May 14, 2007


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.


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Great article and the comments below help reinforce its not a healthy space to be in. The dance people talk about is called the Tango. There is a book by Pia Mellody called facing Love Addiction which is great. I am only really recently learned about this behaviour after falling in love with someone who withdrew really quickly after confessing his love for me quite early in the relationship. I went overseas for work for a week or so then when I got back I was the best thing that had ever happened to him and it was him & I forever. Then over the next few days he cut me off completely. So bizarre. Couldn't even talk to me. I was left devastated and as I have got childhood abandonment issues, have found myself doubting and abandoning myself. Its a long road back to normal after a relationship like this, but I have my good and my bad days. I have now accepted the fact that I have to let him go which breaks my heart, but I have to do it for my own sanity. Good luck to everyone else out there and thanks for your info :)

Dear DennyGirl,
If there is no respect then what are you doing about that? It sounds like it's time to set limits. What are you going to do the next time he stays out till 4am? What are you going to do if he refuses to change? Get clarity on what you want, what you're willing to do and how you're going to do it. Then tell him what you are going to do if it continues to happen...and then do it.
Stop waiting and hoping for him to change and instead get clear on what you will and will not accept.

I also have a husband that does not communicate we have been together 21/2 years and five months of that is how long we have been married. Our arguments stem from him staying out till 4 am quite often. I've tried several approaches with him unfortunately they only work when he feels like giving in. My trying to communicate with him usually ends up in him turning the tables on me like I'm wrong for voicing my opinion. Their is no communication or respect.

I live with a partner who will not communicate with me about any concerns or issues that I need to discuss with him. If I express myself calmly and in a way that I feel is not blaming or accusing, he still gets angry and insults me or storms off. I am subject to his criticism though, which he feels rightly justified in dishing out and tells me I just can't accept the truth if I am hurt or upset. We have been together for 21 years, he owns the property we live in, have 2 children and until recently, I worked for him in the business we built. He openly tells me that his house is none of my business, refuses to write a will and insists I have contributed nothing, am nothing and should be grateful to him for everything. I am at my wits end! I don't feel at home, safe, valued or respected and now just refuse to play house or listen to his unending day to day problems. He has diagnosed me with a long list of mental illnesses, calls me a parasitic narc for not being happy as things are and tells me to leave if I complain. I have withdrawn to stop any more diagnosing and feel unable to give a hoot about his assets any longer. Am I abusive? I am on eggshells trying not to get myself another mental health diagnosis, rarely leave the house to avoid hurtful accusations and have stopped work, as he insisted it was purely for narcy supply. I'd like to communicate my frustrations, but they result in me being evicted or put in my place. I feel put up and shut up is my only way to get through this.

Dear Sarah: Why in the world are you putting up and shutting up? Your husband sounds very abusive and the last thing I would recommend is for you to silently take his poor treatment or for you to quit your job. Get your job back, save money and get professional help for both of you. If he refuses, I would seriously consider whether this is where you want to stay for the rest of your life. You deserve so much better and until you know that and do something about it, your husband will continue you treat you like he has. Start to take care of yourself so you can model something different for your children.

Be strong, be respectful and have your back. Don't silence.

My partner and I have been together for 3 yrs (same sex relationship). It has been a turbelent time but we have been working through our differences and moved in together some months ago. She needs more space than I do, admits to not being an affectionate person although I tend to disagree, it depends on the mood, and needs more space. I'm more touchy feely, haven't always understood the need for space but am working hard on giving it when needed, not always successfully. I like to discuss issues when they are raised and move on if we can. She withdraws, pushes me away and becomes really nit picky. This can last from days to weeks. Things haven't been good for many weeks and when I try and raise it and invite the chance to talk it's thrown at me and I'm told that I don't need to manage the situation. During these periods I feel quite controlled, unable to work out what to do and how to act. Any advice? It's tiring and when she spoke the other day she didn't sound happy with much that I do or our relationship as a whole.

Dear Lisa, my situation is a man who is my best friend withdrawing from me only but not to others after he got news of the girl he likes back in school is getting married. I am not even his girlfriend and I do not know why he shunned from me. He get busy with his phone or not talking when face to face but he still sending me some messages on msn.

Hi lisa,

I read what you advised and I find it makes sense. However I have been in a relationship and have discussed and sorted out things for the last 7 months repeatedly. Most often the situation hasn't changed much after discussion I find that after putting in efforts and discussing several times and being responsible like you say that things haven't changed much. In fact, I have even tried withdrawing for a particular time limit to return to normalcy and I am not allowed that because I'm supposed to sort out everything and have eventually learned that it changes only a bit. I find there is no motivation to be in the relationship and nothing but withdrawal is going to relieve me of the pain of trying hard. I can only speak for myself now and say that it isn't only hurtful to be on the recieveing end but its equally painful to withdraw and know that there is nothing left.

Dear Sanjana: I'm so sorry to hear your partner is not responding or being present. Sometimes no matter what we do, the other person may not respond how we'd like. You need to get clear about what is and is not okay and then you need to be willing to rock the boat. Tell your partner how unhappy you are. Be clear about what you want and what you will do if things don't change. DO not try to protect your partner--just be honest.
Next begin to think about what ACTION you can take that will send the message that you are growing weary and distancing? When you have clarity--take the action.
Good Luck!

Hi, Lisa. Thanks for the advice....I would like to encourage others to take it! I am in the middle of a divorce now after 25 years of marriage. My husband has a pattern of withdrawing when we are dealing with an issue....and I have to say that it is a form of abuse. I have tried all the things mentioned above...but he would seem to withdraw more....it was like a dance...the more I would pursue the more he would withdraw. I have had extensive counseling over the the years and continue to do so...I, however, cannot do his work for him.....and if he is not willing to do the work...there is nothing more I can do in this relationship...I had to come to this realization. It is very sad! I would encourage others to realize when you have done all you can and let your partner know that you are not willing to stay in an unhealthy marriage if he is not willing to work on it. I realize that I stayed in as long as I did because of my issues of codependency. I continue to go to counseling. Unfortunately, he is not! It has not been easy....but I am a much healthier person because of it!

I read your article and it seems to be the best one out there so far. I have read tons of books and none of them got into detail about withdrawal and what you can do to help. Most people don’t even understand what I’m talking about when I ask for advice. They would just say it is destructive to a marriage, now I know what they meant by destructive. I have been married for four years now and my husband still withdrawals. It used to be for a month, then a week, and now a day. I think I got him down to the day withdrawal. It started after he started to withdraw one Friday afternoon and I told him I was leaving for the weekend and I wasn’t going to be around someone that wouldn’t talk to me. I came back and ever since then it has been for no more than a day. When he gets out of his mood he never will talk about the problem and tells me it’s in the past. I’m left with the problem and it takes two people to figure out things in a marriage not just one. I have done the things you talked about above like pursuing, apologizing, begging, pleading, giving in; mainly yelling, evening babying him, but none of this has worked. I even suggested during our first year of marriage for us to see a counselor and he told me no, never. Of course then I didn’t understand and didn’t know what to do in the situation and I thought it was my entire fault that he would withdraw. I didn’t realize I would be putting up with this for four years. Most people wonder how I have held it together for so long. I found out after we got married that his father does the same thing to his mother that my husband does to me. So I know this behavior is inherited. So far I am suffering from anger, frustration, resentment, hopeless, unable to forgive, and depression, because I’m not allowed to talk about our problems in our marriage. I am seeking help from a counselor because I'm not the same person I was four years ago. The strength I once had isn’t the same and I feel like giving up on my marriage, but I don’t believe in divorce. I’m glad I found your article when I did. I recently told him when he shut down that I’m not putting up with his withdrawal anymore and left him alone.
If you have any advice for me I would glady listen to it.

DEAR AMBER: Thank you for sharing your story, I'm sure there are many people who can relate. The best thing you did was go away for the weekend and tell him you were not going to be around someone who wouldn't talk to you. It sounds like that moved him from a week withdrawal to a day. This was a great example of you standing up for yourself. The next thing I would do is be clear with him about how unhappy you are. Let him know that whether he wants to go to counseling or not is irrelevant; the truth is you both need it. Be clear with him that if he refuses you will continue to be unhappy and pull away from him. Because you've already been thinking of leaving I would tell him that if things don't change and he refuses help, you will be more closely looking at separation. Continue to work on yourself in the meantime to figure out why you've put up with this for so long. You deserve to be in a relationship that fuels you so stop settling for less.
Warm regards-Lisa


Thank you for the great advice. I am a person who often feels responsible to make things right and it often disintegrates my own self-esteem.

Thanks again!


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