The Criticize-Withdraw Cycle Damages Relationships

Does this happen in your relationship?

One person (let’s say it’s you) makes a request of your intimate partner. Maybe you want help with cleaning or straightening up the house. Perhaps you feel your partner is following the car in front of you on the highway too closely, and want him/her to back off a little bit. How about if your partner is working or watching TV too much, and you feel cheated because of the lack of connection and engagement? Or let’s say you request s/he become more accountable about spending money and not overdrawing the bank account.

But s/he resists you, or ignores your request, or “forgets” over and over again, or otherwise tells you in words or through actions to take a hike. So what do you do? Forget about it? (Probably not.) Have a polite discussion about it? (You’ve tried that, but it didn’t work). Yell or get angry? (Well, perhaps sometimes). Threaten hell, fire and damnation? (Hmmm, not a bad idea).

If you’re like many couples, you go through a rather predictable cycle. You begin to criticize your partner. But your partner may interpret even a small request or a gentle criticism as admonishing, blaming or disapproving. S/he may be hyper-sensitive to disapproval, so you make a request of him/her, and the next thing you know, the two of you are either fighting or not talking to each other.

You have just encountered the criticize-withdraw cycle intimate relationships sometimes get caught in. Your partner hears criticism instead of a request, and responds by either criticizing you back, or by withdrawing.

There are variations on this theme. Both of you can then turn critical of each other (perhaps you know a couple who does this), or both of you can withdraw (does this describe anyone you know?). Or, perhaps you fear your partner’s withdrawal, and therefore stuff your feelings and make nice so the two of you remain close and connected (pursue-withdraw). But such feelings do not remain stuffed forever, and before long you become sarcastic and acid-tongued. Then your partner withdraws from you or becomes acid-tongued back, and the cycle begins anew.

These recurring patterns often go on for years, and sometimes it is difficult to know which pattern you are playing out. The silent treatment would appear to be withdrawal, but it can also be unspoken criticism. Some people, feeling nothing is ever going to change, leave their relationship abruptly. Often when that happens, the withdrawn partner suddenly becomes the pursuer. Sometimes that works, but at other times it may be viewed as “too-little, too-late.”

What do you do about this cycle? You could ask questions rather than react or defend: “Why does it matter how close I’m driving to the car in front of me?” Or “did you feel as if I was being critical or disrespectful of your driving?” Asking your partner what s/he would prefer you do when you feel critical (or defensive) might work as well.

2 comments on “The Criticize-Withdraw Cycle Damages Relationships

  1. Hi
    Thanks for this wonderful site. Would greatly appreciate your expert advise on this issue.
    We are both late 40’s.
    Both divorced.
    Been together off and on for 3 years.
    Simon has aspergers syndrome

    He has more or less moved in with me and we talk about selling our individual houses and buying a house together.
    We frequently find ourselves in this cycle you explain.

    Typical example was yesterday in town he was stressed about going to hairdressers and money issues etc and took his mood out on me, by slight put downs and angry tones.
    I told him I was going home because of his attitude and I got instant withdrawal and eventually he went to his house after the silent treatment.
    The problem is that he runs to his house. He can ignore my calls and when I go and see him he will then come back , just as if he was waiting for me to turn up.
    It is making me feel hurt and insecure.

    He gets the secure feeling and an ego boost every time.
    But if I don’t go and sort it out it can go on for days on end.
    Feel he likes the space knowing I will be there when he feels like coming back.


    • Lesley – too much to say, but briefly:

      Re-read what you wrote – who’s it about? (Objectively, that is; Hint: count up the finger-pointings, blaming, action vs. reaction, from a total stranger’s POV.).

      Now: in *your* mind this time: “who’s it about?” Is Simon the problem? Is he THE problem? If you ‘fixed’ him would things be perfect? Even if not – CAN you fix him?

      Doesn’t really matter, anyhow: [Lesley+Simon] is NOT the same thing as [Lesley], and then also [Simon]. Knowing how A works and how B works doesn’t say anything about how [A+B] works. (Major point, and think this through really carefully!: if *either* A or B changes: A changes; AND B changes, AND A+B changes — and then go back and repeat…!)

      **** It’s also worth reflecting on *why* the emphasis & tone were what they were – and what they were NOT. And why…

      In sum (credit to the site-owner; I’m paraphrasing him from another page on this site):

      Lesley, whether or not the “problem” is related to Simon, the solution lies with YOU.

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