This article was originally published on Healing Moments Counseling.
Meet Sarah and Alex – a young, multicultural couple in their late twenties who recently moved to Seattle, Wa seeking new opportunities. Sarah, a software engineer, and Alex, a marketing specialist, were excited about this fresh chapter in their lives. Today, they were planning a weekend getaway to celebrate their anniversary. However, when they started discussing the destination, things took an unexpected turn.
Sarah envisioned a serene mountain retreat, while Alex leaned towards a lively beachside destination. As they debated, tension began to build. Sarah felt anxious, fearing they might not find common ground. Alex, on the other hand, withdrew into a logical defense, attempting to maintain a calm exterior while feeling increasingly disconnected from Sarah.
In this example, we witness a classic Protest-Withdraw pattern that many couples experience. When Sarah faces a difference of opinion with Alex, she attempts to convince him to agree with her. When persuasion fails, she becomes more demanding, trying to “get them on the same page.” Her goal is to bridge the gap and maintain their connection.
In contrast, Alex does speak up about his preferences but feels uncomfortable when disagreements arise. He worries about disappointing Sarah and interprets her disappointment as a personal failure. To cope, Alex suppresses his hurt feelings and preferences for the trip by withdrawing emotionally, presenting a calm and logical façade while feeling inwardly distressed. He does this to avoid any further conflict, even though it leaves him dissatisfied with the resolution. Alex’s goal is to protect him and protect their relationship, which is important to him, from conflict.
As he closes off emotionally, Sarah becomes even more insistent in her pursuit of connection. The more Sarah protests, the more Alex withdraws, fueling a cycle that leads to disconnection.
Even though the couple did reach a decision, the problem is, the couples resolution for their trip feels “empty” and leaves a taste of tension in both partners mouths. Tension that they don’t know how to remove together.
Let’s see how this tension plays out the rest of the week:
Later that week, Sarah planned a surprise dinner date for Alex to celebrate their achievements at work. She reserved a table at a trendy new restaurant, excited to spend quality time together. However, the day took an unexpected turn when Alex received a last-minute project at work, leaving him overwhelmed and preoccupied.
As Sarah eagerly prepared for their date, she tried calling Alex to confirm their plans and share her excitement. Unfortunately, he was engrossed in his work and didn’t see her calls. Feeling a bit disappointed but determined not to spoil the surprise, Sarah headed to the restaurant, hoping Alex would show.
As Alex wrapped up his work, he noticed several missed calls from Sarah and a series of text messages expressing her concern. Feeling guilty about neglecting her and unable to leave work immediately, he decided to surprise Sarah at the restaurant after he was done.
When Alex arrived at the restaurant, Sarah was sitting alone at their reserved table, a mix of emotions visible on her face. As he approached her, she smiled weakly but it didn’t hide the hurt in her eyes. She tried to express her feelings, but Alex, feeling flustered and overwhelmed, brushed it off with a dismissive tone, apologizing for being busy at work.
Although Alex’s intention was not to hurt Sarah, she felt snubbed and unheard. Throughout the dinner, an underlying tension lingered between them. Sarah tried to maintain a polite demeanor, but her hurt emotions were evident. Alex tried to focus on the positive parts of the conversation and avoid the tension. As they returned home, both partners were visibly distant, their joyous evening overshadowed by a tension of disconnection.
Later that night, as they prepared for bed, Sarah approached Alex to discuss what had happened earlier. She explained how his lack of response made her feel neglected and how important the evening had been to her. Feeling defensive, Alex denied any ill intent and minimized the issue, stating that work had been demanding and she was making a big deal out of nothing.
Sarah, desperate to be understood, became more insistent and accused him of not prioritizing their relationship. Alex, feeling cornered, retreated emotionally, explaining that he couldn’t focus on anything else during his busy work hours. As the argument escalated, they both felt further disconnected, and Alex eventually left the room in frustration.
The remainder of the evening was spent in silence, with both partners in separate rooms, feeling hurt and misunderstood. In this situation, a similar pattern emerged to the previous one. Sarah tended to press harder when she felt disconnected, seeking reassurance and validation. Alex felt uncomfortable when faced with disagreements and tried to defend himself logically while closing off emotionally.
The more Sarah tried to make contact and express her feelings, the more distant Alex became. What follows is an infinity loop that illustrates how partners influence each other. The cycle feeds on itself, leaving both partners unsettled and yearning for reconnection, but not sure how.
The Protest-Withdraw pattern is a common dynamic, where partners use different strategies to protect their bond and avoid conflict. If you take a close look at this couple’s interaction, you will notice how Sarah and Alex each take certain steps that play off each other, maintaining a disconnection between them.
Follow the arrows in the graphic above: Notice how Sarah copes with her feelings of distress (scared she doesn’t matter) by convincing Alex which triggers Alex’s distress (Shame, I’m not enough) and in turn how he copes with those feelings by pulling away emotionally and becoming logical, amplifies Sarah’s distress which then causes her to convince more, which makes Alex even more distressed and pull away emotionally.
Let’s slow this pattern down to better understand what happens on the inside for both partners.
When one partner protests through complaints, accusations, or demands, they are often seeking reassurance and closeness. With the couple above, Sarah doesn’t tell Alex how anxious and insecure the differences in their trip preferences make her feel, rather she uses learned strategies, such as convincing, to try to bridge the gap. Hence the connection block between their inner feelings in the image above.
Even though it might not be immediately evident, when one partner pursues the other in a negative manner, they are often “protesting” the sense of disconnection in the present moment or the relationship in general.
Here are some common protesting behaviors people use to get their partners attention or a response:
- Yelling to make a point
- Following around the house
- Picking arguments
If protesting partners could vocalize their innermost feelings, it might sound something like:
“No! Please don’t pull away from me. Losing your connection leaves me so lonely. Please stay close, engage with me, I need your presence at this moment. I wish you could understand how much I need you. You matter so much to me.”
Sending such a vulnerable clear signal to their partners might seem too risky for many couples due to various reasons, including familial, societal, and cultural messages like
- “Don’t show your emotions openly,”
- “Adults are independent and shouldn’t need anyone,”
- “Vulnerability is a sign of weakness.”
Furthermore, as the negative cycle continues in a relationship, opening up and being vulnerable can feel too risky. As a result, protesting partners may resort to strategies of complaining, accusing, or demanding, but their distress signals of needing reassurance and connection with their partner might not come across clearly to their partner.
Instead of expressing their true needs as “I yearn for a stronger bond with you,” it may sound like “You never care about me,” “You only care about yourself,” or “I demand you do… you owe me because of how you treated me.”
Protesting is a natural response that attachment system utilizes when it doesn’t feel safe to be vulnerable. However, it is possible to change these behavior patterns and create a safe space where you and your partner can express your feelings and needs without fear. This can lead to a sense of connection both partners are yearning for.
On the other hand, withdrawing partners may try to minimize conflicts and shield themselves from distress. They may appear emotionally distant, but their bodies can reveal significant physical discomfort during such interactions. Alex, like Sarah, doesn’t tell her this interaction touches a place where he feels like a failure, but rather he uses strategies he has learned to cope with tension in important relationships: avoid the tension. Hence the connection block between their inner feelings in the image above.
Partners who tend to withdraw or avoid difficult interactions are essentially silently expressing their protest against conflict and disharmony, which is unsettling for some individuals.
Similarly, partners who placate, defend, distance, or emotionally shut down during tense conversations are usually attempting to reduce conflict in the relationship and prevent disappointing their partners. At the same time, they might also be shielding themselves from the distress caused by potential disappointment.
Although they may appear paralyzed, distant, or seemingly unaffected during these challenging discussions, research has revealed that their bodies exhibit signs of heightened physiological arousal, such as a pounding heart and sweaty palms, indicating significant physical discomfort and physiological distress in such conflict-prone moments.
Here are some common withdrawing behaviors people use to protect the relationship and themselves:
- Clamming up
- Minimizing the problem
- Using humor to deflect
- Shutting down emotionally
- Numbing out
- Not responding
- Yelling to shut things down
If partners who withdraw could openly express their inner turmoil during tense moments, their words might echo:
“Let’s avoid conflict. I feel anxious when there’s unhappiness or disharmony in our relationship. I wish you could understand that I’m trying to resolve the issues ASAP because I deeply care about us.”
For withdrawers, life experiences might have taught you to guard your feelings, leading you to believe that shutting down emotions is the safest approach to prevent further complications. Alternatively, you might have never had someone guide you in exploring your emotions, making it challenging to express them authentically. As a result, you may feel emotionally blocked and resort to minimizing issues or trying to solve them logically.
Both protesting and withdrawing partners’ strategies to connect, despite their best intentions, block the emotional connection and safety both partners are yearning for.
To break free from the Protest-Withdraw pattern, it’s essential for partners to recognize their own emotions and the underlying needs driving their behaviors.
Changing these patterns requires both partners to engage in open dialogue, validate each other’s emotions, and work together to build emotional safety. Professional support, such as Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, can guide couples through this process, fostering a deeper connection and paving the way for a fulfilling relationship.
In conclusion, recognizing and understanding the Protest-Withdraw pattern as the problem, not each other, can be the first step towards a more harmonious and intimate relationship. By embracing vulnerability and learning to communicate authentically, couples like Sarah and Alex can create a foundation of trust, respect, and love that will endure any challenge they face together.
Here are some additional resources to understand and change the Protest-Withdraw Pattern.
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