When you get in a fight with your significant other, what’s your natural reaction? Is it to withdraw and avoid the conflict entirely? Or be silently angry in the hope that he or she will figure out what’s wrong?
In past relationships, I’ve been guilty of expecting my boyfriend to read my mind when I’m angry or upset. When he would ask me what’s wrong, I’d respond with one-word answers and act cold for the next ten minutes—until eventually I said what was actually bothering me. Looking back, my passive aggressiveness did nothing but make me look immature and drag out the fight.
The guys I dated, on the other hand, would typically withdraw and shut down completely during an argument: Brooding in silence for a day or two until they cooled off, and then reaching out only to pretend nothing happened.
According to a new study, both approaches are unhealthy and unproductive when it comes to resolving conflict, but for different reasons.
Researcher Keith Sanford, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor University’s College of Arts & Sciences, explains that withdrawal is the most damaging to relationships. “It’s a defensive tactic that people use when they feel they are being attacked, and there’s a direct association between withdrawal and lower satisfaction overall with the relationship.”
Interestingly, the people who were more likely to withdraw were “bored, disinterested or apathetic,” Sanford says. This behavior is rooted in the desire to maintain control and independence.
People who expected their partners to mind-read, on the other hand, were coming from a place of anxiety and feeling neglected. Sanford explains, “You’re worried about how much your partner loves you, and that’s associated with neglect. You feel sad, hurt and vulnerable.”
I never understood why mind-reading became my default setting in a fight, but I think in my case it had to do with the fact that I didn’t want to come across overly emotional, aka the “crazy girl,” so I didn’t say anything. Unfortunately, I’m not the best at hiding my emotions, so it was never a secret when I was upset.
Most importantly, the study found that withdrawal does not influence a couple’s ability to reconcile, but expecting your partner to read your mind does.
It’s more likely to lead to a cycle of negative communication.
“Often, you have one person who withdraws and the other demands,” he says. “The more the one demands and complains, the more the other withdraws, and so on.”
Resolving conflict requires both partners to be aware of when these behaviors are happening and be willing to find a positive, more productive alternative. The key to compromise is being compassionate. Ask yourself: Is it more important to be right or find a solution? Most importantly, love is not selfish. A healthy relationship takes work and a commitment from both people to succeed.
Photo by kusmierz