Many people come to therapy when they feel distant from their partner, both emotionally and physically. They raise concerns like:
- “I feel like I have forgotten how to communicate with my partner, how is that possible?”
- “We used to spend so much time together and always have something to say. Why do I feel like we have run out of things to do or discuss with each other?”
- “My partner has been feeling like a stranger lately. It makes me wonder if I have done something terribly wrong.”
While introspecting on your own behavior in the relationship is certainly useful in such cases, it is also important to observe your partner closely to rule out signs of relationship withdrawal.
Withdrawing from a relationship is a defense mechanism people use in relationships to avoid being hurt, according to a study published in the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy.
The instinct for self-preservation is understandable, especially if your partner has had a difficult history with relationships. However, withdrawing from a relationship as a strategy to avoid being hurt comes at a high emotional cost for both people.
Here are three tactics people use when withdrawing from a relationship, and advice on how to deal with them.
#1. Partner withdrawal and distancing
Partner withdrawal is often referred to as ‘stonewalling,’ or being evasive to avoid situations or conversations where one might have to be transparent and present.
In some cases, people may withdraw from their partner in anticipation of their partner doing the same thing to them.
The urge to withdraw forces a person to “always leave an escape route” or “keep their options open” in a relationship, denying them the pleasure of feeling like they can be fully vulnerable and all-in in their relationship. Remember, research suggests that the best relationships are those built around mutual trust and commitment, with both parties believing that the relationship will last forever.
Distancing is another form of relationship withdrawal wherein a person keeps their partner at arm’s length, both emotionally and physically. Distancing behaviors include unavailability, shutting down, and withholding.
Some people go so far as to deceive or cheat on their partner to avoid being vulnerable in relationships.
#2. Emotional detachment
Emotional detachment refers to a person’s tendency to remain emotionally checked out in their relationship by not expressing their emotions or even concealing their emotions to avoid forming true emotional connections.
When emotional bonds are not formed or nurtured, there are limited ways to access your partner’s inner world. This could leave you feeling like your relationship is always on thin ice.
Individuals who tend to cut off their partners emotionally may also indulge in obsessive and/or self-destructive tendencies, such as daydreaming, binge drinking, playing video games excessively, or even self-harming as a way to “numb it out.”
#3. Withdrawing effort
Withdrawing effort is a strategy to avoid conflict in relationships by reducing the amount of effort one invests in the relationship. The idea is to get to a point where your partner does not expect anything from you.
This can also include not voicing your own concerns about the relationship and getting strung along to avoid confrontation. People who withdraw effort from a relationship try to maintain it with the minimum amount of work possible so as to not ruffle any feathers.
In other cases, the person can become incredibly lazy about the relationship and will only invest effort if coerced. As we all know, how a couple fights and resolves their issues is an important indicator of relationship health. In a relationship where one or both members are actively divesting from it, an atmosphere of stagnation settles, leading to deeper and more complex issues.
How to address relationship withdrawal
There are two basic steps one can follow when trying to call out your partner’s withdrawal from your relationship:
- Talk to them, preferably with a mediator. The habit of relationship withdrawal is usually a result of past trauma. That is why it is necessary to confront your partner about their behavior with a professional involved. Getting help from a knowledgeable, neutral mediator raises the chances of a successful resolution.
- Know when to walk away. If the situation deteriorates to a point where a choice has to be made about whether to continue the relationship or not, choose yourself. At the end of the day, the responsibility to manage one’s emotions is on oneself and your suffering will not make the situation better.