Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Age-Related Changes in Demand-Withdraw Communication Behaviors

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Age-Related Changes in Demand-Withdraw Communication Behaviors

Article excerpt

Demand-withdraw communication is a set of conflict-related behaviors in which one partner blames or pressures while the other partner withdraws or avoids. The present study examined age-related changes in these behaviors longitudinally over the course of later life stages. One hundred twenty-seven middleaged and older long-term married couples were observed at 3 time points across 13 years as they engaged in a conversation about an area of relationship conflict. Husbands ' and wives ' demand-withdraw behaviors (i.e., blame, pressure, withdrawal, avoidance) were objectively rated by trained coders at each time point. Data were analyzed using dyad-level latent growth curve models in a structural equation modeling framework. For both husbands and wives, the results showed a longitudinal pattern of increasing avoidance behavior over time and stability in all other demand and withdraw behaviors. This study supports the notion that there is an important developmental shift in the way that conflict is handled in later life.

Key Words: aging, communications, couples, life span development, marital relations

Managing conflict is one of the central tasks of maintaining a marriage. In the face of disagreement, some couples are able to engage in constructive dialogue that facilitates conflict resolution, whereas others display more maladaptive behaviors that can take a serious toll on the relationship (Fincham, 2003; Weiss & Heyman, 1997). Whereas a great deal of research has focused on examining the causes and consequences of communication behaviors during conflict (Bradbury, Fincham, & Beach, 2000; Gottman & Notarius, 2002), comparatively little is known about how such behaviors change over time as couples move into later life stages. This was the starting point for the present study, which examined longitudinal changes in demand-withdraw behaviors among middle-aged and older long-term married couples.

Demand-Withdraw Communication

One specific set of behaviors thought to be particularly disruptive for relationships has been termed the demand-withdraw communication pattern (e.g., Eldridge & Christensen, 2002). Demand-withdraw is characterized by a set of behaviors in which one partner tries to discuss problems, criticizes or blames his or her partner for problems, or pressures the partner to change. Conversely, the other partner tries to avoid discussion of the problem or passively withdraws from the interaction (e.g., Christensen, 1988; Eldridge & Christensen, 2002). Demand-withdraw is common during relationship conflicts and has been described as one of the central, most intractable, and destructive patterns of marital interaction (Heavey, Layne, & Christensen, 1993).

Reports of demand-withdraw-type patterns (i.e., the nagging wife and the emotionally withdrawn husband) have been present in the marital literature for decades (e.g., Fogarty, 1976; Napier, 1978; Terman, Buttenwieser, Ferguson, Johnson, & Wilson, 1938). Empirical research in this area benefited from an influential series of studies conducted by Christensen and colleagues in the 1980s and 1990s (e.g., Christensen, 1988; Christensen & Heavey, 1990). Early on, research showed an association between the frequency of reported demand-withdraw behavior and marital dissatisfaction, as well as a tendency toward gender differentiation in demand-withdraw roles (i.e., wives demanding and husbands withdrawing; Christensen & Shenk, 1991). Subsequent studies supported these findings and expanded on this original work in important ways. For example, observational measures of demand and withdraw behaviors (e.g., Caughlin & Vangelisti, 2000; Christensen & Heavey, 1993; Vogel & Karney, 2002) began to appear, an advance that contributed depth, richness, and theoretical clarity to this area of research (Gottman & Notarius, 2002). In addition, new findings emerged showing the relationship of demandwithdraw to marital violence (e. …

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