Relationships: The criticize-withdrawal cycle |

Relationships: The criticize-withdrawal cycle

Neil Rosenthal

One person (let’s say it’s you) makes a request of your intimate partner. Maybe you want help with cleaning or straightening up the house. Perhaps you feel your partner is following the car in front of you on the highway too closely, and want him or her to back off a little bit. How about if your partner is working or watching TV too much, and you feel cheated because of the lack of connection and engagement? Or let’s say you request she or he become more accountable about spending money and not overdrawing the bank account.

But she or he resists you, or ignores your request, or “forgets” again and again, or otherwise tells you in words or through actions to take a hike. So, what do you do? Forget about it? (Probably not.) Have a polite discussion about it? (You’ve tried that, but it didn’t work.) Yell or get angry? (Well, perhaps sometimes.) Threaten hell, fire and damnation? (Hmmm, not a bad idea.)

If you’re like many couples, then you go through a rather predictable cycle. You begin to criticize your partner. But your partner may interpret even a small request or a gentle criticism as admonishing, blaming or disapproving. She or he may be hyper-sensitive to disapproval, so you make a request of him or her, and the next thing you know, the two of you are either fighting or not talking to each other.

You have just encountered the criticize-withdraw cycle intimate relationships sometimes get caught in. Your partner hears criticism instead of a request, and responds by either criticizing you back or by withdrawing.

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Kinds of Withdrawal

There are variations on this theme. Both of you can then turn critical of each other (perhaps you know a couple who does this), or both of you can withdraw (does this describe anyone you know?). Or, perhaps you fear your partner’s withdrawal, and therefore stuff your feelings and make nice so the two of you remain close and connected (pursue-withdraw). But such feelings do not remain stuffed forever, and before long you become sarcastic and acid-tongued. Then, your partner withdraws from you, or becomes acid-tongued back and the cycle begins anew.

These recurring patterns often go on for years, and sometimes it is difficult to know which pattern you are playing out. The silent treatment would appear to be withdrawal, but it can also be unspoken criticism. Some people, feeling nothing is ever going to change, leave their relationship abruptly. Often when that happens, the withdrawn partner suddenly becomes the pursuer. Sometimes that works, but at other times it may be viewed as “too-little, too-late.”

What do you do about this cycle? You could ask questions rather than react or defend: “Why does it matter how close I’m driving to the car in front of me?” Or “did you feel as if I was being critical or disrespectful of your driving?” Asking your partner what she or he would prefer you do when you feel critical (or defensive) might work as well.

Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder. His column is in its 22nd year of publication and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777 or email him through his website: He is not able to respond individually to queries.

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