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 Credit: iStock
Curious why these men choose to stay in this type relationship? Seems like a lot of trouble for him.
After 15 years, kids, a mortgage, investments, assets, mutual friends, etc. Your marriage becomes a labyrinth that will cause major collateral damage to everyone around you and yourself if it is destroyed. Death seems like an easier solution.
That is exactly why you shouldn’t go into “I was so stupid and weak” mode when it ends. If you were he wouldn’t have wanted you. Narcissism loves a challenge. The only real thing to do is learn something and move on. Recovery will not come quickly but it will come.
I lived like this for four years. I was just a body to use for sex twice a day, but other than that, I didnt exist. It all came to an end last year when my son was injured in Afghanistan. I just wanted to talk about it, and he said ” this isnt my problem, I dont wanna hear about it.” I never let him use me for sex or for money every again. Now he wont move out of myhouse because he doesnt want to pay his own bills. Grrrr
He did it to me for nine months. Slept in another room for nine months. He would not discuss why. Finally, I could not take it any longer and left.
Two years later, we try to reconcile as he thinks we have better communication. Now I cant seem to give to him. He is of course complaining that he has not been ‘laid in awhile’. And it somehow sickens me. I just don’t feel good about it.
I am going through this now and it is pure hell. Was in a relationship with a man who was married twice before, with his last marriage being an on/off again relationship for many years b4 they eventually they married, and then he came to find out she was cheating on him the entire time of their marriage. That was many years ago, and he has since had another “on/off” relationship that he said went on for many years. When we met, we had so much in common, it seemed like destiny. He pursued me with a fever. Within 3… Read more »
My wife of 13 years Is ice cold towards only me now for the last 9 years. No empathy, compassion, love , caring NOTHING. It started slowly 9 years ago. Nothing happened she just lost all emotions. Never touches me or shows a nice gesture when I get her roses anymore. If she’s not being mean she treats me completely neutral. Doesn’t say or do anything nice for father’s day or my birthday even. Sure she’ll say happy bday. That’s it. She’ll say it at midnight so she’s covered for the whole day. Never guys or kisses me ever. Only… Read more »
We’ve been together for 18 years married for 13. She used to be the total opposite. She started changing before our son was born. No affairs or anything happened. She just started slowly changing.
For the last 8 years I have been going through something similar. My wife “Loves me” but isn’t “In Love” with me. Doesn’t like to make love any more. I have to beg for it and when I do get it, she lays there like a corps. No emotion, no signs of enjoying herself, and asks “Are you done yet?” often. I tried talking to her about it and her response is “Our marriage is not based on sex. We don’t need to have sex any more.” I came close to killing myself several times because I wasn’t worthy of… Read more »
My husband of 25 years started emotional withholding when he began a middle-age crisis. Over the years, it just got worse and worse. He was trying to gain all the control in the relationship. It is indeed a very cruel way to treat another human being. The worst part is that the cruelty is being perpetrated by someone you love and that you know in some way loves you. It’s heartless and very, very sick. My husband grew up in a dysfunctional, abusive home, so I know where he learned about cruelty and control. Still, when it began to happen… Read more »
My wife of 20+ years e-mailed me this webpage last night. Wow! There are a lot of complexities in this article and in the heartfelt replies. I recognise some of the withholding behaviour in myself yet I am usually the first to admit my faults, sometimes almost without question. My first thoughts are that, in most relationships, each partner probably withholds in different ways or tries to control in different ways – each response being the unhelpful antithesis of the other … downward spiral ! I believe myself to be a good listener even when all sorts of accusations are… Read more »
I had this conversation with my ex-wife, where I told her I was through and would no longer interact with her in any way because of years of emotional abuse she put me through. She instead insisted that I move out. I refused, because I would not leave my children, and I worried about their safety and well being because she had become an incompetent parent. A few weeks later she moved out. That was when my life began again. The kids and I are so much better off without her. Now her life has fallen apart and I really… Read more »
I am so happy to have come across this article. Just this weekend I ended my 3 month relationship with my abuser. NO I NOT A VICTIM! I am just aware of who I was involved with. I attempted to express my wants and needs to many degrees and was always ignored. If he didn’t feel like to doing something he just wouldn’t. The more I expressed my needs and attempting to discuss the issues the more I would be ignored, he would become distant, and/or giving me the nonchalant attitude. I gave the warning that I would not put… Read more »
Being in a marriage for almost 23 years with a wife who has zero interest in me romantically and intimately hurts me so bad that I pray for death most days. She has not initiated anything at all physically in about 17 years, has turned me down so many times that I’m broken hearted and devastated. We have three great children, 21,19&17, and I still love her dearly. We are basically roommates with occasional sexual benefits, always initiated by me. I feel so lonely, angry, resentful and hurt. I have tried to discuss it with her many times over the… Read more »
Wow jay I feel the same I’m so starved and tired of being deprived. I feel stuck, I love him so much n want my marriage to work but he refuses to meet my need and withhold sex from me. He says there’s nothing physically wrong with him but he used to love oral sex n gave it up all the time n now it limb. I’m 39 with wantin deeper connection but says it’s me , that he’s stressed n I don’t do my part with our connection. Sucks!!! But I’ll pray to Jehovah for your marriage
This is exactly how my partner is to me right now . I am stuck in a loop and my anxiety is overwhelming . The sex which was once flat out passionate and amazing has totally departed I feel like she’s leaving me dangling by a thread and my life is precariously placed on her every movement . I truly hope you get what you need , soon
I know how you feel , my husband does me the same way. Idk how to start over ,but I’ve got to figure it out .I’m 42 years old and I feel 90 . I wish you the best of luck , I really hope to God they get done like this to feel the pain . This is the cruelest thing ,he should just shoot me between the eyes .
hi I’m sorry but its time to move on
Thank you Mr. Fiffer and thank you to Sara for bringing this silent topic (pun intended) to light. I have struggled for years to explain to others why I left my 20 year marriage, and to this day still question my decision because sometimes I think it was all in my head. Yet, it wasn’t. My ex was this emotional withholder that you and your reader have so perfectly described. It would have been so much easier in some ways if he had been overtly abusive, but I have always said that it was so covert and that is why… Read more »
This is complete and utter nonsense. We are responsible for ourselves as adults. The moment we hold someone else responsible for our inner ecology, not only do we lose our power, but we also give up our freedom, which is our birthright. Blaming someone for not fulfilling our needs and considering that people around us should spend their lives catering to our needs is the highest form of arogance, ignorance and it is simply abusive. It is characteristic for the victim-like, dependent, disempowered type of mentality. This article describes the neurosis people are going through and the exact reason for… Read more »
Wow, im at a loss of words! I guess we can treat other any way we choose then? I mean since we are responsible for our own needs, and a relationship isn’t an equal partnership? Manipulation must be a made up thing. People who get emotionally and psychologically abused aren’t really victims. It must be in their hear! lol and that would mean there are no real “aggressors” then either. I think sociopathy and narcissism must be pretend also. Omg the ignorance. I’m sorry your comment struck me as completely and utterly heartless.
Great! But please go live on an island somewhere and don’t interact with healthy people. Good riddance.
You do not seem to be particularly concerned with whomever your partner is or about their needs. Speaks volumes. What if there are children involved in this situation? All this lack of caring infects each person and generation to come. You are articulating a lack of compassion, why are you in a relationship to begin with if thIS is your missive? Just wondering.
let me tell you something. when you marry somebody, you have to give emotional intimacy to your mate. i can tell that by your response of being very callous that you dont need emotional intimacy- until you dont get any. nobody in this thread is weak by any means. WE are strong enough to admit we need emotionally intimacy and actually give those emotional abusers a chance until we dump the shit out of em.
Thanks Helen. That was the breath of fresh air that I needed. I finally told my emotionally detached husband of 26 years, that I am no longer going to wait for him to “make me happy” I am in charge of my own happiness. I am not interested in a divorce, or in leaving him, but I refuse to sit around anymore, waiting on my husband to decide if he’d like to participate in life with me. He can mope and sulk all on his own. I’m going to be happy and do the things that are enjoyable to me.
My husband is the affectionate (or was) and I am not but I want to show him the love that he deserves. We have 2 kids (2.5 year old and a 6 month old). He just told me he was done with our marriage because I’m not showing him the love that he needs. I had no idea he was feeling this way because I have always never initiated anything. We have been together for 8 years. Currently he does not want nothing to do with me (3 weeks) and moved out to a friends house for 2 weeks. I… Read more »
Diana, Your story is similar to mine except your husband did what I haven’t been able to do mainly because 5yo and 3 yo need their father around but its coming. I need to feel love respected and appreciated. That means compliments, notes, texts, and of course physical touch not only sex. Men need sex to feel loved women need to feel loved to have sex, its a great line that’s very true. Heres my advice: I would reach out to him explaining that you are unsure what has prompted this response but you are committed to fixing it and… Read more »
Diana quit writing on websites and listen to your husband. Make an attempt to give him what he needs, if you truly love him. But don’t be surprised if he doesn’t come back. It sounds like you are a truly sick individual and need some help to interact normally with other people. Get that help, and if your husband thinks you are serious he may come back. I would tell him not to, however. The are plenty of other women in the world to waste time with the damaged ones.
From my perspective when your partner starts with holding their affection and they are quick to penalize you by with holding it because of a disagreement they don’t really love you because it’s more about power and control you should leave because that alone is what is going to drain you and you will find yourself subdued by your partner’s refusal to recognize your needs You will be unhappy and become withdrawn meanwhile they become happier and oblivious to your needs which is deliberate. I left a relationship like that and even in the end he tried to tell me… Read more »
The silence is indeed a killer. It is stealth.
Im currently in this situation with my partner but she expects me to show affection to her but never shows any towards me i litterally bend over backwards to please her while im starting to feel dead inside and getting to my breaking point im shown no attention or affection i feel unloved and like a slave. But i love this women and she is the mother to my children but i can’t bare losing her . I’ve lost soo much over the course of our relationship if i lose her i having nothing left and i mean nothing .… Read more »
Perhaps communicate your needs to her. If you have been with someone for years who never love you the way you need to be you either accept it or move on. To accept it is to die painfully unhappy with yourself. It’s to become addicted to the allusion that the person will open up if you give more. It’s to be dependent on that person for happiness. If you leave you are in the beginning phases of loving you. Before you give your all you should make sure they are giving their all to you. Make sure they provide you… Read more »
So sorry to hear you are in the same position as me. 19 years ago I unintentionally hurt my girlfriend ( now wife ) by keeping details of a girl I had a crush on in high school. Ever since then I have been more and more shut out because she is convinced I will betray her again. The constant rejection and regret is killing me. Being abused when I was growing up was less painful than the rejection I feel from being the only one who gives any affection. Because all of this feels like its my fault. A… Read more »
Dump her. You won’t lose anything, because you don’t have anything. It will be a wonderfully freeing experience for you to be rid of her. But make sure you take the kids with you. Don’t leave them with that pathetic excuse for a mother.
I’m am in this exact situation of emotional withholding by my boyfiend/roommate. I was married for 22 years and my spouse did this same thing. I thought I had found a man this time (my boyfriend /roommate ) to share my life with. I was so wrong, this ugly monster of emotional withholding appeared again.
Speak up for yourself. Tell him what you think and how you feel . If he continues leave unless you want to put up with it. People at times get stuck in negative patterns. If they are unwilling or unable to change it you either leave or accept it. I chose to leave after three. Certain behaviors wear on your self-esteem and that’s one.
This article and the discussion below all assume that the withholder is basically at fault, pursuing a strategy that is bound to fail, unwilling to yield or change, and/or acting out scripts from unresolved issues in their past. The possibility that the withholder has been shamed and shut down by the other partner is hardly considered. Perhaps the withholder cannot reach out to explore the incidents and behaviour that have shut them down because they have lost their initial confidence that their partner is acting in good faith and can be trusted to not shame, injure, or abuse them all… Read more »
In my case of 24 LONG GRUELING YEARS of marriage, ITS ALWAYS BEEN MY HUSBAND that does the with holding,,,,FOR NO APPEARANT reason other than his own pathetic immature thoughts. I LOVE/ED him then, always have , can still. The reciprication lasts about 3 days then slowly fades and dies, all the while it pushes me away to the point Im no longer affectionate either. Then He goes into the silent treatment when hes now feeling what hes been giving me all along. He has done this for 24 years,,,,hes 55 years old,,,HE DOESNT LEARN NOR GROW,,,,,Im tired of the… Read more »
Witholding compassion, love, respect, and/or affection is NOT an appropriate way to address issues in a relationship, period end of story. Either leave or communicate and advocate for change for change but the latter isnt effective and breeds resent. Determining right and wrong is irrelevant
I have tried, repeatedly, to write a response to your comment. Every time I try I manage to go on for pages. Let me just say this…the fundamental problem is that the withholder is not communicating, at all. The withholdee becomes increasingly at a loss. (S)he only sees silent indifference with no explanation. There is no mechanism, or even a hint, on how to fix the rift. Attempts are made to fix the problem, they fail. Increasingly desperate attempts are then made, these face and reinforce the indifference. The withholdee is hurt, but the withholdee refuses to recognize the (s)he… Read more »
Thanks so much for writing this. This: “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… Read more »
I wrote above,,,,DEAR LORD girl Say goodbye to this boyfriend!!!! Hes not the one,,,hes self centered and very immature and probably always will be. my husband is 55 years old & he has done this for 24 years,,,,AND STILL does it. Im too old for this crap and so is he. But he doesnt grow, mature or learn. I JUST DONT GET IT. Take my advice and save yourself the pain & frustration and go find a man who wants to WORK WITH YOU to make a GOOD LIFE TOGETHER>
I’m going through the same issues. We’ve been together 20 years. We have kids. I’ve made mistakes when we were teenagers and his has been punishing me for them ever since. I don’t want my kids to grow up in a broken home. He has made mistakes too and I am working passed them. It seems like no matter how great of a woman I become I’m always fighting to feel loved….completely heartbroken
Thank you for this.
She used to do all the meeting my love languages but then stopped. The more I pressed her for a reason why she stopped giving me things I need, the more she’d shrug it off.
This has helped me out into perspective what has transpired and why I am so broken after my breakup with my ex.
Keep up ththe excellent work!
I wonder what the percentage might be of these witholders being born under the sign scoripo.
My wife sent me this article, but it didn’t mention anything about her being munipulating and controlling ,and stabbing me in my heart .
I have lived in a dead marriage for 13 years now and the lack of caring and compassion is extremely difficult. This is my second marriage (my first marriage lasted 21 years) and there have been marital problems for most of the marriage. The man I met was not the man I married, and the man I married is not the cold, controller he is now. There is a temperament change with emotional outbursts over the tiniest issues — many have nothing to do with me, but I see the outbursts and am usually the target of the rage. There… Read more »
Hi – I understand what you’ve just described. I live a life very similar in many ways. Hell, nightmare and toxic are apt words for my situation. I thought I was losing my mind, being ‘stonewalled’ and generally dismissed. Took me five years of research to realise that my husband has ‘high-functioning’ autism, sometimes called Aspergers. This disability has a catastrophic and abusive effect on neurotypicals (not autistic). If you’re interested, do google AS Partners. It’s a Delphi Forum and one of the very few places where you’ll be listened to and understood. You are being abused, as am I,… Read more »
Thank you for responding, so kind of you to take the time. I have enjoyed reading a number of articles from this site, and read through comments on this article. I try to ‘take care of myself’ by staying busy and trying to accomplish goals — that has helped me deal with the loss of my son because it gave me focus and helped me to stay strong and not be a ‘victim’. I will look up the references you provided. I really don’t believe my husband suffers from Aspergers, but will research these things. Please take care of yourself,… Read more »
Hi can I ask if you and or your husband seeked help to confirm he has aspergers
So sorry to read your post about your marriage pain and for your son’s passing, it must be so difficult to face this indifference while you grieve him. This is not your fault, not at all, your words are caring, giving and compassionate. unfortunately just because you give, you cannot cause anyone else to. It’s a living hell, you are absolutely right and you definately deserve emotional support and love in your life. You mentioned that you can’t afford to live alone which is valid so I thought maybe you could join some clubs or support groups near you and… Read more »
My abuser is on the ‘high achieving’ end of the autistic spectrum. You have described my life. He presents to others as a likeable, if quirky ex-scientist. It’s a nightmare. A firm of torment that is insidious and unseen. Death by a thousand papercuts. The abuse described here made me feel ill because I KNOW it. It also has similarities to Narcissistic Personality Syndrome. Thank you for writing this article. I feel less invisible today.
This is something that unless people have experienced it, they rarely understand and can never totally empathize…I have remained in my relationship with my wife for 10 years now with the belief that I can fix this but she is more distant than ever…gaslighting, transference, passive aggressive are common also…it is near the end and it saddens me deeply…so close but yet so far…in this society, being a male on the receiving end of this behavior is much more stressful because people don’t believe you…the perpetrators of this behavior are extremely good at concealing it around others…it’s maniacal…
Hi David, I hear you and have empathy for your pain because I live it too. You’re correct in saying that the general public just doesn’t ‘get’ the misery that we endure. In many cases, the people who subject us to this abuse are on the autistic spectrum. I obviously don’t know if that is so in your case, but worth mentioning anyway. This form of autism is sonetimes called ‘Aspergers’. My partner was initially charming, then dropped the act once the ring was on my finger. I have never known such insidious cruelty in all my many years. If… Read more »
I lived with the husband for 10yrs, who is expert on holding love and care to punish and acts he is not bothered. I am doubting my sanity now. I didn’t know that I am played badly. If I did this or that, I would have been loved. My God, not sure how long I can go before divorce.