Last semester I wrote a research paper entitled "Until Debt Do Us Part: Demand-Withdraw as a Mediating Variable Between Finances and Marital Satisfaction."

My reason for writing this paper is because I hear all the time how finances affect marital satisfaction, but I have never fully understood why. 

As a part of my Advanced Family Processes class, I did some researched and came up with my own theory about why finances affect marital satisfaction.

I realized that demand-withdraw patterns of interaction (DW) could be mediating the relationship between finances and martial satisfaction; financial disagreements bring about DW, which lower marital satisfaction.

Demand-withdraw is the process of one spouse demanding change of the other person, and the other spouse feeling attacked and withdraws, resisting the demand for change.

A mediating variable is something that affects the relationship between two other variables. In this case, we know there is a relationship between finances and marital satisfaction, however, we aren't sure why. We know A --> C, but we don't know the middle component. With a mediating variable (B), it is easier to explain why A affects C.
A --> B --> C

Anyway, back to DW. DW can be a very damaging interaction pattern among couples, married or not. When one person demands too much, the other person may withdraw, which can cause the demanding person to amplify their demands because they can feel the other person withdrawing. This pattern can turn into a deadly cycle if not stopped.

The demands made by one spouse are usually very emotional topics, such as intimacy, personality traits, in-laws, etc. Research shows that women are more likely to demand and men are more likely to withdraw. This reminds me of all the cartoons, TV shows, movies, etc. that show a wife nagging and the husband tuning her out. Although men can be in the demanding position, research has shown that it is less common.

So, how does this relate to finances? Those of you who are married or are planning to get married have probably already realized that finances can quickly become an emotionally charged subject of discussion. Resources are being shared, or the ability to obtain resources, and there is a considerable amount of trust between the two people sharing those resources.

If the couple is on a tight budget and one of the spouses spends a lot of money on something material (new wardrobe, gun, video games, etc.), the shared resources are drained. The spouse who has faithfully suppressed individual wants may feel betrayed or that their wants are less important when their spouse uses shared money for personal things.
This is where DW comes in. Imagine your spouse coming home having spent one fourth of the month's budget on a new toy. What would you do? If you're like most of the population you may say something like, "What were you thinking?" "You need to take that back tomorrow," or "Why can't you be more responsible?"
You get the picture.

What will your spouse do? Well, they may externally fight back, but internally they will withdraw. They don't see a problem with what they did. They may not feel that they have a personal problem, so they tune out the criticism and resist changing.

If they don't feel they need to change, or don't know how, they will most probably do it again. And again, and again, and again. You will keep demanding the change, but they will keep resisting until one of you gives up.
What is your marital satisfaction like? Well, I'm guessing it's not high.

Marital satisfaction is low when DW is high.

What can couples do to avoid or lessen the amount of DW in their marriage?

  • For Finances:
    • Make a fair budget together and stick with it!
    • Be very careful with credit cards, it's best not to have them if you can't control spending habits
    • HALT: do not discuss finances or make purchases when you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.
  • Do not ask questions when you will accept only one response (see my example below)
  • Realize that each person has wants and needs, and that your wants/needs don't trump all the time
  • If you sense your spouse withdrawing, evaluate your own behavior to see if you could be demanding too often
  • Avoid being passive aggressive-- "I guess I'll just go and do the dishes and mind my own business!"
  • When your spouse makes a demand, it may be annoying and hurtful, but acknowledge their feelings and let them know that when they make a demand like ________ it makes you feel like ______. Remember, it only makes it worse when you withdraw!
Here is an example of demand-withdraw in our marriage:

I love going on walks, especially during the spring and fall. I assumed that Aaron would love to accompany me on walks, since I'm sure he loves the same things I do. So I said "I'm going on a walk, do you want to come?" When in reality I wasn't giving him an option, I was making a demand.
When he said "No, I have other things to do" I was crushed and annoyed. I argued and gave him reasons why going on a walk with me was more important than whatever he was doing. But it just made him resist and determined to do the opposite of what I wanted. Finally I said, "I'll go by myself and be lonely, I guess you don't want to be around me." 
I went on my walk alone and steamed for a little while, and then realize I was caught up in the middle of demand-withdraw. The next time I went for a walk I invited Aaron, but when he declined I simply said, "Ok, maybe next time." After a few situations like this he finally consented to go with me, and we were both happy to be on the walk; he wasn't forced to go, and I felt that he genuinely wanted to go with me. 
And we lived happily ever after. Haha if only it were that easy.

I hope this helps those who are married or soon-to-be married. I can't express the importance of analyzing your behavior in intimate relationships, and being willing to make adjustments. Also, genuinely speaking with your spouse about feelings instead of withdrawing is so important to maintain emotional intimacy and trust.


  1. Jessica, I love this post. I totally know what you are talking about. Even though Jordan and I have been married for a year and a half I totally know how this goes and it just takes a lot of practice and patience. I have a really good marriage book that I go by called, Fascinating Womanhood. It's amazing. It's really old fashioned for our day but it seriously a book that all women should read to be the ideal woman for a man.

    1. I'll have to look for that book! I always love reading relationship books :)

  2. Useful stuff! Thanks for sharing :)