive inaction.”

To me this sounds like a pretty good definition of a dominant wife, passive husband relationship. A group of scientists at UCLA did not use that definition but describe this relationship as “demand/withdraw”, “pursuer/distancer”, or “intrusion/rejection.” The UCLA researchers described this scenario as “partners who want more closeness tend to be the demanders while partners who want more autonomy tend to be the withdrawers.” Most often this relationship is realized with a woman who wants more closeness and is the demander and a man who wants more autonomy and is the withdrawer.

Why do women tend to be demanders and men tend to be withdrawers when it comes to handling conflict?

Social Differences

Women tend to define themselves more by their relationships. They are trained to be connective, expressive, and they have a great fear for abandonment and rejection. Separation is a large threat to a woman.

Men are trained to be independent and strong. They fear intrusion and being overwhelmed. Their identity revolves around separation and they view intimacy and attachment as threats.

Biological Differences

I found this surprising, but men have “higher levels of emotional arousal” and this hinders their ability to handle conflict. Men are more reactive to stress than women. For this reason, men try to stay away from conflict, get away from the hot spot, or solve the problem quickly.

On the other hand, women are less reactive to interpersonal conflict, hostile situations, or confrontations. Women are conflict-confronting and are more likely to escalate conflict and more comfortable in expressing their hurt and anger.

Power Differences

Men are likely to be the conservative voice of the relationship and will hold strong to the status quo. Their relationship tends to be structured more toward his desires than to his wife’s. I think part of this is just the man will tend to take the least conflicting position and it is always the easiest resolution to fall back to the position in which both are in agreement.

Women are more dissatisfied with the status quo and will push for change. They thrive to take on larger household and child care responsibilities than they require of their husbands.

Couples Study

The UCLA researchers went on to conduct a small study of 31 couples. What they found was that when there was a conflict between a desire for more intimacy and a desire for autonomy, the spouse wanting to avoid intimacy has a distinct power advantage. They state “Autonomy can be achieved unilaterally; closeness requires joint desire and cooperation…The compromise between the two will favor the person who wants less closeness.”

So, how does this look in real life. If a husband wants change in his relationship, his wife is willing to listen, negotiate, and work on a solution to their differences. If the situation is reversed, if a wife wants change, her husband is much more likely to ignore the problem. She then resorts to complaints and demands. He withdraws. She tries even harder. And the battle rages until exhaustion.

What happens next is a reversal of the game. The wife gives up on the relationship, emotionally withdraws and finally asks for a divorce. At this point, the husband finally realizes what is at stake, listens, and promises changes. The changes his wife has been asking for. For the husband, this request is usually a “wake up” call. For the wife, it is a final decision in a long process of evaluating her marriage.

My Story

I have been the passive husband in my marriage and I have also experienced the demanding wife. We didn’t get to the point of considering divorce, but we definitely pushed each other until we were exhausted with each other. She didn’t feel loved and I didn’t feel respected. What turned out to be our marriages salvation was learning about love and respect. She found out that I needed respect and that enabled me to show her love. The more respect she showed the more love I would give her. Along the way, her respect allowed me to become a better leader. I didn’t need to withdraw when we dealt with conflict. I knew that she respected me and we could work together to go in the right direction. I knew that she would stand by me even when she may not fully agree with me.

If you are struggling in your marriage with this downward spiral leading to exhaustion, I encourage you to try to make a change before it is too late. Men, you can find out how to show your wife that you love her and care about her. One book that I think is good with explaining this is For Men Only by Shaunti Feldhahn. Ladies, there is a companion book titled For Women Only that looks at the wife’s side. Wive’s, I also encourage you to read the Peacefulwife Blog by my wife. I think you will find probably the best resource guide for respecting your husband available by reading her blog.