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Patterns of Dysfunction

Paul Schrodt has studied the interaction patterns within stepfamilies since graduate school. During this span, the professor of communication studies has noticed that parental participation in dysfunctional demand/withdraw habits often resulted in anxiety, depression and stress in their children.
 
In 2011, Schrodt launched a meta-analysis to gain insight into the entire body of work on the subject. Described by a variety of names in the last century, 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. 
 
Wives have long been accused of being the nagging partner in these kinds of interactions, while husbands have a reputation for wanting to escape. But Schrodt said husbands could be the critical partners too. Teenagers and parents also fall into the same dysfunctional patterns, as do 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 to the destructive pattern, communication scholars have been giving demand/withdraw systematic attention for 25 years. Researchers have launched a series of studies in an attempt to learn why and how these behaviors are enacted and what sort of results they cause. 
 
No one, however, had done meta-analysis research. Schrodt, as the lead researcher, stepped up to the task.
“We wanted to synthesize everything that we know,” he said. “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 read more than 120 studies on demand/withdraw habits. Needing measurable data to assign to specific outcomes, the researchers settled on 74 manuscripts suitable for inclusion.
 
Their meta-analysis results were published in Communication Monographs in March 2014. Since then, Schrodt has been fielding calls from national media outlets, 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, they theorize, might be happy with expectations that free them from 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.”
 
In doing the meta-analysis review, Schrodt aimed to study whether demand/withdraw was a “stronger predictor of some types of outcomes.” He and his research partners 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 from the meta-analysis was that no matter which partner performs which role, the results are equally harmful. When couples begin to regularly enact 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.
 
Through identifying links and causes in the demand/withdraw habits, Schrodt had one goal with the meta-analysis research: “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.”
 
Schrodt said solving the problem “really starts with self-awareness.” Both partners need to shift perspectives and stop placing the blame on the other party. A transition into productive openness is possible, but “both partners have to kind of do what feels unnatural so that they help meet the other partner’s needs,” he said.
 
Once participants take ownership of the roles they are playing and assume responsibility for the way they are feeling instead of trying to change the other, real healing and restoration can occur, Schrodt said. “For me personally, that’s where I see the hope moving forward in this particular area of conflict.”

—Caroline Collier
 



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