Please help me. I am so frustrated. My partner and I seem to be stuck in this awful pattern whenever we argue. I’ll bring something up that’s an issue with me – honestly, it doesn’t seem to matter what it is. No matter how I try to word it, no matter my tone, no matter how gentle I am, my partner will withdraw. He withdraws, and this infuriates me! Why can’t he respond to my needs? So I ask him – again, as nicely as I can – to please not ignore me, to please engage with the issue. And does he? No! I don’t understand this. Why won’t he engage? He just doesn’t care! I feel stuck. Help!!
Signed, Headed For Divorce?
Dear Headed For Divorce?,
I hear how frustrated you are. When you try to get your needs met, you can’t, no matter how hard you try. You seem to be in a painful situation, basically stuck. You must be feeling so lonely and disconnected from your partner to think that you might be headed for divorce.
The good news is that you already have insight to your issue – that what’s going on is a pattern of interaction, no matter what the content. How is this good news? Well, a lot of people don’t see the pattern. They just get frustrated or angry or upset, but don’t see that a pattern exists. I’m here to tell you that once you see the pattern, it is possible to shift it.
And, the good news is that you seem to desperately want to connect to your partner. This means that it isn’t too late for you to be able to make changes. Many couples come to me so frustrated with their pattern that they are already done, with no desire to connect any more. This is sad for me to witness but totally understandable – a dysfunctional pattern of communicating can be very disconnecting and painful, and it takes its toll over time.
Here is some insight for you – your partner is most likely feeling equally disconnected and frustrated. He may seem to not care, but the reality is different. When sensors for breathing, heart, and sweat rates are hooked up to partners who withdraw during conflict, they show significantly increased activity during withdrawal. This is a sign of being in fight or flight mode. Your partner is probably as equally triggered as you are. He is most definitely not indifferent.
Here is some more insight – patterns of communication in one’s family growing up are usually repeated during adulthood. Maybe one of your parents was hard to engage with, and you became hypervigilant for any signs of distance in your desire to connect. This same hypervigilance can be present with your partner. For your partner, maybe conflict was a Big Deal. Maybe conflict was very scary, and he learned to disappear when it raised its head. These methods of coping continue. The model we grow up with has great power.
I hope you are beginning to have a little more understanding of what might be going on with you and your partner. And you might be thinking after reading this that this pattern is your partner’s fault – that he is the one with the childhood issue, that he is the one who has to do the work to fix it, that he is the one withdrawing. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. It takes two to develop a pattern, and two to do the work.
So where does this leave you?
I recommend you and your partner read together the book Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson. It describes different patterns of interaction that couples can get into (including yours), and can not only provide more insight on your pattern, but also has some great exercises at the end of each chapter to do together to begin to shift the pattern.
This may be enough for you and your partner. But if it doesn’t get you to where you want to be in your relationship, I strongly recommend couples counseling. A couples counselor provides a safe space to process difficulties in relationship, as well as insight and support. With work and motivation, you and your partner can shift to a new, more effective pattern of communication – a pattern in which you both feel connected, seen, and valued.
I hope this helps you, and thanks for writing!
*This fictional letter reflects a common dynamic between couples