When Your Partner Stops Giving: The Silent Pain of Emotional Withholding

 When Your Partner Stops Giving by Solis Invicti

The suffering caused by emotional withholding can be more excruciating than verbal or even physical abuse. How to recognize it—and what to do.

 ___

Confession: I’ve been holding out on you. When I wrote The 7 Deadly Signs of a Dysfunctional Relationship, I left out the eighth: emotional withholding. A reader pointed this out in a haunting comment. Sara wrote:

What’s missing from this discussion is the kind of dysfunction that isn’t tyrannical but instead quietly sucks out your integrity and self-respect because there are NO fights or fireworks. This is the passive-death non-relationship in which every dissatisfaction you express is completely ignored or casually dismissed. Not with a bang but a whimper……….

Wow. Right? In my response to Sara’s comment I directed her to a post I’d published on my blog a while back on emotional withholding. It starts out like this:

If you’ve lived with a dysfunctional partner, chances are you’ve experienced it.

Coldness replaces warmth.

Silence replaces conversation.

Turning away replaces turning towards.

Dismissiveness replaces receptivity.

And contempt replaces respect.

Emotional withholding is, I believe, the toughest tactic to deal with when trying to create and maintain a healthy relationship, because it plays on our deepest fears—rejection, unworthiness, shame and guilt, the worry that we’ve done something wrong or failed or worse, that there’s something wrong with us.

♦◊♦

In the movies, the person in peril always gets saved …. But in real life, in real dysfunctional relationships, there’s often no savior and definitely no guarantee of a happy ending.

But Sara’s description is more accurate and compelling than mine. Her line, “quietly sucks out your integrity and self-respect” is still stuck in my head three days later. It makes me think of those films where an alien creature hooks up a human to some ghastly, contorted machine and drains him of his life force drop by drop, or those horrible “can’t watch” scenes where witches swoop down and inhale the breath of children to activate their evil spells of world domination. In the movies, the person in peril always gets saved. The thieves are vanquished. The deadly transfusion halted. And the heroic victim recovers. But in real life, in real dysfunctional relationships, there’s often no savior and definitely no guarantee of a happy ending. Your integrity and self-respect can indeed be hoovered out, turning you into an emotional zombie, leaving you like one of the husks in the video game Mass Effect, unable to feel pain or joy, a mindless, quivering animal, a soulless puppet readily bent to the Reapers’ will.

Emotional withholding is so painful because it is the absence of love, the absence of caring, compassion, communication, and connection.

You’re locked in the meat freezer with the upside-down carcasses of cows and pigs, shivering, as your partner casually walks away from the giant steel door.

You’re desperately lonely, even though the person who could comfort you by sharing even one kind word is right there, across from you at the dinner table, seated next to you at the movie, or in the same bed with you, back turned, deaf to your words, blind to your agony, and if you dare to reach out, scornful of your touch.

You’re locked in the meat freezer with the upside-down carcasses of cows and pigs, shivering, as your partner casually walks away from the giant steel door.

When you speak, you might as well be talking to the wall, because you’re not going to get an answer, except maybe, if you’re lucky, a dismissive shrug. And the more you talk about anything that matters to you, the more you try to assert that you matter, the more likely your withholding partner is to belittle or ignore what you’re saying and leave you in the cold.

 ♦◊♦

Awful but true—you actually wish for the fight, the fireworks that Sara points out are not flashing, because even a shouting match, an ugly scene, would involve an exchange of words, because even physical conflict would constitute physical connection, because fire, even if it burns you, is preferable to ice.

You ask yourself, am I here? Do I mean anything to this person? Do I matter? Do I even exist?

Imagine saying something three, four, even five times to your partner and receiving no response. Or maybe, you get a grunt. You ask yourself, am I here? Do I mean anything to this person? Do I matter? Do I even exist? If you cry alone on the polar icecap of emotional withholding, and there’s no one there to hear you, did you actually make a sound?

Your accomplishments go unrecognized, your contributions unmentioned, your presence at best grudgingly acknowledged, and any effort at bridging the chasm is spurned. The rope you throw over the crevasse lashes back at you, whipping in the winter wind.

You become pathetic—pleading, begging, literally on your knees, apologizing for everything, offering things that are distasteful to you, promising to be better, just to re-secure your partner’s affection.

Death enters your consciousness as an option. Death begins to feel like a viable alternative, a way to achieve relief from the unbearable pain.

But you’re like the dying Eskimo elder, wrapped in sealskin and placed on an ice floe to float away into the great beyond. Only you’re screaming, “I’m not dying! I’m not even sick! I’m perfectly healthy!” as your partner’s silence speaks the words, “You’re dead to me.” And death, death enters your consciousness as an option. Death begins to feel like a viable alternative, a way to achieve relief from the unbearable pain.

If you just give up your silly notion of having a healthy, communicative relationship … and resubmit to emotional domination and abuse … the love will return.

Emotional withholding is typically a response to your trying to stand up for yourself, to an assertion of your rights within the relationship. And perhaps the deepest pain of all comes from your partner’s insistence that you deserve to be treated this way, deserve to be punished, and, to paraphrase my older post, your partner’s absurd argument that if you just give up your silly notion of having a healthy, communicative relationship between two equal partners and resubmit to emotional domination and abuse, the caring, compassion, communication, and connection, the warmth and the love, will return.

♦◊♦

And they might—for five minutes, five hours, even five days—until you assert your yourself again.

♦◊♦

Caring, compassion, communication, connection, warmth, and love should NEVER be conditional and NEVER be willfully withheld, EVER, unless the relationship is already over.

The truth is, caring, compassion, communication, connection, warmth, and love should NEVER be conditional and NEVER be willfully withheld, EVER, unless the relationship is already over and you need to draw a boundary to establish your new life and preserve your own sanity. Withholding these within a relationship is abuse, a kind of emotional blackmail, no different from the other kind that threatens to hurt you where you’re most vulnerable if you don’t comply with your partner’s desires or needs. But the harder you work towards creating a healthy relationship, the more your dysfunctional partner will withhold the very things on which the health of the relationship depends. This is how your relationship becomes “the passive-death non-relationship” that Sara mentions, and you feel emptied instead of filled, hollowed instead of hallowed, sunk under the weight of scorn and silence instead of buoyed by the lift of love.

♦◊♦

Confession: When your partner withholds, after a while you give up and start doing it too. This creates the death-spiral in which both partners abandon the relationship, slink into siege mode behind the walls of their fortresses, and try to starve each other out until someone capitulates, crawling forward with parched throat on withered limbs, begging for a sip of water and a scrap of food.

There’s only one way to deal effectively with a partner who withholds from you, and it’s this: You must make it clear that the relationship is OVER, FOREVER, if your partner does not start acknowledging you and communicating. This is the only tactic that has a chance of working, because the withholding partner doesn’t actually want the relationship to end. Your tormentor is deriving too much satisfaction out of dispensing punishment and seeing you suffer. Why you might want to remain with a sadist is your own business, but if you do want to try to save it, you have to threaten to leave and be willing to make good on your word if things don’t improve quickly. And if they do improve, you have to insist that you will be out the door if it ever, ever happens again.

 

Photo—Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

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About Thomas G. Fiffer

Thomas G. Fiffer, Executive Editor at The Good Men Project, is a graduate of Yale and holds an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He posts regularly on his blog, Tom Aplomb, and serves as Editor of Westport's HamletHub, a local online news and information service. He is also a featured storyteller with MouseMuse Productions and is working on his first novel.

Comments

  1. Wow, thank you for describing so well what my ex was doing to me. For too long, I thought I was the one at fault, I was the reason he was acting that way…but no matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, there was always something else I wasn’t doing good enough, something else where I was a failure and a disappointment. I realize he was making me nervous and stressed, and then I would screw up or do the wrong thing even more. He had me convinced I was a lazy, using good-for-nothing, while he was perfect and could do no wrong. This article was such an eye-opener for me. Thank you

    • VTAmy, You’re welcome. Partners who withhold take advantage of our natural desire for affection to convince us that we need to do more and more to please them. They hold it out, then keep raising the bar. And you make the excellent point that the stress causes us to make mistakes, for which we are then punished on top of the punishment we’re already receiving. Adults don’t have the right to punish other adults, except through the criminal court system, and withholding is a subtle—because often no words are involved at all—but powerful form of abuse.

    • julie von blomberg says:

      A.M.E.N……THANK-YOU!

  2. Wow…. that was very poignantly written. It pretty much describes my marriage at the moment. It isn’t a constant but it is an often thing. It does slowly suck the soul out of you and the will to live.

    • Rachael, Often is too often, and I wish you luck in rooting withholding out of your marriage. I encourage you to stand your ground and demand the respectful treatment you deserve.

  3. I need to think about this one. The descriptions read true, but as my current experience is not of this being constant, but only in certain circumstances, I don’t see abuse or that kind of control as being what’s going on. I think what might be going on here is unwillingness to face an issue which is not mine, but his-and probably medical at its core.
    Hurts just as much though. Why I’d be thought to not be willing to face with him or work around it is beyond me. Pretending nothing’s wrong sure as hell isn’t working.
    I think the “I’m leaving” threat would be counterproductive.
    I find firmly holding the story of Tam Lin in mind to be helpful, because in all other aspects of our lives together, things are a fair partnership.

    • Ursyl, As I mentioned in our dialogue on Facebook under the post, there can be many causes of emotional withholding, and you would surely want to try to work with your partner if it’s caused by a medical condition. The threat of leaving would only be productive if the withholding was behavioral—something your partner could, with intention and work, change.

  4. Wow, what powerful words. Thank you. Maybe not this extreme of an example, but this was my marriage.

    “Confession: When your partner withholds, after a while you give up and start doing it too. This creates the death-spiral in which both partners abandon the relationship, slink into siege mode behind the walls of their fortresses, and try to starve each other out until someone capitulates, crawling forward with parched throat on withered limbs, begging for a sip of water and a scrap of food.”

    Yes, I gave up and stopped trying. My partner withheld emotional intimacy which lead to sexual intimacy withholding. It was like watching my marriage crumble in slow motion. Throw in an affair for good measure and you have a relationship ripe for divorce.

    The emotional separation still hurt the deepest.

    Great article

    • Diane, Thank you. I chose the words and images to paint as vivid a picture of withholding as I could. The spiraling part is awful, and it takes a long time to heal, but eventually, we do heal.

  5. It’s been precisely what I’ve been doing. Whenever I would catch him telling a half-truth, lying by omission, or simply not telling the truth, I just shut down emotionally. Ice queen. Then he does all kinds of things to cheer me up and it works for a night or a weekend or a week then another lie appears and back I run into my cave and again he tries to bring back that sweet, warm and fun loving gal. But as long as the lie is swept under the carpet and is denied of ever existing, I can’t warm up to him, one lie builds upon another and then it gets longer for me to recover. Something inside just dies and I’m sick to my stomach at being this way at being looked at or touched or spoken to until he comes clean but he doesn’t and goes to the extreme to make it like I was the problem and how I should always remain as sweet as the first day he met me, while he continues to bury me in lies.

    • Tobe, You make a great point! Withholding can be the reaction to abusive treatment, such as lying, by your partner. That doesn’t make it right, but it explains the source. The resulting dynamic of your partner prostrating himself to win back your affection is not healthy, as it shifts the power balance in the relationship, which should ideally remain at equilibrium. The questions for you would seem to be, do you want to share the love you have to give with a serial liar who presents your reaction to his lies as the problem, and whether you think that confronting him directly over his behavior might result in his changing it. I appreciate your comment and the perspective it adds to this dialogue.

  6. Theorema Egregium says:

    Every person that has commented on this article so far has been a woman talking about the hurt she has received from her male partner or ex-partner. If you look anywhere on the internet at articles about problems in relationships, it will always be an overhwelming majority of women telling their stories (except for one aspect of relationship problems, the sexless marriage). Also typically women judge their former boyfriends/ex-husbands considerably harsher than men do their former wifes/girlfriends. Why is that? I see a few possible reasons:
    Men suffer in the same way and intensity as women, but for some reason are more reluctant to talk about it.Men suffer in the same way and intensity as women but do not realize it themselves, because their expectations and value system is different.Women suffer more than men, because men really are much more unpleasant to live with — egotistical, inconsiderate, irresponsible, unfaithful, mentally and physically abusive.
    Which reason rings true to you? Judging from my own upbringing, I reason it ought to be (2), but always fear it might be (3).

    • Theorema, I do find it interesting that all the comments have been from women on an article written by a man on The Good Men Project about dysfunctional relationship behavior. I believe women do feel freer to share their stories and comment when a story resonates with theirs, first because they tend to be more communicative than men, and second because men tend to feel ashamed to share their pain and view vulnerability as weakness. Many men suffer silently from the withholding – both emotional and sexual – of women who become “ice queens,” demanding proofs of love achieved through spending or self-humiliation for their affection to be restored. I wrote this as much for those men as for the women who suffer withholding from abusive male partners. I don’t buy the argument that men are categorically more unpleasant to live with than women. I believe that the unhealthy behaviors of satisfying ego needs at your partner’s expense, indulging in inconsiderate activities, abdicating responsibility, cheating, and abusing your partner tend to happen more subtly when women do these things and are often more difficult to recognize and address. In addition, men tend to be more reluctant to address them, because the prevailing relationship doctrine, if you will, in our society, is that if a man loses his woman (because, for example, he stands up to her), he is a loser (and doubly so if he “allowed” her to abuse him) it will be hard for him to find another and get his needs met, while if a woman loses a man because she calls him out on his behavior, she’s coming into herself and her feminine power and there’s a line of better men waiting to treat her right.

    • Hi, I agree with the majority of your comment but I was a woman who was most definitely in a sexless marriage and it was a major issue, but apparently only an issue for me. In the 1 1/2 years we lived together as husband and wife, sex was very irregular during the first four months. At the 6 month mark he moved into the guest bedroom and that was that. We once went a week without seeingeach other because he would leave early in the morning and arrive late at night. Or he would come home before I did and lockhimself in “his” room. I often tried to confront him about all aspects of the emotional abuse but nothing ever changed and I gradually began to realize that he didn’t need sex. His ultimate pleasure was knowing he was making me unhappy. I refused to further feed his narcissistic ways by unsuccessfully asking for even a shred of attention.

  7. Tom, this article really effectively augments your previous one and puts out truths eloquently if painfully. Thanks for posting!

  8. I feel like this might get misinterpreted sometimes. For me, I am not an overly emotional person, I’m trying to get in touch with my emotions, but I need a lot of quiet, and a feeling of freedom. A friend had a really rough breakup with someone that I think did this to her. For some crazy reason, she chose me of all people to fill in the gap in her life, even though I am nowhere near ready to do that. So, I feel completely overwhelmed by her because when she is around she always demands attention for her validation, whereas I pretty much always want to be ignored so that I can have a near infinite amount of time to figure out what I want. It’s just a bad situation. She always takes my shutting down personally, because well, no one else in my life demands my attention like she does…so she has become a trigger for me. But it really has nothing to do with her, that’s just where I am right now. *sigh*

    • Kit, It sounds to me as if you’re not withholding but being flooded by your friend’s drama and in need of space and time to process it along with whatever else is on your mind. Sometimes, a friend shares too much information and overloads us, to the point where we need to walk away but feel guilty doing so because we know that friend is in pain. That’s where therapists come in, and unless you are one, you’re probably not equipped to handle the totality of your friend’s issues. So in my non-professional opinion, it does have to do with her leaning on you in ways that are not healthy for either one of you. If you make yourself less available but remain sympathetic, you will give her a push in the right direction—towards a qualified professional.

  9. Truly, sometimes it’s better to be alone.

    • Dee, I think we all need alone time, some more than others, for healing and reflection. Time in partnerships stretches our muscles, but as with our physical bodies, those muscles gain strength when at rest, whether that rest is solitude respected within a relationship or separation from it.

  10. No Man in Particular says:

    There’s a real “frame of reference” problem here. One partner experience the situation as “withholding,” which makes a lot of sense from that person’s point of view.

    HOWEVER, just because it feels like withholding from one perspective doesn’t mean that’s what the partner is actively doing. You may experience the change as him holding onto something that you need from him. That may not be what is actually going on in his mind.

    If you feel like your partner is withdrawing from you:

    Please, please, please step outside yourself for just a moment and consider the possibility that right now he may not have the emotional resources to give to you. He may not be withholding, because he may not have anything to give or anything left to give. Check for a moment to look at your own communication skills. Honestly examine if there are things you are doing that actually discourage him from being open with you. “Withholding” is usually a breakdown between two people caused by BOTH people.

    I have this huge philosophical difference with my wife, and I don’t know if it’s resolvable. She thinks that doing nothing is an action. I think doing nothing is just doing nothing. She thinks that if I’m not talking about something that means that I am holding back on the subject. But, sometimes I’m not talking about something because I just haven’t thought about very much and I have nothing to say.

    Saying nothing is not the same thing as holding back!

    Sometimes the “withholding” partner is just being treated unfairly by someone who’s been selfish with own needs. Sometimes people are sensitive to what they perceive as “withdrawal” because they’ve been lousy partners themselves and they actually discourage their partners from sharing. It’s a little self-centered to think that when your partner does something or doesn’t do something that it’s all about how it makes YOU feel.

    If your partner is doing something that you don’t like, that doesn’t mean he’s punishing you!

    • The article deals with the intentional withholding of love and emotional support that is a characteristic of dysfunctional, abusive relationships. Your situation sounds different. Having nothing left to give and saying, “I can’t talk about this right now,” is not the same as meeting a question or request with silence. But saying or doing nothing is an action; it is removing yourself from a discussion when your partner is expressing the desire to communicate. Efforts to engage another are usually not selfish, unless those efforts are consistently focused on the engager’s needs and never turn to the needs or interests of the other person.

  11. I’m definitely going through the fallout from this right now….my boyfriend decided to check out of the relationship and it was only after I stood up for myself and told him that it was over that he admitted his behavior was on purpose, to show me that I deserved better than him. Yet despite that sentiment I can’t help but feel like I did something wrong and that I wasn’t worthy of his affection or his time. It’s hard to move on from a relationship that lasted years, and hard to criminalize someone who used to and still does mean so much to you.

  12. Requesting permission to make a print copy of this article and give it to a few Pre-Marriage counselors.

  13. There is ‘Witholding’ then there is depression, before you throw in the towel, make sure you understand the distinction. I was involved in a pathological relationship, as a result of the abuse I shut down, I had no idea the web I was caught up in, the ‘depression’ is probably what saved me as since I could not be ‘on’ all the time feeding my partner’s incessant needs, eventually I was no longer useful; however, down the road once I recovered, I began to do a lot of reading and research. Outside of a pathological relationship, individuals experience depression during various times in their lives. If the relationship is otherwise healthy, before you jump the gun and assume it’s ‘witholding’ take some inventory, and discuss with a mental health professional. If your partner is depressed, there really isn’t much you can do; however, it’s equally cruel to just kick someone when they’re down. It’s a fine line between enabling and having healthy boundaries. My former partner could only rise to the occasion of “Snap out of it” – I could not see the forest for the trees, the stealth form of abuse I was subjected to totally depleted me, I believe the depression was my brain’s way of protecting me. We read so much online and it’s easy to jump to conclusions, while I believe it’s important that awareness of stealth forms of abuse are brought to light, it’s important to do one’s best to examine all the possibilities so if and when a decision is ever made, there are no regrets down the road…http://psychcentral.com/lib/worst-things-to-say-to-someone-whos-depressed/0004972

  14. Curious if the author would see this as a (not optimal) natural response to an emotionally demanding partner?

    • DF, I think to some degree we do shut down when a partner’s demands overwhelm us. Withholders, however, tend to be extremely selfish, and even the smallest demands are often met with refusal, making the asker feel insignificant.

  15. I lived this in my marriage- I wish I had recognized it sooner, I have been divorced from him for 9 yrs and my self esteem is still not repaired, how do you heal? He ignores my emails and texts about co parenting, How does someone get so messed up to treat another this way?

  16. You know the problem with this perspective? It doesn’t take into account WHY the partner might be withholding–or how the person who feels victimized by the withholding might have helped create the situation.

    • Dylan, I could write a separate article on the reasons behind the behavior, which can be complex. Also, dysfunctional relationships take two to tango, and both partners contribute to the unhealthy behavior. The point here was to identify this dynamic for people who experience it but don’t necessarily know what they’re going through or why they’re in so much pain.

  17. susie susie says:

    thank you for the article. one thing i see missing here is the word Narcissist where their personalities wreak havoc on relationships and what you describe is exactly that. yes, run away. do not turn back.

  18. Dancingqueen says:

    Hi there… this describes my sadistic mother who was also a homicidal maniac!! I can’t believe I managed to survive it all and become a well adjusted adult, wife and mother!!! Our ‘relationship’ never really survived.

  19. Some great points, and has made me think. I see the difference between imposed emotional withholding and other reasons for withholding (mental health or medical issues, etc) but my question is how does one deal with those that don’t intend to, but do withhold as just part of who they seem to be. An otherwise warm person, but how does a spouse respond to not getting the emotional support they need? Anniversaries, birthdays barely mentioned, unbalanced divvying of work at home, having to initiate 99% of things? Yes, I admit to the emotional withholding and painful but enlightening to see in this article. I have proposed different communication techniques, counselling, organizing life better but I dragging him through this and getting lots of silence. Keep going in circles because issues not resolved. After giving lots of love and support for 5+ years, yes, I got tired of giving and not feeling thought of. This felt/feels like what is described in the article – very hard on the psyche and feelings of worth (do I not deserve at least an anniversary card?) . He “cares” but has a hard time emotionally (or doesn’t want to?) do some of the things that make me feel loved. I know that if I made that final ultimatum there would be a severing of his trust. Would consider doing it if children weren’t involved. I’m not saying there is good reason for emotional withholding, but sometimes when other things don’t work, this seems the only thing that does (if I don’t get mad, silent, etc nothing happens, when I do this his jobs get done). Not healthy and has been mentioned to him by myself to try healthier methods, but I am “wrong.”

  20. My husband gives me the silent treatment whenever we fight. This has been going on for years and every cycle lasts between a week and a few months. We are currently in counselling and are possibly headed to divorce. Every time he ignored me or criticized me it pushed me away a little bit more to the point where I do not feel that I am in love wih him- and I have told him this. He has changed during the counselling but I don’t trust it will last. In fact he gets upset if he feels I am not working towards reconciling and hides in the bedroom for the evening. I have told him that ignoring me is abuse. He says he hears me but to be honest I don’t think he really understands what affect this has had on me. I have very low self esteem and I second guess everything I do because I worry about his reaction.
    It’s very difficult to deal with and makes me question if I should work on fixing us. Or if it’s just done

Trackbacks

  1. […] The suffering caused by emotional withholding can be more excruciating than verbal or even physical abuse. How to recognize it—and what to do. The suffering caused by emotional withholding can be more excruciating than verbal or even physical abuse. How to recognize it—and what to do. ___Confession: I’ve been holding out on you. When I wrote The 7 Deadly Signs of a Dysfunctional Relationship, I left out the eighth: emotional withholding. A reader pointed this out in a haunting comment. Sara wrote: What’s missing from this discussion is the kind of dysfunction that isn’t tyrannical but instead quietly sucks out your integrity and self-respect because there are NO fights or fireworks. This is the passive-death non-relationship in which every dissatisfaction you express is completely ignored or casually dismissed. Not with a bang but a whimper……….  […]

  2. […] "The suffering caused by emotional withholding can be more excruciating than verbal or even physical abuse. How to recognize it—and what to do." ___Confession: I’ve been holding out on you. When I wrote The 7 Deadly Signs of a Dysfunctional Relationship, I left out the eighth: emotional withholding. A reader pointed this out in a haunting comment. Sara wrote: What’s missing from this discussion is the kind of dysfunction that isn’t tyrannical but instead quietly sucks out your integrity and self-respect because there are NO fights or fireworks. This is the passive-death non-relationship in which every dissatisfaction you express is completely ignored or casually dismissed. Not with a bang but a whimper……….  […]

  3. […] “The Silent Pain of Emotional Withholding” […]

  4. […] follow-up post, When Your Partner Stops Giving: The Silent Pain of Emotional Withholding, inspired by a reader’s comment on its predecessor, garnered a range of equally heart-wrenching […]

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