Ignoring your spouse can actually work wonders for the relationship
The demand-withdraw behaviour can prove to be helpful for some couples.
According to research published in 'Journal of Personality and Social Psychology', ignoring a spouse's demands may benefit low-income couples but negatively affect higher-income couple's relationship.
"Consider this example: A wife requests that her husband asks for a raise at work. For a husband in a low-wage job with less job security, that is a risky proposition. By showing reluctance to ask for the raise, he can preserve his self-esteem and lessen emphasis on the couple's vulnerable financial situation," said lead author of the study Jaclyn M. Ross.
"For a wealthier couple in the same situation, the wife may perceive that the husband is unwilling to make a sacrifice for his family and that can cause friction in the relationship," Ross added.
Ross and her colleagues noted that previous studies on demand-withdraw behaviour have focused almost exclusively on white, middle-class couples. Results of those studies showed that this common behaviour could be helpful for some couples and harmful to others.
Ross and the team wanted to understand what mitigating factors could lead to those different effects. The researchers decided to include a more racially and ethnically diverse sample, as well as examine the role of socioeconomic status in relationship satisfaction.
The study focused on the wife being the partner to give the demand and the husband being the partner to withdraw. Examples of the demand-withdraw behaviour included the wives being hostile, dominating, threatening or blaming, while their husbands avoided the confrontation.
The researchers conducted two experiments with heterosexual couples over the course of 18 months. The first experiment included 515 couples (the vast majority were married, all had at least one child or were expecting a child) and 40 per cent were at or below the federal poverty line. The couples were visited in their homes by the research team and asked to engage in a series of discussions about something each partner wanted to change about themselves as well as a topic of disagreement in the relationship.
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In cases where the researchers observed demand-withdraw behaviour, relationship satisfaction remained stable for couples with fewer financial resources during those 18 months. For more affluent couples who engaged in demand-withdraw, relationship satisfaction declined during that time period.
Interestingly, relationship satisfaction declined for lower-income couples when the husbands did not exhibit strong withdrawal behaviours.
The second experiment involved 414 newlywed couples who were visited in their homes four times over 27 months. The couples were asked to engage in the same series of discussions as the couples in experiment one.
The researchers again found that the disadvantaged couples experienced more dissatisfaction over those 27 months when the husbands displayed lower withdrawal in the face of the wives' demands.
The results of the second experiment were not as robust as experiment one, which could be due to the fact that the second group of couples was newlyweds whereas the first group had been married for an average of five years.
"Even though it is easier for wealthier couples to access resources to address their relationship problems, it can also create higher expectations that partners will make accommodations for one another's demands and needs that underlie their problems. But if those expectations are not met, rifts can occur in the relationship and exacerbate the existing problems," said co-author Thomas N. Bradbury.
This study highlights the importance of using diverse samples in research on couples because results can vary based on differing life circumstances. The results may be beneficial for clinicians who work with couples in therapy and policymakers focused on marriage and family.
"Creating safe and secure environments helps to allow partners to relate well to each other and to their children, giving more people the kinds of relationships and families that will keep them healthy and happy," said Ross.