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When a Partner Withdraws

The five most common reasons why a partner withdraws.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Intimate partners create internal maps of how their partners think and feel about themselves and the relationship. They can pretty accurately predict what thoughts and behaviors they can expect in most situations from that knowledge and understanding.

But sometimes, those comfortable and secure expectations slowly or suddenly go awry. A partner’s predictive behavioral patterns shift without warning or explanation, leaving the other partner confused and unsettled. A withdrawing partner often becomes even more inaccessible when pressed for reasons or attempts to understand.

Rarely have I been called by those partners. It is much more likely that the newly-exiled partners are worried that something is wrong and need help to understand and what they can do.

“He’s no longer the man I knew. He denies there is anything I should be worried about, but I know it’s not true.”

“She reacts to my questions with irritation and impatience, and she’s never done that before. She’s in deep conflict. Something is up, and she can’t share it.”

“He seems pre-occupied and into his own world. We’ve always shared everything, even if it was hard. Now I can’t even get him to look at me.”

“I know she is afraid to tell me, but she’s always come to me before when she’s struggling with something. I don’t want to invade her privacy, but somehow, this seems different. Everything in me says we need to do something.”

How does a partner decipher this unpredictable change in their partner’s behavior? What is the best way to proceed? Should they just give them space to figure it out, hoping it will resolve on its own? Or will that just make the problem worse? When is it better to be patient and supportive or push to intervene before it might be too late? Why does a previously available partner suddenly disconnect?

The Five Most Common Reasons Why a Partner Withdraws

1) Betrayal

Unpredictable withdrawal is often a sign of infidelity, whether consummated or not. The behavior generated by that internal pre-occupation is obvious and rarely responds to attempts to question.

But other behaviors are betrayals in other ways, such as addictions, external personal threats, or bad decisions that are embarrassing or hurtful to the relationship’s security.

2) Internal Personal Conflicts

As people go through different stages of life, they sometimes put aside desires in order to not challenge the relationship's inability to fulfill them. They intentionally bury those sacrifices and try to make them irrelevant. But, over time, those suppressed desires may emerge, making the lives they have chosen feel less and less fulfilling.

Torn between the promises they have made to themselves and their partners, and their increasing hunger to live out those suppressed dreams, they begin to feel trapped in a way they haven’t felt before. In hopes they will be able to force those feelings to subside, they don’t want to share that process because it will cause their partners unnecessary pain.

3) An Unpredictable Personal Crisis

There are times when families face hard challenges, and both partners are doing their best to keep things in order. Neither partner wants to burden the other with their own stress at that time, hoping the issue will resolve on its own.

For example, what if one partner finds out that they have a serious but curable illness that could burden the relationship and cause unnecessary distress? Maybe there is a threat of potential financial loss that may not happen but will pose a temporary threat? A friend or family member needs help and is more important to one partner than the other.

Or, it may be that a normally stoic partner feels unable to function at the expected level and is too embarrassed to let that be known. Pride and fear of failure keep that partner from sharing, choosing instead to solve the dilemma independently.

4) Reemergence of Trauma

Most people who have lived with debilitating traumatic experiences in their past lives have done whatever they can to move beyond those experiences and not let them affect their current lives. They often have not chosen to share what happened to them with their partner, wanting to leave the past behind, embarrassed at those experiences, unwilling to relive them, or fearing judgment.

Then, often without warning, an event triggers that past trauma. If they have shared those experiences with their partners and worked through them as a couple, they can more easily share again when they reemerge. But, often, they have preferred to keep them subdued or even secret and, when they reemerge, go inward to rebury those demons without threatening the relationship.

5) A Past Indiscretion Threatens to Resurface

Many people make decisions in their early lives that result in devastating consequences at the time. They have chosen not to share those with their partners, friends, or family members for fear that they will be judged less valuable in the present. They want to be known as who they are now and not before.

Then something happens which uncovers that earlier mistake, and they don’t want their partners to know. They are doing everything they can to handle it on their own, but the anticipation and fear of exposure become an obsessive hold on their psyches, keeping them trapped in an internal battle of emotional terror. What if their partners do not want to be with them anymore when they find out? What if what they once did now threatens their current life?

* * * * * *

There are times in every relationship when one partner becomes unavailable to the other while going inward to understand. If that couple had successfully processed those times in the past, reunited when the situation was resolved, and then processed together what had happened, there are usually no reasons to imagine a deeper problem underlying the situation.

When the withdrawal becomes more prolonged and there doesn’t appear to be any desire for resolution, an underlying threat to the relationship may be brewing and must be addressed.

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