The big freeze: Silence and withdrawal can damage your marriage


Hands up if there is a sulker in your relationship! Do you or your spouse tend to clam up, withdraw or display the cold shoulder when the other makes a demand? If you answered 'yes', then you might want to change your patterns as recent research suggests that when one partner stonewalls or shuts down emotionally, it is a serious sign of distress in the relationship.

Conflict is inevitable but it makes a big difference how you deal with it. Recent research* found that the 'demand-withdraw' pattern is the most common way people deal with conflict in a committed relationship. This is when one partner pressures the other with their requests, criticisms and complaints and is met with avoidance or silence.

The analysis of 74 studies and 14,000 participants found that couples engaged in this kind of behaviour experience lower relationship satisfaction, less intimacy and poorer communication. It can cause anxiety and aggression as well as physiological effects such as urinary, bowel or erectile dysfunction.

One of the report's authors, Paul Schrodt, explained, "each partner sees the other person's behaviour as the start of a fight." The one who withdraws is reacting to their partner's nagging or criticism and the one who nags believes they have no choice because their partner doesn't respond as they want them to. Both struggle to see how their own behaviour contributes to the unhealthy pattern.

Breaking this pattern once it has become ingrained is hard but not impossible. It might help to pray and ask the Holy Spirit to make Romans 12:10 a reality in our relationship. "Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves."

Here are a few other things you can try.

Be honest. Own up if you are a habitual nagger or stonewaller and think about why this might be. Often naggers feel abandoned and stonewallers feel inadequate. If you are a nagger think about reducing the number of requests you make a day. If you are a stonewaller, practice voicing your thoughts and feelings more often.

Use 'I' not 'you'. Whenever you want to talk about what your partner has or hasn't done – mention how it made you feel rather than using accusations or hurling insults. Avoid any statements that start with "you never..." or "you always..."

Respect each other. Speak to your husband or wife kindly. Sometimes we can end up speaking negatively to our spouse in a way we would never speak to a friend or a stranger. It is important to learn to cherish your most important relationship and that might mean guarding your tongue on occasion or replying if your temptation is to remain sulking.

Put connection first. Disagreements are easier to sort out if you feel like you are on the same side. Look for ways to connect before tackling difficult conversations. Pay each other a compliment, have a hug, make love or do something fun. It can be easier to talk when you aren't attacking or avoiding each other.

Sarah Abell is an author and relationships coach. Find out more at

*A Meta-Analytical Review of the Demand/Withdraw Pattern of Interaction and its Associations with Individual, Relational, and Communicative Outcomes. Paul Schrodt et al. Communication Monographs