Disengagement in relationships can be harmful says researcher Keith Sanford, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor University’s College of Arts & Sciences.
Two of the most common types of disengagement are withdrawing like a turtle into its shell and expecting your partner to be a mind reader.
“Withdrawal is the most problematic for relationships,” Sanford said. “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.”
The research showed that individuals were more likely to report withdrawal if they were bored, disinterested or apathetic. “There’s a desire to maintain autonomy, control and distance,” Sanford said.
Meanwhile, those who expected a partner to know what is wrong without being told are anxious, feeling neglected rather than threatened.
“You’re worried about how much your partner loves you, and that’s associated with neglect. You feel sad, hurt and vulnerable,” Sanford said.
Conflicts in which one partner expects the other to read minds were more likely to lead to negative communication and anger — and that can lead to a Catch-22.
“Often, you have one person who withdraws and the other demands. The more the one demands and complains, the more the other withdraws, and so on,” Sanford said.
Withdrawal does not necessarily influence whether a couple can resolve a conflict, said Sanford, who has done previous studies on couples’ conflicts. But expecting or hoping the other person to be a mind reader has a direct influence on the couple’s ability to settle the issue.
“It’s an issue both of being aware of when these behaviors are occurring and of finding an alternative — a more constructive, polite approach to resolve conflict,” he said. “And at times, that’s easier said than done.”
Nichols NB, Backer-Fulghum LM, Boska CR, Sanford K. Two Types of Disengagement During Couples’ Conflicts: Withdrawal and Passive Immobility. Psychol Assess., 2014 Nov 17