Is demand-withdraw a cross-cultural phenomenon?

Travis Dixon Human Relationships Leave a Comment

The "wife-demand, husband-withdraw" communication pattern is common in Western marriages. But is it a cross-cultural phenomenon?

One of the most commonly studied communication styles in married couples is “demand-withdraw.” It’s often called the “wife demand, husband withdraw” because this is the common trend. However, this phenomenon has mostly been reported in Western countries. This raises the question if it has the same negative effect on marriages across cultures or even if  the same pattern even exists.

Is it always the women doing the demanding and the husband withdrawing? Research suggests not.

The demand-withdraw pattern is an important one to study because it has been linked with increased marital dissatisfaction, higher rates of divorce and even depression (Papp et al. 2009, Gottman and Levenson, 2000). It’s covered extensively in our chapter on “Love and Marriage,” but a big part of critical thinking is asking questions about the validity and cross-cultural reliability of findings from studies (especially since most are based on Western samples). This post is designed to help students address some of those questions.

Exam Tip: The content in this blog can be used for Paper 2 exam questions on the role of communication in relationships and why relationships may change or end. It can even be used when writing about culture and behaviour.

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The demand-withdraw pattern can be defined as when “one partner pressures the other through emotional demands, criticisms, and complaints, while the other retreats through withdrawal, defensiveness, and passive inaction” (Christensen & Heavey, 1990, p. 73, as cited in Rehman & Holtzworth-Munroe, 2006).

But is this pattern always linked with marital satisfaction across cultures? Few studies have investigated this, but one that did was by Christensen and Eldridge in 2005. They found that in Brazilian, Italian and Taiwanese couples there was a negative correlation between demand-withdraw and marital satisfaction (higher rates of demand-withdraw, lower satisfaction). This finding is consistent with American studies and suggests it could be a universal phenomenon.

And what about the gender roles in this pattern? Is it always the women making the demands and the husband doing the withdrawing? Papp et al.’s (2009) study on American married couples found that “…husband demand-wife withdraw and wife demand-husband withdraw occurred in the home at equal frequency…” This suggests that it’s not always the wife making the demands and the husband withdrawing, even in American samples.

Find more teaching resources in our Love and Marriage support pack.

What about across cultures? Rehman & Holtzworth-Munroe conducted a study to see the effects and nature of demand-withdraw in Pakistan, a primarily Muslim country with more traditional and conservative family values (e.g. more defined gender roles).

If the researcher’s names sound familiar, it’s because they’re included in  our chapter “Love and Marriage” for IB Psychology students. In 2007, Uzma S. Rehman and Amy Holtzworth-Munroe compared American married couples and Pakistani couples to see if communication is as important in Pakistani couples as it was for the Americans (they found that in both cultures communication was associated with marital satisfaction, but the correlation is stronger in American couples). The study in this post is another one of theirs conducted one year earlier.

Previous research suggests that the person doing the demanding or withdrawing could be influenced by the gender role beliefs and power differences (e.g. patriarchal vs. egalitarian societies) within that culture. In a country with less equality between the sexes, for example, it might be less common for wives to make the demands and they may be more likely to withdraw. For example, according to the researchers, Pakistani wives might not make as many direct, aggressive demands on their husbands because it would decrease their chances of getting what they want. Instead, they may use other, less aggressive means, “e.g. whining, pleading and flirting.” Men, on the other hand, “…will be less likely to withdraw from conflict discussions because they are less likely to be threatened by wife demands…” because of their “greater power in the marital relationship…” (Rehman and Holtz-Munroe, 2006).

Differences in gender equality could explain cultural differences in the demand-withdraw pattern of communication, like those found in the more patriarchal country of Pakistan.

To test this, the researchers gathered data from three groups of married participants: American couples (from Indianapolis), Pakistani couples (from Islamabad) and Pakistani immigrant couples living in the US (Chicago and Indianapolis). Data was gathered using questionnaires and the couples were observed for a 7.5 minute discussion in which the couple chose a random topic.

One finding from the study was that the demand–withdraw behaviors were negatively associated with marital satisfaction, which supports “…the generalizability of this association and suggest that these interaction patterns may be universally associated with marital distress.”

In terms of the differences in demand-withdraw patterns, the results showed that “…Pakistani wives were significantly more likely to engage in unassertive demands than were American wives, whereas American wives were significantly more likely to use aggressive demands than were Pakistani wives.” This could be because of the difference in gender equality in each culture. Similarly, Pakistani wives were more likely to withdraw from their husbands than American wives, and American husbands were more likely to withdraw from their wives than Pakistani husbands.

The researchers conclude that “…findings suggest that the role of the wife as the demander and the husband as the conflict avoider is not determined by intrinsic differences between men and women” and it seems cultural contexts are an important factor.

Here we can see the importance of considering the cross-cultural applicability of research findings in psychology.

Critical thinking question: What pattern do you think is most common in your country? Why? Do some research and find out.


  • Papp, L. M., Kouros, C. D., & Cummings, E. M. (2009). Demand-Withdraw Patterns in Marital Conflict in the Home. Personal Relationships16(2), 285–300. (Link)
  • Rehman US, Holtzworth-Munroe A. A cross-cultural analysis of the demand-withdraw marital interaction: observing couples from a developing country. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2006;74(4):755-766. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.74.4.755 (Link)

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