“My partner is withdrawing emotionally and physically and no longer seems to be interested in meeting my needs. I want our relationship to be close again. I have no idea how to navigate this situation.”
Most healthy relationships include five core elements: open communication, equal power, having your own lives outside of the relationship, trust and honesty, resolving conflict respectfully, and emotional intimacy. When one partner withdraws emotionally or physically from a relationship, a chasm is created that works against open communication, trust and honesty, and (especially) emotional intimacy. This dysfunction can be difficult to understand and leaves the partner who feels left alone confused and unsettled – and pining for an answer.
5 Most Common Reasons Why a Partner Withdraws
The five most common reasons, published on the Psychology Today website by Randi Gunther, Ph.D., describes what leads up to a pattern of withdrawal:
“Unpredictable withdrawal is often a sign of infidelity, whether consummated or not. The behavior generated by that internal preoccupation is obvious and rarely responds to attempts to question.
Other behaviors are betrayals in other ways, such as addictions, external personal threats, or bad decisions that are embarrassing or hurtful to the relationship’s security.”
By definition, betrayal involves more than infidelity. It can include betrayal of trust, principles, and even one’s true feelings. All of these can induce intense emotions and feelings and can lead to behaviors such as withdrawal as the person tries to work through their internal circumstances.
2. Internal Personal Conflicts
Partners may be in a deep mode of caring but can still take on a mode of withdrawal. This occurs when a partner is intensely troubled with things that they are suppressing and avoids sharing what they are experiencing because they do not want to cause their partner unnecessary pain.
3. Stress and Crisis
When either or both partners experience an intense stressful challenge, one or both may hold back from sharing the dilemma. This is typically done to shield the other partner from extra stress, and sometimes in an effort to resolve the problem without asking for the other person’s help.
Dr. Gunther adds, “Pride and fear of failure (can) keep a partner from sharing, choosing instead to solve the dilemma independently.”
4. Reemergence of Trauma
None of us want our past to affect our current life unless it does so in a positive manner. We want to protect our relationship from any negativity from the past. But people who have lived through traumatic experiences sometimes experience triggers that bring the past up to the surface.
When people have shared their debilitating traumatic experiences with their partners and have worked through them as a couple, per Dr. Gunther, “They can more easily share again when they reemerge. But often, they have preferred to keep them subdued or even secret and, when they reemerge, go inward to rebury those demons without threatening the relationship.”
5. Past Indiscretion Threatens to Resurface
This common reason for withdrawal ties in with the prior four reasons why a partner might withdraw. Individuals can feel a sense of betrayal, and the need to cover it up, due to a past indiscretion. The person may feel that opening up to this could lead to stress and crisis for the partner and the relationship that they so much love, so they put up a shield and protect their partner and internalize their struggle. The past indiscretion can also feel traumatic and can be easily triggered, and it may need to be dealt with more than once in life. Partners typically fear losing their loved one if their past indiscretions are found out, even when they occurred before the relationship. They do not want to threaten their current life.
Literature abounds with explanations of the pursue-withdraw pattern. The Gottman Institute describes it with clarity:
Distressed couples, and even healthy relationships to some degree, can get caught in a pursue-withdraw pattern. This can happen when one partner wants more closeness or connection than the other. It can also occur when both partners want closeness and connection, but there is a perceived disconnection, and one partner feels like the other person isn’t going to be there for them. They come to believe that “This conflict isn’t going to get worked out,” or “I’m not going to get my needs met,” so they shut down and pull away because it’s safer to do so, and they do not complain or push for more connection.
Typically, withdrawers in these scenarios have internal language that speaks, “If I put myself out there, the other person will leave. I’m going to be blamed. I’m going to be criticized. We’re going to get into a big fight. I don’t want to do that because this other person is incredibly important to me. I don’t want to lose this person.” The withdrawer pulls away to maintain the relationship, and it is perceived as not caring, or not meeting the other partner’s needs. “After there has been conflict, misunderstanding, or a minor betrayal and the withdrawer turns away, shuts down, or walks away, it leaves their partner feeling alone and abandoned, unloved, and uncared about.” This is a dangerous pattern that undermines trust and security in the relationship.
Meeting the Basic Needs
Without knowing the root of the problem – why one or both partners are withdrawing – it is hard to break the cycle, but you can strengthen your marriage (without outside professional help) by following three practical tips: practice communication skills, nurture intimacy, and make your relationship a priority.
Learn more: Cannot Afford Marriage Counseling? 3 Practical Tips to Improve Your Marriage Now
To learn how to break a pursue-withdraw pattern, you can read these three books recommended by the Gottman Institute:
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail by Dr. John Gottman
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by Dr. John Gottman
Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson
But, if withdrawal continues and resolution is not found, the relationship is prone to serious underlying threats, and it must be addressed.
Reach Out for Help to Get Your Relationship on Track
Sometimes, we do all that we know how to do, and we still struggle in our relationship. There is no shame in reaching out for help. You deserve to feel that you are number one in your special person’s life. We all want that level of intimacy in our relationship. If you are located in northern Washington state, we are here for you and your partner. We want to help you make your love work.