Dealing with a partner who withdraws

One issue that brings a happily partnered spouse to therapy is a change in his/her mate’s level of connection, attention, affection or intimacy. The shunned partner is bewildered, hurt and frightened about the drastic shift in the emotional connection within a previously happy union.

A common initial assumption about this new alienation of affection is that the partner has become enamored with another individual. When this fear is allayed, the distanced mate continues to search for answers as to the reason for the partner’s emotional withdrawal.

Some individuals, more commonly men, become mum about their emotions when they are distressed. So when they encounter work problems, financial concerns, illness, depression, anxiety or grief, they withdraw from their personal relationship to work through their pain in silence and thus appear aloof, unloving and unavailable.

Some stressed individuals not only withdraw from their beloved but may also respond in a caustic, harsh, unkind or dismissive way when the partner attempts to re-engage in conversation. This unfamiliar conduct amplifies the mate’s concern and intensifies his/her feelings of rejection and loss.

The distanced partner reports worry, fear, stress and pain. Neurophysiologist Lucy Brown of Albert Einstein College of Medicine used brain imaging with students who have been recently rejected by a partner with whom they were still intensely “in love”. She found that the parts of the brain linked to motivation, reward and addiction craving as well as physical pain and distress were activated.

The suffering of both the stressed mate and the rejected one is real and profound. The option of keeping silent to avoid confrontation, self–disclosure, weakness, pain or grief only exacerbates both partners’ misery.

Adults’ reactions to lost connection mirror those of infants’. Babies’ brains are enhanced when they feel validated by their mother’s responsiveness. Conversely, psychologist Ed Tronick of the University of Massachusetts found that when a baby sees the mother’s expressionless face,“ the infant will attempt to engage, fuss, protest, self-soothe, then withdraw, glaze over and collapse.”

Humans’ brains and psyches continue to be rewarded during inter-personal connection with others, particularly with their partners and intimate friends.

Being avoided, ignored, discounted or not responded to is physically painful and emotionally devastating. It is easy to personalize it and become hurt and fearful. It is wiser to speak about your emotions while emphasizing that you know it is not your mate’s intention to cause you pain.

The avoiding mate does not intend to inflict suffering on the spouse but insulates to work out his/her issues. It is wiser for this partner to label the issue as personal, express trust in the mate and promise to discuss it when he/she is ready.

When your partner withdraws:

 

  • Realize that usually it is his/her issue and not about you.
  • Say, “I noticed and am concerned that you are preoccupied. I am here to support you when you are ready.”
  • Be kind and compassionate as your mate works toward resuming marital connection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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