Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

What The Battle Of The Sexes Is All About

August 2, 1999

One of the ongoing struggles between couples is to find a satisfying level of closeness (intimacy) or distance (autonomy) each partner wants in a relationship. When one partner's need for intimacy is not realized, he or she presses for change through emotional demands, criticism, and complaints. The other partner retreats through withdrawal, defensiveness and passive inaction.

This pattern of interaction has been variously labeled the "demand/withdraw," "pursuer/distancer" or the "intrusion/rejection" pattern by the researchers who have studied it.

Andrew Christensen and his colleagues at UCLA have found that partners who want more closeness tend to be the demanders while partners who want more autonomy tend to be the withdrawers. Women tend to want more closeness and be demanders while men tend to want more autonomy and be withdrawers.

Why are women usually in the demand role while men tend to withdraw as a way of handling conflict? Christiansen offers these explanations:

The socialization explanation. Women are trained to be affiliative and expressive and more likely to fear abandonment and rejection. Women's identity is more likely to be developed in a context of relationships. They are more likely to be threatened by separation.

Men are trained to be independent and strong and are more likely to fear intrusion and engulfment. Men's identity is developed in a context of separation. They are more likely to be threatened by intimacy and attachment.

The biological explanation. Men are physiologically more reactive to stress than women. They can't handle conflict as well because of their higher levels of emotional arousal. They try to avoid conflict, withdraw from conflict or reconcile conflict quickly.

Women are less reactive to stress than men, especially in interpersonal conflict when the atmosphere between them becomes hostile or confrontational. Women are more likely than men to escalate conflict and more comfortable in expressing their hurt and anger. Women are conflict-confronting while men are conflict-avoiding.

The difference in power explanation. Men historically enjoy greater benefits in traditional marriages. Women carry the burden of household and child care responsibilities, even when both spouses are employed full time.

Men are likely to be a conservative force in relationships, with a vested interest in preserving the status quo. Men are more able to structure a relationship to their desires than are women. Women are more dissatisfied with the status quo and pressure for change while men attempt to keep the status quo by withdrawing and avoiding confrontation.

Is the demand role a function of lack of power in a relationship or do differences in biology/socialization predispose women to take a demanding role in order to meet their needs for intimacy? Christensen and his associates devised a study to answer this question.

Thirty-one couples were assessed in two conflict situations: one in which the husband wanted change in his wife and the second when the wife wanted change in her husband.

They found that "wife-demand/husband withdraw" interaction was more likely than a "husband-demand/wife-withdraw" pattern. In general, men were disposed to withdraw during conflict. When placed in a role of wanting change, men and women were equally demanding. However, when a husband raised an issue for his wife to change, she was more willing to be open to her husband's complaints and enter a dialogue with him than he was willing to do when it was her issue.

Christensen explains that in the conflict between a desire for more intimacy and a desire for automony, the person wanting to avoid intimacy has a distinct power advantage. "Autonomy can be achieved unilaterally; closeness requires joint desire and cooperation...The compromise between the two will favor the person who wants less closeness."

The change may not be good enough for one partner and the pressure for change continues. The other partner feels his or her automony threatened and increases resistance. The person who wants less and is less interested has more power to control the relationship.

Christensen continues, "If women want more from relationships than men and are more dependent on relationship satisfaction than men, women as a result may be at a power disadvantage relative to men." A man who wishes to avoid intimacy is inherently empowered when pitted against a woman who wants more intimacy.

When a man wants change in a relationship, the woman is willing to listen, negotiate and work on their differences. On the other hand, when a woman wants change, a man is much more likely to ignore the problem. A wife resorts to complaints and demands. He withdraws. She persists. And the battle goes on.