Why Withdrawing Doesn’t Always Work
Before Busy Philipps moved to “Cougar Town” or James Franco was partying with his buddies at the end of the world, they were Kim Kelly and Daniel Desario of Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s beloved-yet-short-lived series, “Freaks and Geeks.”
Despite having their heartfelt moments throughout the series, Daniel and Kelly were generally either arguing, breaking up or making up.
At the beginning of episode 12, “The Garage Door,” Daniel thinks he has it figured out: withdraw. But does such a strategy actually work?
In a conversation with Nick and Ken about girls, he explains the strategy:
Nick: “Like you’re the expert [on relationships] or something? You and Kim fight all the time!”
Daniel: “Yeah but check my new strategy – see, she can flap her lips all she wants, I ain’t fightin back… sooner or later, runs out of gas.”
Ken: “That is a brilliant plan. Only took you two years to figure that out?”
Daniel: “It’s like the tortoise and the hare, all right? Little rabbit gets tired, guess who wins?”
Unlike Daniel, not everyone employs this strategy with the intention of “winning.” For a lot of people it may not even be an intentional “strategy.” But whether intentional or unintentional, male or female, people tend to assume that by withdrawing from their partner they will avoid further conflict. This can take many forms. One might change the subject in the middle of an argument. Other times, people remain completely silent. Sometimes people will literally walk away from their partner when they see another argument arising.
In Daniel’s case, in spite of comments made by Kim throughout this episode that would usually incite an argument, Daniel continues to steer clear of fighting by avoiding the conversation, and acting clueless. However, toward the end of the episode his strategy stops working:
(while on a group date at the laser dome)
Kim: “Did you lean your head back with that slut?”
Daniel: (acting aloof) “Hey look, is that the Big Dipper?”
Kim: “GOD what is it with you? You’re acting so weird!”
Daniel: (even more aloof) “Am I?”
Kim: “UGH! You are driving me insane!” (storms off)
So what happened here? Why didn’t this strategy work for Daniel? And why doesn’t it work in real life?
First, I should clarify that withdrawal is different from taking a time-out from a difficult conversation, with the intention of returning to it later on, which is sometimes necessary. Second, although I am focusing on Daniel’s active decision to withdraw, this is only one side of the issue.
Rather than placing blame on Daniel, Dr. Sue Johnson, respected couples psychologist and author of The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, would describe Daniel and Kim as being stuck in a pursue-withdraw pattern, wherein both partners have equal and complementary roles in keeping the negative interactional cycle going. In this pattern, the more Daniel withdraws from Kim, the more she will pursue (i.e., badger) him and vice versa. This is because while withdrawers tend to feel overwhelmed and respond by shutting down or distancing themselves, pursuers generally feel abandoned or ignored and respond to those feelings by pressing harder for a connection.
An example that is commonly used among couples therapists to illustrate this phenomenon is Dr. Edward Tronick’s recent still face experiment. In this experiment, he asked mothers to interact affectionately with their babies for a few minutes, and then suddenly stop their emotional engagement, holding a blank “still face” expression for a couple minutes. His results found that the babies quickly became upset and confused, often trying to engage their mothers with increased urgency. Within this brief period of time you see the distress that we experience — even as infants — when one partner presents as emotionally unavailable to the other.
While Daniel’s withdrawing strategy appears to be “a brilliant plan” at first glance, in reality it is one of two pieces that perpetuates the same negative interaction he is trying to get away from.
Kong, B. (2013). Why Withdrawing Doesn’t Always Work. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/07/31/why-withdrawing-doesnt-always-work/