THE OTHER SIDE OF RELATIONSHIP WITHDRAWAL: WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR PARTNER WITHDRAWS
A few posts ago I wrote about withdrawal in relationships and received a comment asking me what to do when you are on the receiving end of withdrawal. In other words, what is a healthy response to a partner’s unhealthy choice to withdraw?
Let me be clear that the type of withdrawal I’ll be talking about is the kind that goes on for more than an hour, is done with an air of contempt, and is done provocatively, meaning they just check out without explaining why or promising to talk about things later. This is different from taking a time out to re-group and get centered.
Unhealthy withdrawal often has a cold shoulder effect to it; the person on the receiving end feels shut out and often shut down. Subsequently, that person will try a number of things to re-engage his/her partner including: begging, pleading, retaliating, giving in to, yelling, shunning them back, and on and on. Because their partner is in withdrawal and behind a wall, these efforts have little, if any, impact. If any of the above does have an impact, it’s usually the giving in that may weaken the walls—not without a price though.
Although giving in or apologizing (even when you know you did nothing wrong) may weaken the walls, it will often lead to resentment. At some point you’ll get annoyed that you’re always the one apologizing. Eventually you get angry that you’re the only one in the relationship who’s willing to be accountable. Ultimately, you get tired.
Instead of pursuing your partner, in any way, or shunning and walling off to them, you want to set limits on the withdrawal and go on with your life. Setting limits means taking care of yourself and not engaging in the chase. Be clear about what you want, what you’re willing to do and not do, and then follow through with your actions. Don’t stop your life because your partner has checked out of theirs’.
The best time to take these steps is when your partner is NOT withdrawing. You want to have a conversation with him/her when he/she is open to hearing it, so it’s best not to do that in the heat of the moment. Choose a good time to talk and then be clear about what is not working for you regarding the withdrawal. Let your partner know that although you realize there are going to be times when he/she is angry with you, it’s not okay with you that he/she acts as though you don’t exist. It’s not okay that he/she withdraws and checks out. Be clear that you would like him/her to take a time out (no longer than twenty minutes) and then come back to discuss things with you. If the twenty minutes isn’t enough, you’re willing to renegotiate for an additional hour—as long as he/she is not being cold, standoffish, or mean spirited.
Next let your partner know that if he/she is not willing to do that, then you will be going on with your daily plans and will not be pursing him/her in any way. If he/she would like to discuss the issue relationally, you would be more than willing to do that. You however, will not be willing to walk around in a toxic environment for hours, or days until he/she calms down. Let him/her know that you will no longer be apologizing to try to smooth things over. You will only apologize if you are sorry.
Set a limit regarding family activities, dinners, parties etc., such that, you will only attend those activities if he/she is no longer giving you the cold shoulder. If you had plans to go to a party, you will go by yourself if you choose to. If your partner decides to go, then you will not go if he/she is being cold or withdrawn towards you.
I would also let your partner know that this behavior is greatly impacting your relationship. Don’t threaten, just share the information from a very centered place. This is a heads up for your partner—and a gift. How he/she receives it is his/her work; how you give it, is your work.
Remember, when it comes to your partner withdrawing, there’s nothing you can do to make him/her stop. There’s plenty you can do in response to their withdrawal however. Stop and think about what you do have control over—you, and then act accordingly. Set limits, be clear with your expectations, and don’t pursue someone who’s acting irresponsibly.
When you pursue irresponsible behavior, you contribute to more irresponsible behavior. Is that what you want to do?
Challenge: If your partner frequently withdraws, realize this is irresponsible and you deserve better. Set limits on it, don’t pursue your partner, and go on with your plans. You will feel better for it and your partner will be stuck to sit in his/her aloneness—alone.