Understanding the Silent Treatment

Paul Schrodt conducted the first meta-analysis of the demand-withdraw communication pattern.

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Demand-withdraw communication patterns can lead to heartbreak or worse.

Understanding the Silent Treatment

Paul Schrodt conducted the first meta-analysis of the demand-withdraw communication pattern.

Paul Schrodt has studied the interaction patterns within stepfamilies since graduate school. During this span, the professor of communication studies noticed that parental participation in demand/withdraw habits often resulted in anxiety, depression and stress in their children.

In 2011, Schrodt launched a meta-analysis to examine the entire body of work on the subject. Described by a variety of names, “demand/withdraw” refers to a destructive form of interpersonal relations in which one partner criticizes and blames while the other partner retreats and refuses to communicate.

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Paul Schrodt launched the first meta-analysis of the demand-withdraw communication style.

Within marriages, wives have long been accused of being the nagging partner, while husbands have a reputation for wanting to escape. But Schrodt said husbands could be the critical partners too. Teenagers also fall into the same dysfunctional communication patterns, as do parents and same-sex couples.

“If partners are starting to engage in the demand/withdraw pattern … that’s a real sign that the relationship may be headed in an unhealthy direction,” said Schrodt, who also serves director of graduate studies for the Bob Schieffer College of Communication.

In an attempt to create solutions for the destructive pattern, communication scholars have been giving demand/withdraw interactions systematic attention for about 25 years. Researchers have launched a series of studies to learn why and how these communication styles happen and what sort of results they cause.

No communication researcher, however, had conducted a meta-analysis review. Schrodt and two other scholars stepped up to the task. “We wanted to synthesize everything that we know,” said the professor who was the study’s lead investigator. “And if I can detect a pattern … I have a whole lot more confidence in that finding.”

Schrodt and University of Denver professors Paul Witt and Jenna Shimkowsi examined more than 120 studies on demand/withdraw habits and settled on 74 for analysis.

The three researchers published their meta-analysis results in Communication Monographs in March 2014. The research sparked considerable interest, with Schrodt fielding calls from national media, including The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

Some sociologists speculate that women, as a consequence of living in patriarchal environments, desire change in the power balance of their relationships, thus they act until it happens. Men, the scholars theorize, might be satisfied with expectations that relieve them of housework and other duties traditionally performed by women.

Other scholars approach the demand/withdraw communication style from a gender socialization perspective, or as an outflow of inherent personality characteristics. Those ideas may be a part of the puzzle, Schrodt said. “But we don’t know definitively if one theory is better or more accurate than the other.”

If partners are starting to engage in the demand/withdraw pattern … that’s a real sign that the relationship may be headed in an unhealthy direction.
Paul Schrodt

In the meta-analysis review, Schrodt studied whether demand/withdraw was a “stronger predictor of some types of outcomes.” The research team coded the studies, which involved 14,255 participants. They mapped the input variables, and the results gave them sufficient perspective to establish strong links and outcomes.

Communication outcomes, including topic avoidance and domestic violence, as well as relational outcomes, such as emotional distance and overall satisfaction with the relationship, were more prominently affected by falling into pursuit and retreat.

Another result of the meta-analysis was that no matter which partner performed which role, the results were equally harmful. When couples regularly engage in demand/withdraw habits, the relationship may head down the drain quickly.

A third result of the meta-analysis was evidence that the effect of the demand/withdraw pattern is much worse for couples already in distress, Schrodt said. Once a major lane of communication gets blocked, reopening it is a challenge that often requires mediation of a professional therapist or maybe a trusted friend.

“There is a natural tendency that the more couples engage in this pattern, the more intractable it becomes,” Schrodt said.

In identifying links and causes in demand/withdraw habits, Schrodt’s goal was “to help develop intervention programs” because he doesn’t see the purpose of debating causation when “a communication lens provides a much stronger set of effects.”

The professor said solving the problem “really starts with self-awareness.” Participants need to shift perspectives and stop placing the blame on the other party. “Both partners have to kind of do what feels unnatural so that they help meet the other partner’s needs.”

Once participants assume responsibility for the way they are feeling instead of trying to change the other, real healing can occur, Schrodt said. “For me personally, that’s where I see the hope moving forward in this particular area of conflict.”