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April 29, 2007

WITHDRAWAL IN RELATIONSHIPS: IS IT REALLY BETTER THAN CONFLICT?

There are times in life, and in relationships, when we just need to, figuratively, check out. We need a little down time, perhaps a bit of an escape, and just want a break from…well, from everything and everyone. As long as it’s not for too long and it is done responsibly, it’s not such a bad thing. It just is.

Too often, however, we don’t check out responsibly and instead just withdraw into a walled-off, resigned place of silence and contempt. There are several reasons why we may do this, including: wanting to avoid conflict, feeling frustrated and hopeless that anything will change, feeling angry and justified in our anger. So we close others out because they “deserve” to be shut out, and on and on. Usually this pattern of withdrawal stems from what we learned in our childhood—and always this pattern is detrimental to our relationships.

So when is withdrawing harmful and when is it helpful? Great question! Withdrawal is helpful when it’s done responsibly and not done as a form of resignation or payback. Responsible withdrawal requires two elements: First, an explanation of why you can’t be present (i.e., “I’m feeling really angry and I need a break to clear my head”) and second, a promise of return (i.e., “I’ll be back in thirty minutes to discuss this again”). If we just check out and don’t explain why or promise to come back, chances are we’ll be hearing all sorts of things from our partner that we’d rather not hear. In essence, we’re in trouble…and we ought to be.

Withdrawal is harmful when people wall off and send out an energy that tells others to stay away. Taking time to compose yourself is one thing, taking time to send a message to your loved one that you have no intention of speaking to them, listening to them, or being bothered by their existence is an entirely different matter.

I’ve heard some people talk about ignoring their partner for hours and even days! That is absolutely dysfunctional and not okay. We do not have the right to ignore someone or treat them with contempt because we are angry, disgusted, or anything else. We do have the right to set a limit, hold them accountable for their actions, and/or make a request of them; we do not, however, have the right to shun them.

Withdrawal is a child’s way of responding to an adult problem and it will never work. Trust me, I tried it for many years—it doesn’t work.

If you withdraw to avoid conflict or because you’re sure your partner will never “get it” anyway, then it’s time to step up and step in. It’s time to face your disagreements head on and stay in the conversation rather than ignoring it. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t talk about it. You also can’t blame your partner for not changing if you keep withdrawing and giving up when things get difficult.

If you want a healthy relationship—then act healthy and learn how to work through disagreements rather than avoiding them. Use your speaking and listening skills and relationally work through tough issues—don’t let the child in you run the show.

Challenge: If you need a time out to gain your composure, take it—responsibly. Once you have gained your composure, get back into the conversation and commit to staying in it even when it’s hard.

Comments

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I have a husband who hibernates for at least 2 weeks in the guest room. Only comes out at night when me and the kids are asleep so he can get food from the fridge and he goes back. I ask whats wrong, do u want to talk about it, I check on him and he ignores me. I have never dealt with this and it's agonizing. To be shunned away. It's everytime he can't handle a problem or tell me the truth he shuts down to force me into sending an alarm oh no what's wrong?? I have such anxiety over this and he doesn't get it.

I had been with my girlfriend for 6 months. We spent the summer and a good part of the fall riding our bicycles all over the city and going to the beach. We had minor issues but seemed to do a good job at communicating and working them out. Around a month ago I began to get criticized and nagged about the littlest things. When I relayed how I felt like I was living in a minefield, and that I should not be reprimanded for every tiny offense (missing a spot in a pot that I cleaned), my ex replied, "How will I get credit for allowing you to get away with things?".

Cut to December 10th. We had separate plans that day but I called her at night in tears (due to finding out some very heart wrenching family news) asking if I could come over. I was told that she was doing laundry and other things and could speak to me on the phone but that I could not come over. I was devastated.

I wrote her a very honest and strong email the next day saying how hurt I was that she was not there for me. She said she was sorry for not being available to support me (which sounded like a doctor saying that they had a 2pm client and that is why they couldn't see me).

She offered to meet with me and talk but I was so angry and hurt I told her I needed a few days for my own space.

When we spoke a week later she basically hammered me with many reasons why she no longer wants to be with me (we don't have enough intellectual conversations, we have nothing in common besides riding bicycles and going to the beach, etc.).

Do I have some regrets? Yes. Perhaps I should have spoken with her and not shut her out. But I had been there for her at every turn to be as a supportive boyfriend as possible. And when I needed her I was told that she was doing laundry. I was so hurt and insulted by that. It was the cherry on top of recent slights and snubs.

I have to learn from this and be willing to listen when I am angry and hurt.

wow, good advice once again. thank you =)

I appreciate this article as this pattern is common with many people. From the perspective of human behavior, it could be an indication of the way a person responds in other areas with the basis being their fight..freeze or flight response..and lack of skill to override this response when it is unwarrented. Any comments on this? Also..will you make further explanations for people who find themselves in this predicament from the point of view of the person who is being shut-out or pushed away by this behavior.

LISA"S REPLY: You're absolutely correct that people have a tendancy to have an automatic response when they are triggered. Sometimes it's the body's response of fight or flight, and sometimes it's the person's reflex response they learned as a child. Because either response happens so quickly, many people are at a loss of what to do. I will make sure that I write about how to handle this in a future post but the short cut to what to do is:
1. Breathe (take a slow deep breath to get centered).
2. Remind yourself that withdrawal just avoids issues, it doesn't solve them.
3. Commit to staying in the process. Think about what it is that you want or need in that moment and then speak it.

Regarding what to do when your partner is the one withdrawing...again it's a great topic for a future post. The first step however is to realize that it's not okay for someone to act as if you don't exist for hours or days at a time. You want to set limits on this behavior without endlessly fowwling him/her and begging him/her to talk to you. I'll write more in a post.

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