Like many people, most of what I know about the private lives of celebrities comes from the covers of the magazines at the supermarket checkout. Most of this information makes a fleeting impression (Whatever happened to those twins Jen was carrying?) But occasionally a story catches my eye because it feels heartbreakingly familiar.
A few years ago I read that Demi Moore’s name on twitter was “mrskutcher.” I was taken by surprise because in films she gravitates toward parts where she is strong, independent, even witchy. I was struck that a woman who projects such a strong image would invest her identity in her relationship with her husband. Of course, women do this all the time. Even when we’re highly successful, we often think of ourselves as wives and mothers first. As a therapist, though, another possibility presented itself: sometimes women who project a strong image are longing for a romantic relationship in which they can feel safe.
Last fall, as the Kutchers’ marriage unravelled, Demi Moore gave an interview to Harper’s Bazaar in which she confessed to feeling “unlovable.” “Unlovable” is a big word to a therapist. We can all feel unloved at times, by a specific person or in a particular context, but the word unlovable suggests that not being loved is part of who she is, not an aspect of her marriage. Why would a successful woman, a rich and beautiful woman, think she wasn’t worthy of love? It’s in the past, Demi explained. Although she didn’t say what had happened, her past has left her feeling “unsafe” whenever she isn’t in control. When people feel unlovable and unsafe in relationships, they’ve often grown up in families where they felt rejected or were abandoned. They enter new relationships afraid there’s something fundamentally wrong with them and terrified they’ll experience rejection again. And, as it did to Demi, the outcome that is most feared is the one that often happens: Ashton had an affair.
A couple of months later, an alcohol and drug-fueled meltdown landed Demi in a mental health facility for treatment of her “addictions and eating disorder.” When relationships end, it’s often the person who felt most insecure who is devastated. She can feel that she’s failed and become depressed; she can use drugs and/or alcohol to numb the pain; she can hold tenaciously to the belief that if she was just more beautiful, or 10 pounds thinner, the relationship wouldn’t have ended.
Meanwhile, Ashton was photographed partying in Brazil with a clutch of lovely young women. He returned to LAX the day after his wife’s hospitalization, stony-faced and silent. Implicitly, the media accused him of indifference. In his defense, unnamed sources claimed Demi was no longer the woman he’d married, that she’d become “needy” and insecure.
This pattern – an insecure, needy and emotionally distressed woman and her apparently indifferent husband — is so common when couples are unhappy that it has a name: the academic-sounding “demand-withdraw interaction pattern.” 80% of the couples I work with show this pattern. One partner demands, pleads and cries, or is angry, controlling and critical, while the other retreats, is defensive and withdrawn, and passively refuses to do what the demander wants. Around the world, and regardless of sexual orientation, couples that show a demand-withdraw pattern are unhappy.
Like the Kutchers, the majority of demanders are women, while the majority of withdrawers are men. In my practice, three-quarters of the demand-withdraw couples are woman-demand and man-withdraw. The combination of a demanding wife and a withdrawn husband is particularly toxic, and these marriages frequently end in divorce.
Over time the partners become increasingly polarized: the demander gets more distraught, needy and controlling, while the withdrawer becomes even more distant and shut down emotionally. The problem gets worse because demand-withdraw is a dance in which each partner’s behaviour escalates the problem. The demander says she wants communication, but she often shows so much anger toward the withdrawer that he can only respond with silence. His silence communicates that the demander’s concerns aren’t valid or important.
It’s easier for partners to see what the other person is doing to create problems than to see their own contribution. One demander that I worked with micro-managed her husband to the point that she advised him about the correct way to walk their dog. But when her husband told her she was “controlling,” she was astonished. She was the one who was controlled by him, she said, because he made all the major decisions in their life. Similarly, he was so afraid of his wife’s emotions that when she cried and told him how uncared for she felt, he told her she was “over-reacting.” When she replied that he had just “shut her down,” he also expressed surprise. Really? She was the one who was always telling him what to think. Both partners feel misunderstood. Both are highly emotional, and, as a result, neither is capable of co-operative discussions that might lead to solving their problems. Once the dance starts, it’s extremely difficult for either partner to leave the floor, and so they go round and round, arguing about the same topics, over and over again, without resolution.
Some researchers believe that the person who wants change in the relationship is the demander, while the one who wants to keep things the way they are is the withdrawer. This is what researchers find when they watch couples discuss their problems. In our culture, wives usually want more change than their husbands do, which would lead to more female demanders.
Other researchers argue that gender is less important than power. The person who feels less powerful in the relationship is the demander. Anyone who wants her partner to change is in a low power position from the get go because she has to rely on him to give her what she wants. On average, husbands have more power than their wives. They usually make more money and have more influence over big decisions, like how money is spent or where the couple lives.
On the face of it, the power explanation seems to fit the Kutchers. She feels unlovable. She’s more than a decade older than him and on the brink of physical changes that no amount of exercise or diet will stave off. Her career is well past its peak. She’s reduced to bit parts, while he recently joined a popular TV show as the hot new guy on the block. Ashton appears to have more power than Demi.
In my clinical experience, however, it’s difficult to judge who has the power in a couple, even when you know them well. When I work with couples, often both partners feel powerless. The demander may feel helpless to have an impact on her partner. She may feel he doesn’t hear or value her concerns. But the withdrawer often feels inadequate. No matter how hard he tries to please his wife, he can never get it right, which leaves him feeling helpless.
In therapy the couples who are most stuck are those for whom the demand-withdraw pattern touches old and deep wounds. A woman feels scared of rejection and unsafe unless she can control every aspect of her husband’s life. She can’t talk about these shameful feelings, so he doesn’t know that vulnerability lies behind her criticism and control. He starts to shut down emotionally, which makes it easy for him to have an affair and tell himself it means nothing. His affair tells his wife that, at least for a time, someone else was more desirable than her, which, with the logic of the heart, makes the other woman more lovable. And in that moment he has confirmed her worst fear about herself.
That’s the dance of distress.
© 2012 Valerie Whiffen