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.