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Withholding: A Dangerous Saboteur of Love

That immobilization some feel under stress can become withholding behavior.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Open and honest communication between intimate partners is a core requirement for a relationship to thrive. Any limitations that erode that authenticity will predict problems in the future.

There are many aggressive behaviors that threaten any partner’s ability to continue being vulnerable with the other. No one can keep being emotionally available on the other end of continuous criticism, invalidation, blaming, or verbal abuse.

But there is another behavior that can be more damaging to a relationship than these more easily identifiable, overt actions. It is the act of withholding, the rejection of all attempts for contact. Because human beings fear isolation more than any other experience, this behavior threatens abandonment or exile and is severely more wounding to a relationship.

When one partner discounts the existence of the other by closing off all communication, they essentially erase them. The partner who is shut out and cut off is left to unravel their feelings on their own without validation or sanity.

Whatever the reasons why some people withhold, the effect on the other partner becomes more destructive over time. Even when the withholding partner chooses to reconnect, they may have pushed the other too far away to come back. The cost of the disconnect becomes too high to pay, and the relationship’s trajectory is on track for failure.

To keep that from happening, it is essential that withholding partners know why they behave that way and realize the cumulative effect it can have on their partners before it is too late to turn things around.

Why Do Some People Withhold?

Withholding behaviors are first developed in childhood by the combination of caretaker modeling, personality proclivities, and situations that reward those behaviors. They often are the only successful reactions to power hierarchies where the only available responses to stress are fight, flight, or freeze. When fight or flee are not options, freezing is the only response left. That immobilization under stress can become withholding behavior.

Withholding behavior can be intentional or defensive, but its effects on a partner are the same: isolation and powerlessness.

Intentional Withholding

When one partner knowingly and willfully disconnects, shuts down, and essentially exiles the other partner, they know what they are doing. They are willfully punishing the other for something they have done. Their goal is to make that other person feel isolated and disempowered. People who withhold for these reasons often have a determined and angry look on their faces, crossed arms, and angry eye contact. Or they may just walk away. The intent is to keep their partners immobilized and defeated.

Intentional withholding is intended to threaten the other partner’s existence, non-verbally communicating that they don’t matter. It most often happens during conflict but may carry over to other aspects of the relationship. Keeping the other person in the dark is an effective control mechanism to invalidate power.

Why would a seemingly otherwise committed partner choose to hurt the other partner and then legitimize it as appropriate?

The answer is often found in childhood teachings, where that behavior was modeled by the dominant parent. To withhold is to hold power, and the person who utilizes that defense would feel powerless without it. They often secretly hope that the other partner will see how righteous their behavior is, recognize their errors, and keep trying to do what is wanted. But once they have begun the withholding process, they dare not give in.

Reactive Withholding

Partners who experience constant attack, invalidation, criticism, and abuse often cannot see any other way to respond than to disconnect, pull in, and put up a wall against further pain. They may be unable to see what they did that creates angry behavior in the other. They perceive closing off as a reasonable response to what they are experiencing.

When a person feels that shutting down to stop the attack is the only way to survive, they are often re-experiencing childhood powerlessness on the other end of anger or watching a parent behave in the same way. Perhaps silent withholding stopped the abuse.

The ability and skill to fight were not an option, and they were trapped in a situation they had no control to stop. It only takes a phrase, a certain voice intonation, or a physical stance to bring the traumatic experiences back. The feelings of helplessness flood back, and escaping into disconnect becomes the only option.

The consequences of reactive withholding leave both partners isolated and unable to resolve the situation. The reactive withholder cannot let down their wall, and the exiled partner cannot penetrate the resistance. Angry and helplessly imprisoned, they may take control of the situation by becoming aggressive, causing the rejected partner to lash out in frustration or choose self-defeating martyrdom. The reactive withholder can only retreat even more, cornered and defeated into further isolation.

Can These Withholding Patterns Change?

These withholding patterns are often life-long and are more likely to happen in intimate relationships where the hunger for intimate connection collides with the fear of dependency. As such, they are more likely to occur under stress when that conflict is active. Erasing another’s power to influence or control takes precedence over the deeper desire to experience the joy of true intimacy.

These are not easily rectified fears, nor are the behaviors that accompany them. Many withholders continuously and unconsciously choose partners who fall vulnerable to their “don’t try to get inside of me but don’t stop trying” pattern. They truly ache to give up the walls that once saved them and have now become prisons, but they can’t allow themselves to give their partners a chance to make that happen.

Yet, I have seen couples overcome these behaviors and decide to take the chance of sharing the deeper fears that drive them. The path is fraught with peril for a withholder because of the underlying fears they must face, but they can do it if their hunger for intimate connection wins over their resistance. That decision will depend on whether the pain of isolation is stronger than the fear of vulnerability. If they do commit to that process, it is crucial for their partner to make room for that vulnerability and not retaliate for what they have endured in the past.

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