Emotional withholding is the type of abuse that is the least identified and talked about, but nonetheless one that can be extremely painful and emotionally destructive.
I’ve been holding out on you. When I wrote The 7 Deadly Signs of a Dysfunctional Relationship, I left out the eighth: emotional withholding. A reader pointed this out in a haunting comment. Sara wrote:
What’s missing from this discussion is the kind of dysfunction that isn’t tyrannical but instead quietly sucks out your integrity and self-respect because there are NO fights or fireworks. This is the passive-death non-relationship in which every dissatisfaction you express is completely ignored or casually dismissed. Not with a bang but a whimper.
Wow. Right? In my response to Sara’s comment I directed her to a post I’d published on my blog a while back on emotional withholding.
It starts out like this:
If you’ve lived with a dysfunctional partner, chances are you’ve experienced it.
Coldness replaces warmth.
Silence replaces conversation.
Turning away replaces turning towards.
Dismissiveness replaces receptivity.
And contempt replaces respect.
Emotional withholding is, I believe, the toughest tactic to deal with when trying to create and maintain a healthy relationship because it plays on our deepest fears—rejection, unworthiness, shame and guilt, the worry that we’ve done something wrong or failed or worse, that there’s something wrong with us.
You’re locked in the meat freezer with the upside-down carcasses of cows and pigs, shivering, as your partner casually walks away from the giant steel door.
You’re desperately lonely, even though the person who could comfort you by sharing even one kind word is right there, across from you at the dinner table, seated next to you at the movie, or in the same bed with you, back turned, deaf to your words, blind to your agony, and if you dare to reach out, scornful of your touch.
When you speak, you might as well be talking to the wall, because you’re not going to get an answer, except maybe, if you’re lucky, a dismissive shrug. And the more you talk about anything that matters to you, the more you try to assert that you matter, the more likely your withholding partner is to belittle or ignore what you’re saying and leave you in the cold.
Awful but true—you actually wish for the fight, the fireworks that Sara points out are not flashing, because even a shouting match, an ugly scene, would involve an exchange of words because even physical conflict would constitute physical connection, because fire, even if it burns you, is preferable to ice.
Imagine saying something three, four, even five times to your partner and receiving no response. Or maybe, you get a grunt.
You ask yourself, am I here?
Do I mean anything to this person?
Do I matter? Do I even exist? If you cry alone on the polar icecap of emotional withholding, and there’s no one there to hear you, did you actually make a sound?
Your accomplishments go unrecognized, your contributions unmentioned, your presence at best grudgingly acknowledged, and any effort at bridging the chasm is spurned. The rope you throw over the crevasse lashes back at you, whipping in the winter wind.
You become pathetic—pleading, begging, literally on your knees, apologizing for everything, offering things that are distasteful to you, promising to be better, just to re-secure your partner’s affection.
But you’re like the dying Eskimo elder, wrapped in sealskin and placed on an ice floe to float away into the great beyond. Only you’re screaming, “I’m not dying! I’m not even sick! I’m perfectly healthy!” as your partner’s silence speaks the words, “You’re dead to me.” And death, death enters your consciousness as an option. Death begins to feel like a viable alternative, a way to achieve relief from the unbearable pain.