the silent pain of emotional withholding

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There’s a type of relationship dysfunction that isn’t obvious or tyrannical but instead quietly sucks out your integrity and self-respect. There are NO fights or fireworks. Instead, every concern you share or dissatisfaction you express is completely ignored or casually dismissed. Not with a bang but a whimper.

If emotionally withholding is felt in your relationship, the following may sound very familiar.

Coldness replaces warmth. 

Silence replaces conversation.

Turning away replaces turning towards.

Dismissiveness replaces receptivity.

Indifference replaces kindness.

And contempt replaces respect.

Emotional withholding is one of the toughest tactics 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.

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

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.

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, because even a shouting match, an ugly scene, would involve an exchange of words, because even physical conflict would constitute physical connection.

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?   Your accomplishments go unrecognised, your contributions unmentioned, your presence at best grudgingly acknowledged, and any effort at bridging the chasm is spurned.

You feel pathetic—pleading, begging, literally on your knees, apologising for everything, offering things that are distasteful to you, promising to be better, just to re-secure your partner’s affection.  But your partner’s silence speaks the words, “You’re dead to me.” And death may enter your consciousness as an option. Death or at the very least, not existing anymore, begins to feel like a viable alternative, a way to achieve relief from the unbearable pain.

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; afterall, if you just were a better, more loving, more affectionate, more whatever person, then the caring, compassion, communication and connection, the warmth and the love, would return.  The truth is, caring, compassion, communication, connection, warmth, and love should NEVER be conditional and NEVER be willfully withheld. 

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. Alone.

Need help?

If you’re in a relationship that makes you feel empty, unloved and existing in silence then know you are not alone.  Seek help to either rescue the relationship or find the strength and support to leave.