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, Senior Editor, Ethics, at The Good Men Project, is a graduate of Yale University and holds an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a professional writer, speaker, and storyteller with a focus on diagnosing and healing dysfunctional relationships. You can find out more about his publications and services at Thomas G. Fiffer, and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter. His books, Why It Can't Work: Detaching From Dysfunctional Relationships to Make Room for True Love and What Is Love? A Guide for the Perplexed to Matters of the Heart are available on Amazon. He lives in Connecticut and is working on his first novel.


  1. Emotional withholding is a sign of infidelity and that wasn’t addressed in the article. My now ex became very withdrawn, very disconnected, very separated physically and emotionally with me and the kids….because he was connecting with another. He was having an affair.

  2. Genevieve says:

    Why would you delete my comment? Why not teach these people how to properly be able to love and be loved instead of letting them wallow in shame and neglect when it is unhealthy to feed on these feelings. Let’s b honest, are you keeping material to make money off people needing guidance?

    My email is real. My name is Genevieve. I really want to understand the true point to this article. Email me.

  3. Genevieve says:

    Although this article describes the emotional pain caused by feeling neglected very well, you offer absolutely no solution.

    Have you considered that some of your “horrible” ex spouses are happily married today? How would that be if they are so cold and unable to show affection? How could anyone possibly be happy with someone who is narcissistic, uncaring and emotionally distant?

    There is an answer. Too bad you couldn’t figure it out.

    • Movie Mom says:

      I agree Genevieve, I have been suffering for some time in my marriage and I have just realized I’m the one who is doing the withholding. I didn’t know I was doing it, but now that I see it,I’m trying so hard to change it but I have been unable to. I’ve been happily married for 23 years, with 2 teens and I long to break free from whatever this is. I know I will, but this article leaves both parties with no idea what to do, or what caused it in the first place, That being said, instead of attaching the author, I’m sure I will find other articles to help, if I keep looking and I will. Cheers.

  4. I am in this now, and it feels like it is killing me. It has been going on for years, and I cannot get out. I feel paralyzed, stuck. Don’t know who to talk to, where to turn. I literally need somebody to take my hand, and say, “Here. Let’s go. I’m picking you up and taking you out of here.” That’s how stuck in a state of inaction I feel. Sometimes I wonder if I have actually died and am in hell but don’t know it.

  5. Whoa!!! This I believe was the worst part of my relationship in with a fake husband(marriage fraud). So much emotional withholding….I never felt so helpless and frustrated because he was open before we married and then once married shut down….literally. I was hated by him and expected to do everything in our relationship…..none of the things to which we had agreed to before marrying. It caused a lot of dissonance that I still battle even after he left accusing me of doing the things that he was doing and worse. How I would have like to work things out…..but I couldn’t do anything if he wasn’t committed to the marriage and had never had any intention of staying married. There was so much that I didn’t understand ……until after he left………..and am still to this day…..trying to understand…..and trying to move on, though unsuccessfully..

    • projective identification by him. People often cant grasp the fact that there are sociopaths among us. On T.V. they are all serial killers or something crazy like that. Mostly they are emotionally vacant people who manipulate and use others while displaying no rational or common levels of compassion or empathy. They find people such as yourself who have a large capacity for giving caring and loving. But when they realize, even subconsciously, that the black hole inside them will not be filled, then their survival instincts kick in.
      The way out is to realize they are beholden to their childhood traumas which stunted their growth as a human being. Then focus on your self growth so that your heart heals past the wounds that set you up to love an unavailable person.

    • jill traver says:

      you did right thing. i have been in a bad one 3.5 years. it is hell run and dont look back its no you it is him

  6. Chilling. And validating. For those of us who’ve dealt with this, the scars can remain for years. One night that really stood out; I asked him to eat with me at the table, we needed to talk. After a bit of small talk I told him how scared I felt of him when he would have one of the anger outbursts. I was nervous to tell him this, afraid he’d get mad at me for blowing things out of proportion. Instead of responding to the fact that I said I was afraid of him, he told me my expression looked smug and my mouth looked like it was smiling.
    I held a napkin up to cover my mouth and asked him to please focus on what I was saying and not how my face looked as I was saying it.
    And I thought this was normal! It’s insidious. The low self worth I had and his ego were a toxic combination. My divorce was almost the death of me.
    Thank you for getting the word out about an all too common dynamic.

    • April prete says:

      May I ask any and all of you. I have lived the same thing told my remarks were sarcastic and not actually talking. I have tried to sit down and talk. Have left several times. The last time I left he said it scared him and he realized what he was going to work in it… A month everything went back to the emotional withholding . And know the fighting and detachment is worse . Help

  7. What you’ve described is so familiar that I’m a bit shaken having read this… This us what my husband does to my children and me. It’s what he is doing right now. For the first 12 years of our marriage, I did anything to make it stop, to make him speak to me, to acknowledge me. I would get on my knees and cry and beg for him to forgive me. I would assume fault for things that I didn’t do and didn’t understand.
    In the past couple of years, I have realized that not all husbands treat their wives like that. It has caused me to examine his motives, to search for the root causes of his behavior. Not to point it out, because the only thing worse than his ignoring me for days on end is his anger and degradations. But to try and better understand where he is coming from. To help him, if possible, to work through this.
    I have come to realize that my acceptance of blame for things I did not do, to only appease him, we’re very damaging to him. And I thought that I was making it better, because the symptoms would temporarily disappear. But no, I realize now that I have simply enabled this behavior in him. I have given him power. I have conditioned him to be cold, uncaring, and calculating in order to obtain his desired effect: my repentance for his faults. I believe it’s a type of deflecting on his part. He turns it on me, making me feel guilt for the disfunctional state of our relationship so that he doesn’t have to confront the real issues.
    We have been blessed with 8, wonderful, beautiful children. I am not a sick person, putting up with this behavior because I like it or want it or need it. I am normal, I assure you, despite how demented this relationship sounds. I cannot leave him because of our children. I hear you saying that an ultimatum must be given in order to affect any change and it makes total sense to me. But, I know, and he knows, that divorce is not an option. There is still enough clarity there to detest the thought of the emotionally destructive effect that divorce would have on our children. So what should one do, in my position? Should the threat to change or leave be given, even though we both know I cannot back it up? How do I get through to him that his self-destructive behavior must stop before it destroys us all? What are those magic words? That key to unlock my good husband that has been taken captive by emotional manipulation? I’m a fighter. I want my husband back. I love him. I refuse to watch him in his agony. He was meant to be a better man.
    Please help!

  8. This describes me to a tee! But im the one withholding believe it or not….what this one sided article fails an important factor. I withhold from my partner because he is an asshole! For 10years ive been critiqued on everythjng to the way i brush my teeth! Becareful people…ask urself what u may have done for the person to withhold! Dont use this article as a weapon to throw in ur partners face as yet another thing they are doing wrong!

  9. It took me 18 years to figure out that I lived with a beautiful woman who had Narcissistic personality Disorder. The emotional withholding was the crazy maker, and after perhaps 12 years of abuse, the last 4-5 being intense, I snapped and became abusive back. Bad move. Don’t take my example. Trauma bonding will make you crazy, and emotional withholding is only the beginning. I have confronted her with the disorder that she apparently has no idea she has, and wrote out the multitude of ways in which she was abusive. I don’t have much hope, but I like the rest of the weak, hold on for dear life. But, I am getting stronger. I believe I may be strong enough to leave soon. Best wishes to you out there, but look up Narcissism Vulnerable type/covert/shy is what my wife has not the megalomania version. Define what is going on around you so that you can deal with it. It’s the confusion that kills you.

  10. Thomas, great article. Tragically I relate so much to it. In the last few weeks my world has been turned upside down by my wife who, like a light switch, turned off hugs, kisses and sex. It’s absolutely making me crazy and I have no idea what to do. We have so far gone to one therapy session and she was evasive while I was direct. We’ll see what happens in future sessions. What hurts the most is that I know I am a good husband and father and I do not deserve this. I feel that my wife is intentionally destroying our marriage and I have no idea why. 6 weeks ago I believed I had a strong marriage. I am still in shock as to how things have spiraled without warning.

  11. Foolishly dealing with this same thing for 9 years. He withholds, sex, affection, attention and never makes time for us or me. He’s suddenly tired when I ask him for quality couple time. Love shouldn’t hurt this much. When I threaten to leave he doesn’t fight to keep me. He just says he loves me, he’s sorry and he really wants this to work out between us.No real sadness or tears from him. No remorse. He has no feelings. emotionally cold and just talks like a robot. I want to leave so bad but I have no money, no where to go and I am unwell now. I have no family nor friends. And frankly, I have no self esteem left. I think about suicide all the time. I’m 46 yrs old and I just don’t have the strength to start over again.

  12. I know about emotional withholding. My first husband verbally abused me insidiously for 23 years with name-calling, blaming, etc. I never wanted to leave, but finally did when drug addiction became apparent. My second husband is the emotional withholder. I often feel bereft and very sad that I’ll never experience a functional, loving marriage (I’m 60). There is NO affection or intimacy in our marriage. I do hug him, but he stands like a sentinel without moving. He won’t accept my love, concern, support, encouragement or affection. I express my feelings verbally and through articles that I ask him to read. When I verbalize, he won’t look at me, and leaves the room. He reads them, throws them down, and leaves the room without one single word. I don’t intend, however, to divorce him. The thing is that he treats others with this behavior also. His childhood and background were so horrific that I think he developed this behavior tactic to survive. I sometimes see glimpses of caring in him, so I know that he does care about me. I’m able to keep my self-esteem intact with therapy, but mostly by the grace of God. Prayer is always appropriate, and even essential, in dealing with these situations. It works. I love him, and I know he loves me in some way that neither of us understand.

  13. I have been seeing a guy for nearly two years. Something happened on Saturday evening that hurt my feelings , he turned round and blamed me although my reaction to what happened may have been hurtful. The fact he turned over put his back to me then chose to not speak to me all day on sunday unless we were with his friends hurt like hell. I had already been hurt by the blame I was given. Last night I text and said hope your ok. And he asked me what I had been at , so said out with the girls and all I got back was “good for you”. No kiss on the end of the text, as usual. He withholds affection when he isn’t happy with something, but he will expect me to apologise, and chase after him.
    I haven’t eaten anything two and a half days so I know inside im stressing and hurting. Relationships aren’t supposed to be like this, love isn’t supposed to be conditional . Why do we put up with this rubbish. When he is ready to talk he knows where I am , because I don’t want to be treated like this anymore its not the first time. All the previous times its like he hasn’t spoken because he was waiting for an Apology but I never get one not ever. Made to feel bad and made to feel wrong then further manipulation by saying stuff like I cant see how we can make it work. Well I have always been the one to say I will change I will do this that and the other. Well no more, I can apologise for my part if I hurt his feelings, but that’s it. No more.

  14. Lived this life for 15 years, it’s horrible. The worst part though is that as a man, if you mention it or complain, people look at you like youre weak. My wife used to always make jokes at my expense, never any compliments or anything at all, and over time it really crushes you. If you speak up though the response is “youre too sensitive” and if you talk to other people, they think the same thing. They don’t realize what it’s like to have a woman deny you any sort of intimacy and even a simple compliment. People need that to be healthy.

  15. This is a great article. Unfortunately, this problem is very common in marriage. This is also known as Intimacy Anorexia or Sexual Anorexia as this refers to a starvation of love in the marriage. Men suffer from this more then women, but we are seeing a growing number of women with this issue. More than 60% of the couples we serve struggle with this issue. Most anorexics are “nice” guys and gals but make the spouse look like the “crazy” one. These are very difficult clients to work with, but there is hope. Check out http://www.transformedhearts.com for more information.

  16. I recognized this immediately having been victimized by it for over 4 years at the end of my 37 years of marriage. It was agony. What actually made it worse was watching him turn on his charming personality around my family and mutual friends. The second they were gone he would turn to reading the Bobbsey Twins or Nancy Drew (yes despite being over 60 years of age). He insisted to his attorney he was divorcing me because I was “verbally abusing him”….. Confronting him resulted in counter-attacks that it was “all his fault, always all his fault” which caused me to give up and move away again. There is no future in a passive agressive emotionally abusive relationship. I am grateful for quiet and kindness now, away from the smoldering nastiness of the situation.

  17. I left a 12 year marriage with two kids because of this, although I had a difficult time explaining to others what the problem was. He wasn’t beating me, driving us to the poor house, or addicted to something. He just dismissed me. Entirely. He was cheerful in public or with family, and still puts on a good public face. I am currently in a healthier relationship (two years now), but I meant my vows when I said them and regret that I had not made a better choice in the first place.

  18. What a joke says:

    I would like to share a man’s perspective here but every time I try to post my thoughts, the site refreshes before I can finish typing and everything I write disappears. Too bad – good stuff but needs more perspective from men who are the real sufferers of emotional withholding. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus (everyone should read this book). I wish, in general, women would try as hard to understand men as men do to try and understand women. Women are much more prone to emotionally withhold, men are mostly emotionally retarded and are not as prone to withhold as punishment for not meeting expectations. Emotional withholding to a man is the absolute most devastating thing you can do to him. It is the most devastating form of rejection there is. Want to know why “good” men eventually cheat, drink, smoke etc – they lose their sense of self worth after being rejected by the one person they dedicated their life to. Whatever happened to “for better or worse, in sickness and in health”.

  19. This describes my relationship right now. Only I’m the one withholding- After my husband decided that he was going to sit in the bar instead of coming home to his family after work. I had given him the ultimatum that if he was going to continue the behavior that I didn’t want him around. Needless to say after the 2nd OWI that was it for me. He made his choice but won’t leave and has still continued to make bad choices. So this is all I have left to give.

  20. Thank you! After 28 years of living with this, I am free. I waited so long as I tried to get validation from marriage counselors we went to. They said I needed to live my life and not let the silent treatment get to me. I was unsuccessful at that! Not only did he not speak to me but he would treat everyone else around exceptionally nice and the glance at me in disdain or block his face from me completely. When I got to crying and shaking after the last silent treatment and my needs being ignored, I had no choice but to leave. I felt like a failure for so long because I couldn’t just live my life. But reading articles like this validates that I wasn’t crazy! Thank you!

  21. Wow, Thank you! I was married to the silent treatment for 28 years! We had numerous marriage counselors and I was unable to convince any of them that the silent treatment is devastating. They told me to just live my life and not give in to it, to know it’s him not me. But how do you have a relationship like that? Our marriage is now over as my body broke down from it, saved myself or I am sure a nervous breakdown was on the way. Got to the point I was crying and shaking a lot. Thanks for the validation!

  22. Suzanna Quintana says:

    I cannot express how grateful I am that you wrote this. I feel, finally, so validated. My husband, who was diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and whom I filed for divorce recently from, for years used the silent treatment to punish me. There were times when he wouldn’t speak to me for days, walking around me, even ignoring me as I stood at the window staring out and softly crying. I would cook dinner every night for us and our three boys and sometimes during these “punishments” he would eat my food without saying one word besides a cold “thanks” and then eat the rest of the meal in silence, or just talk to the kids (my boys got into the habit of reaching out and holding my hand under the table because they saw how hard it was for me). This was a brutal existence and I often say that I got out of that marriage just in time because I felt like my soul and spirit were on the verge of complete devastation. I felt as though during these silent treatments I wasn’t even a human being in his eyes worthy of taking up space on this planet. And I will admit now what I felt then: I used to wish he would just hit me instead since a bruise I could actually see and then watch heal and disappear seemed less painful to me. So thank you again for your words and bringing attention to this horrible, spirit-killing abuse.

  23. Free At Last says:

    This describes my marriage to my ex to a T. Only add that she was controlling as well. For example, not only did our house always look like a tornado hit it because even though my ex wasn’t working outside the home, she didn’t work in the home either, but when I tried to start clearing things out of the way she would start yelling, “don’t touch my stuff w/o asking me!!!!” I couldn’t even clear papers out of the way on the dining room table so I could have a place to eat w/o the NJ (nut job) screaming so loud that you could hear her from the other end of the world. One time I just wanted to get into my hamper to get to my clothes so I could do laundry, but her crap was all over the top of my hamper. When I started taking her stuff off the top of my hamper she said, “don’t touch it, I need to go through it and ‘organize’ it”. I tried to be assertive and say I need to do my laundry NOW and I don’t need your permission to get into my hamper. She said she was going to post on our community email chat list that I am a “dictator”. And so it went, what I had to deal with for many painful years. Why did I stay in it? For our kids….

  24. Thank you so much for this very beautifully written and insightful conversation starter. It rang true for me in a different sense. I think this can happen with anyone your close with. For me it was a close friendship with my cousin. I’ve had this relationship for all of my life, the last few years the relationship has evolved into the above. It’s very hard to work on a relationship when you feel invisible, when you feel like you no longer matter and when nothing you do works to improve it. Yet your expected to stay in it…It’s so hard to find your voice and to say that you deserve better. Thank you for bringing this situation to light, it’s helped me so much to learn more about this.

  25. “Emotional withholding is typically a response to your trying to stand up for yourself, to an assertion of your rights within the relationship.” Thank you for the article & for this sentence, in particular. This is very close to how I described the ending of my relationship. For me, it was more like, “When I grew emotionally in the relationship (stood up for myself), he withdrew.”
    The last paragraph did not resonate for me. In my situation, when I stood up for myself about what I needed to have in the relationship for it to continue, my best guess is that it challenged my partner to look at and take responsibility for his stuff, which he did not want to do, so he left the relationship. I say ‘my best guess’ because he never gave a good reason for ending it, just “I never loved you.” Do you have any comments?

    • Victoria, It sounds as if your best guess is correct, that the relationship was already effectively over when you stood up for yourself, and your partner didn’t want to have to make the necessary changes for you to stay. The “I never loved you” response has been documented as something people typically say at the end of relationships as they revise history to sanction their departure, even though it isn’t true. It’s also a hurtful comment guaranteed to push the other person away.

    • I have a boyfriend who loves me and I know this. However, he is much more comfortable with sex and physical expression than verbal. Any time I ask him to delve into his feelings he withdraws. Only when I am leaving does he say “I love you”. We cannot really discuss my disappointments or concerns or how either of us is feeling emotionally at all or he will clam up. It is very frustrating. Also, when I pin him down and finally voice my concerns very calmly, he withdraws and will disregard, counterblame, ignore or disappear. Only to reappear like nothing happened. I am going to jump ship with this one. It is driving me crazy and at this point I need some peace.

  26. 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

  27. 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.”

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

      • Yes, it does take two to tango. However, the tango is a beautiful dance where the partnerz work bard to hkne their individual skills, and to work in cooperation with one another for a beautiful end result. It takes two to make a relationship a beautiful thing.

        One partner can work on their own individual skills, a d work hard to cooperate with the other. It just takes the other partner not being willing to learn, grow and try to cooperate to turn the tango i to a horrifying mosh pit of doom.

        And you get slammed enough in the mosh pit of doom, you start slamming back. And you wonder what happened to you to turn you so far from who you were.

    • STOP ABUSE says:

      Two wrongs do not make a right. There will NEVER be a valid reason for a person to emotionally withhold from another – it is abuse and there is no justification for abusive behavior.

  31. 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?

  32. 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.

      • You keep hitting the nail on the head Thomas. I would go away for a weekend for a course and ask (not too often mind you) that he do something like wash up and tidy the kitchen. Upon returning home the said task was not done as he was out drinking with his friends and then proceeded to play the victim (oh poor me do you expect me to be at home on my own all weekend)!

  33. 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

    • bettylaluna, Thank you for making this important distinction. A depressed person will give again when he or she recovers. A withholder will not.

      • I think this is a wonderful article. The ultimate in passive/aggression is to completely withdraw & then sneak around behind your spouse’s back to create an online affair.

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

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

      • When reading No Man in Particular’s comment I felt a bit defensive. I have been on the receiving end of this type of behaviour – withholding! I know, I am a woman so apparently my experience is…whatever! As Thomas clarifies, it is about having an open and HONEST dialogue. My (ex) partner would, often, forget about discussions we had. For example, towards the end of our relationship I asked him about the likely hood of us getting married. After some coaxing from me about being honest, he stated that he did not want to marry me – ok I can deal with the truth! However, a follow up conversation about that conversation went something like this – “You know how we were talking about marriage the other day?” and he just looks at me like ‘I have no idea what you are talking about”. How the heck do you forget about talking about marriage to your ‘intimate partner’? This is what I experienced during most of the 5 years we were together.

    • the withdrawal I experienced was so extreme I fell down in the front yard on the ice and could not get up due to the slant in the driveway & my own vertigo. He would not come out and help me up. I crawled into the house with my elbow bleeding and he simply went back to eating his meal, not bothering to offer me a towel, or any attention whatsoever. I moved out as quickly as possible before he changed from withdrawal to actually hurting me.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

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

  40. 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.

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

  43. 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.

  44. 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.

  45. 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:


  46. This is right on, thank you for adding an 8th. I’ve come to learn that when I start to question how I look and start to ask ‘What’s wrong with me?’ and I start finding answers and trying to fix myself and make accommondations for the other – that I am losing my ‘integrity and self-respect’ you refer to. This then points me in the right direction of starting to look at what I am needing and not getting, and then asserting myself in asking for it in the relationship. The abuse has been very insidious, and therefore difficult to identify and manage. I am grateful to have learned through this process and am now better able to identify what I need and how to get it.

  47. Lydia, The problem is with the withholder, not you. If your needs aren’t being met, then the relationship isn’t working for you. If you ask and are refused, then you know where you stand—with your foot out the door.

  48. Gilda Jane says:

    i have lived with my husbands chronic emotional withholding for 13 years amongst being dumped 4 times only to allow him to pull the wool over my eyes until I take him back again. I am seeing a pattern and every time we reunite the withholding resumes about 3 months in after h has me hooked. My self esteem was just destroyed and I kept trying harder and harder to please to no avail – friends and family said I put him on an undeserved pedestal and had on rose colored glasses. After several rejections and enough of the withholding abuse I developed an explosive reactive anger I had never before experienced – every few months I would basically explode in verbally abusive assaults – I am loyal to a fault and always striving to honestly look at myself, to confront my issues, get the help I need to stop anything that I see am my part of the dysfunction / so that’s what I did regarding the angry outbursts – I am committed to change and can apologize – started seeing a therapist weekly who taught me other coping skills – the explosions on my part became fewer and farther between and now are non existent. However because of my occasional but very destructive outbursts he now has ammo — he blames our demise on my “anger issues” which I own – however does not acknowledge the impact of his withholding even though i have pleaded with his to stop and therapists have confronted him as well – thats when he stops going to therapy. I truly don’t think he is capable of the awareness that would require. He hasn’t changed and it has been 13 years. Now he is threatening to leave again – Something minor I did. I am actually relieved and hope he stays away this time but I am also plagued with tremendous guilt because I was far from perfect with my angry explosions – he blames it all on me and I buy it! I am beating myself up and cannot seem to get clear.


  1. […] 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 […]

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

  3. […] "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……….  […]

  4. […] 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……….  […]

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