Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Don't Fight Fire With Fire - Or Ice

October 9, 2000

Fire. Half of all divorces occur in the first seven years of marriage. Sparks of white hot conflict, scathing sarcasm and caustic criticism are the incendiary fuel that doom relationships lacking in impulse control and problem-solving skills. These couples attack and defend with escalating anger and conflict. Their explosive interactions leave one or both partners feeling overwhelmed by negative feelings and feeling disheartened. That is the fire.

Ice. But what about ice? A second vulnerable period for divorce occurs in midlife when teens are in the home or when they are leaving the nest. These troubled marriages are characterized by emotional coolness and suppression of feelings.

These couples don’t talk a lot. They don’t fight a lot. They no longer raise issues. There is an undercurrent of hostility about disappointed expectations and past failed efforts to create change. There is no joy, no fun, no expression of positive emotion. They are resigned to an intense loneliness that almost feels like dying. Long-standing unexpressed disillusionment about the marriage is amplified by serious thoughts about aging and the loss of opportunity for personal happiness.

This delicate equilibrium is upset when one spouse, usually the one who is most unhappy, goes underground with his or her feelings and forms an alliance with a teenage son or daughter of the same gender. It then becomes two against one. Getting a teenager into the fray creates enough conflict that the situation reaches a threshold of distress and open conflict.

The situation becomes worse when the one spouse, usually it is the wife, tries to get her husband to enter counseling and he refuses. She then goes for individual counseling, forms an alliance with the therapist and gets validation for her marital unhappiness. The pattern of emotional withdrawal continues its destructive course.

Types of withdrawal. How does this downward cycle of avoidance and withdrawal get started? Researcher Linda Roberts of the University of Wisconsin-Madison published her findings in the August edition of the Journal of Marriage and the Family. She identified and assessed three distinct types of withdrawal behavior:

- Angry withdrawal, occurring in response to perceived negative behavior of a partner and expressed through actions such as stomping out of the room, pouting or giving the silent treatment.

- Conflict avoidance, occurring in response to conflict or a potential conflict, with a partner. This is expressed through actions such as changing the subject, making a joke, placating, failing to bring up a disagreement or demonstrating a lack of interest in a discussion.

- Intimacy avoidance, occurring in response to a partner's self-revealing disclosures of feelings and vulnerabilities, and expressed through behaviors such as ignoring, showing a lack of attention or interest, or not listening.

Roberts found that these patterns of avoidance of intimacy - particularly withdrawal from situations requiring emotional closeness, warmth and caring - are destructive to marital happiness.

Gender differences. Roberts also found gender differences in how husbands and wives react to emotional withdrawal.

Conflict avoidance may be positive for some couples and negative for others. The study found that wives react positively to a husband’s conflict-avoiding behaviors if the alternative is hostile responsiveness. On the other hand, wives who perceive their husbands as unlikely to blow up and be hostile in response to conflict, react negatively when their husband’s avoids conflict.

A wife’s distress is most affected by her husband’s hostile negativity, more so than his withdrawal. On the other hand, husbands who saw their wives as withdrawing emotionally were more unhappy than those husbands who saw their wives as hostile and critical.

Breaking the cycle. Roberts feels that it is particularly important to wives that negative feelings are aired and conflicts resolved in a context that feels safe and constructive. It is important to husbands that their wives are engaged, involved and responsive to their communications.

In either case, it is important that both partners are responsive to their spouse’s disclosure of personal, heartfelt feelings. They need to listen to each other and respond with empathy, interest and concern. They can establish the pattern of talking by greeting one another, sharing the details of each other’s lives - their dreams, hopes, fears and disappointments early in the marriage - and by not allowing emotional distance to come between them.

If couples have fallen into a trap of busyness or the pursuit of individual goals, they can try to break through the walls that have come up and get to know their spouse again. It may take counseling, showing empathy for each other’s concerns, working through past anger and hurts, and a willingness to stop avoiding the difficult differences that place a icy pall over their marriage. Couples disconnected in midlife can use their unhappiness as a bridge to find one another again instead of letting their loneliness take them out of the marriage.

"Overall, the results send a strong message about the importance of staying involved with your spouse, listening to his or her concerns, and responding in a non-hostile and caring way," says Roberts, "Spouses shouldn't fight fire with fire - or with ice."