Relationships & Love

Want A Good Relationship? Don't Turn Away

Of all the tactics used by couples when they’re in conflict, researchers now say, withdrawing “like a turtle into its shell” is the most damaging.

And expecting your significant other to be a mind reader isn’t much help, either.

Those attitudes are two of the most common kinds of “disengagement in relationships, and both can be harmful, but in different ways and for different reasons,” according to a news release from Baylor University.

Researcher Keith Sanford, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience in the university’s College of Arts & Sciences, said that withdrawal “is the most problematic for relationships. It’s a defensive tactic that people use when they feel they are being attacked, and there’s a direct association between withdrawal and lower satisfaction overall with the relationship.”

He added that “passive immobility” — expecting the other person to read your mind — is a tactic people use if they feel anxious in a relationship. But while it does make it more difficult for couples to resolve conflict, it doesn’t appear to be as harmful in the long run as withdrawal.

The findings by Sanford and his colleagues were published in Psychological Assessment, the journal of the American Psychological Association.

The research consisted of three studies involving 2,946 people who were married, cohabitating or in committed relationships. Depending on the study, participants either answered an anonymous questionnaire; rated aspects of their relationship on scales; or wrote about a conflict and then responded to questions about it.

Withdrawing in the face of criticism or complaint is not only a way of avoiding a perceived threat, Sanford said, it is also “more characteristic of unhappiness. Just about everyone does that from time to time, but you see more of that in distressed relationships.”

On the other hand, people who expect their partner to be a mind-reader feel anxious, rather than threatened. “You’re worried about how much your partner loves you, and that’s associated with neglect. You feel sad, hurt and vulnerable,” Sanford said.

Unfortunately, he said, this leads to a frustrating pattern. “Often, you have one person who withdraws and the other demands. The more the one demands and complains, the more the other withdraws, and so on,” Sanford said.

“It’s an issue both of being aware of when these behaviors are occurring and of finding an alternative — a more constructive, polite approach to resolve conflict,” he said. “And at times, that’s easier said than done.”

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