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Interacting Sensitivities in Couples Therapy

Posted by Dan Wile, PhD on 3/13/11 - 3:03 PM
It is a typical night at Tom and Betsy's house. Tom has his nose in a newspaper.  Betsy is leaning in the door of his study trying to talk to him, getting more and more frustrated at his periodic, vague “Uh huh.” After a few minutes of trying to entice him into a conversation, Betsy starts complaining, and then criticizing him for being cold. Tom snaps, “Can't you just once leave me alone?” Betsy yells, he withdraws further, and Betsy stalks out, thinking, “I'll give him all the alone time he wants!” 

Tom and Betsy are caught in “interlocking vulnerabilities” (Carol Jenkin’s term) or “interacting (or reciprocal) sensitivities” (my term). Each partner responds to having his or her sensitivity inflamed in a way that inflames that of the other. Tom is sensitive to criticism and responds by disengaging; Betsy is sensitive to disengagement and responds by criticizing. Michele Scheinkman and Mona Fishbane call this pattern “the vulnerability cycle.” Scott Woolley calls it “the EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) Cycle.” Robert-Jay Green calls it the “problematic couple interaction cycle.” “Pursuer-distancer” (coined by Thomas Fogarty) and “demanding-withdrawn” (researched by Andrew Christensen) are earlier ideas out of which the notion of interacting sensitivities developed.
 
My purpose here is to distinguish two major subtypes of interacting sensitivities—“pursue-withdraw” and “attack-withdraw”—and to describe how the pattern of interacting sensitivities plays out in the couple relationship. Awareness of this pattern will help the therapist follow the flow of the session and enable the partners to appreciate what they are caught in.
 
In “pursue-withdraw,” one partner is sensitive to the other’s withdrawal (feels ignored, shut out, abandoned, rejected, lonely, uncared for, unloved, unlovable, or just not as close and connected as he or she wants) and responds by pressing for connection (time together, intimate talking, affection, sex), and the other partner is sensitive to pressing (feels engulfed, smothered, suffocated, bombarded, besieged, flooded, controlled) and responds by withdrawing (disengaging, abandoning, shutting down, closing off). The self-reinforcing nature of this exchange is clear. The more Bob disengages, the more Gloria needs reassuring contact. The more Gloria presses, the more Bob needs to disengage.
 
In “attack-withdraw,” the other major form of interacting sensitivities, one partner is sensitive to attack (complaint, blame, criticism, anger, reproach, scolding, demands, sarcasm, rejection, disapproval, humiliation, exposure) and responds by withdrawing; the other partner is sensitive to withdrawal and responds by attacking. Again, the self-propelling nature is clear. The angrier Ben gets, the more Alan withdraws. The more Alan withdraws, the angrier Ben gets.
 
In a fight, the withdrawn partner typically seeks to end the fight or, at least, take a time out. He or she is the one more aware of the destructive and stalemated quality of the fight. The pursuing partner typically wants to keep talking. He or she dreads ending the exchange without a resolution and on bad terms.
 
In practice, “pursue-withdraw” typically morphs into “attack-withdraw.” At some point, and in some cases very soon, the pursuing partner becomes frustrated and shifts from pressing for connection to reproaching for failing to connect: “Why are you so defended?” “How come you never talk to me?” “Living with you is like living alone,” “Hello, are you alive over there?” Such reproach creates an “attack-withdraw” pattern (unless, of course, the other partner responds with anger rather than with withdrawal, which would then trigger an “attack-attack” pattern.  I’ll get to that in a moment). Here is an example of the shiftfrom “pursue-withdraw” to “attack-withdraw”.
 
Sally (inviting): What do you say we go for a walk?
Tom (vaguely): Maybe later.
Sally (encouraging): Come on. Let’s go now, while it’s still sunny out.
Tom: I want to read this book.
Sally (pressing): You can do that when we get home. Come on. You’ll feel different once we’re out there.
Tom: I’m really into this book.
Sally: (pressing): Well, okay, we don’t have to walk. Why don’t we just hang out and talk for a while?
Tom: I’m not in the mood.
Sally (shifting to attack): You’re never in the mood.
Tom (shrugs)
Sally (blurting out a hidden fear): Admit it—you just don’t want to do things with me anymore; that’s it, isn’t it…
Tom (looks up for a second): That’s not true.
Sally: Well, it is true. You’re like your father—the way he treats your mother. You’re getting to be more like him all the time.
Tom (Looks down at his book)
Sally: Aren’t you going to say anything?
Tom: I don’t know what I can say.
Sally (sarcastically): You could say, “Sure, let’s go for a walk. What a great idea! Thanks for suggesting it. You always make things such fun.”
Tom (looks unhappy)
 
Such “attack-withdraw” can go on for some time. At some point, and with some couples very soon, the attacking partner thinks, “I’m tired of being angry,” or “Oh my god, I’m sounding like my father,” or “This is starting to go nowhere fast,” or “I hate how whiny and needy I sound, even to myself,” or “You can’t change people, especially some people” or “You can’t get all your needs satisfied by just one person; I’ll call my sister,” Thinking such thoughts, the attacking person joins the withdrawn partner in disengaging. The result is a “withdraw-withdraw” pattern.  
 
At times, the pursuing partner purposely withdraws, creating what looks like a “withdraw-withdraw” pattern. He or she secretly hopes that the withdrawn partner will miss the engagement and start pursuing. But the withdrawn partner is usually just relieved by the decrease of pressure and doesn’t pursue.
 
While one partner has remained withdrawn, the other partner has shifted from “pursue” to “attack” to “withdraw.” At some point, and in some cases very soon, the latter partner again becomes distressed by the lack of emotional connection and again starts pursuing, which triggers a repeat of the three-part sequence. Couples can go on for years repeating the sequence of “pursue-withdraw,” “attack-withdraw,” and “withdraw-withdraw.”
 
At some point in this repetition, the pursuing partner may become so resentful about the withdrawn partner’s lack of engagement that he or she bypasses the “pursue” and goes directly to the “attack.” From then on, the partners shuttle between “attack-withdraw” and “withdraw-withdraw.” The “pursue-withdraw” has dropped out. At yet a later point, the “attack-withdraw” may drop out, too. The attacking partner becomes so discouraged that he or she gives up, and the couple slips into a chronic “withdraw-withdraw” devitalized state.
 
The discussion so far portrays one partner as remaining in the withdrawn state even when the other gets angry. In some cases, however, the withdrawn partner responds with anger of his or her own: “Why do you always have to get so angry about every little thing?” “Don’t yell at me!” “You could use a crash course in anger management—my treat.” In some cases, the withdrawn rather than the pursuing partner is the first toburst into anger: “Stop trying to control me,” “Get off my back!” “Give me room to breathe,” “Back off,” “You never let up, do you?” “Can’t you do anything by yourself?” “You’re the neediest person I’ve ever known.”  When the withdrawn partner attacks, the result is the pattern of “attack-attack” (if the other partner fights back), “attack-pursue” (if the other partner continues pursuing), or “withdraw-attack” (if the pursuing partner is now the one to withdraw).
 
Withdrawal and attack are not always clearly distinguishable. When you give your partner the silent treatment, you appear to withdraw. You relate to your partner in a grim, wooden, disengaged, monosyllabic way. But all the time, you are communicating anger. You are simultaneously withdrawing and attacking.
 
In summary, interacting sensitivities (the vulnerability cycle, interlocking vulnerabilities) has two main forms: “pursue-withdraw” and “attack-withdraw.” If the withdrawn partner remains withdrawn, the couple repeatedly passes through “pursue-withdraw” “attack-withdraw,” and “withdraw-withdraw.” As time goes on, the “pursue-withdraw” may drop out as may also the “attack-withdraw.” If the withdrawn partner doesn’t remain withdrawn, but instead attacks, the couple shifts into “attack-attack,” “pursue-attack,” or “withdraw-attack.”
 
We customarily think of a couple as being a particular type—for example, volatile, withdrawn, or pursuer-distancer. But if we look at what actually happens moment-to-moment, we see that couples often shift among several phases.
 
Knowledge of this shifting helps a therapist follow the flow of what is happening in the couple and understand how the partners are triggering each other—how, for example, Alex pursues because he feels abandoned and Judy withdraws because she feels cornered, which leads to mutual accusation, and, in an effort to avoid further damage, to mutual withdrawal. The therapeutic goal is to enable the partners themselves to observe their relationship in this way: to give them a compassionate vantage point above the fray—a platform—from which to monitor and manage their relationship. Such a vantage point is created by developing the couple’s ability to hold recovery conversations in which they go over their alienating interactions and appreciate how the position of each made sense.
Filed under: Couples Therapy
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