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Thursday, March 17, 2022

Relationships: Understanding a Partner Who Withdraws Emotionally - Part 1

In my prior articles about relationships, I've discussed couples who have a sexual pursuer-withdrawer dynamic.  That dynamic involves one partner who tends to pursue sexually and the other partner who tends to withdraw sexually (see my article: How Sexual Pursuers and Withdrawers Can Work Out Their Differences). 

Understanding a Partner Who Withdraws Emotionally

Sometimes, over the course of a relationship, couples might switch roles so the pursuer becomes the withdrawer and the withdrawer becomes the pursuer, but the pattern often remains the the same--the pursuer remains the pursuer and the withdrawer remains the withdrawer.

In the same way that there's a sexual pursuer-withdrawer dynamic, there can also be an emotional pursuer-withdrawer dynamic in a relationship, and the dynamic isn't necessarily the same in emotional situations as it is in sexual situations.

In other words, the sexual pursuer can also be an emotional withdrawer and the sexual withdrawer can be the emotional pursuer.  

In other relationships the pursuer pursues both sexually and emotionally and the withdrawer withdraws sexually and emotionally.  

How Common is the Pursuer-Withdrawer Dynamic in Relationships?
Pursuer-withdrawer dynamics are found in the vast majority of relationships.  This dynamic is so pervasive that it's found in over 80% of relationships.  The pervasiveness of this pattern makes it important to understand, especially if it affects you and your partner.

In the current article, I'm focusing on emotional withdrawers (also known as emotional  distancers) because they're often misunderstood.

How Are Emotional Withdrawers Misunderstood By Their Partners?
People who withdraw emotionally aren't always withdrawn all the time.  They can be engaging, funny and affectionate at times, but when they're in a conflict or having an argument with their partner, they tend to withdraw.  

Their partner might see them as emotionally unreachable during those times because not only do they distance themselves emotionally--sometimes they withdraw physically by walking into another room and shutting the door or leaving the household to avoid dealing with a conflict or emotionally charged situation.

Emotional withdrawers are often perceived as being:
  • Emotionally unavailable
  • Aloof
  • Uncommunicative
  • Avoidant
  • Unable to take in the emotions of their partner
  • Lacking empathy for their partner
  • Seeking isolation
  • Seeking autonomy
  • Less proactive in terms of resolving problems in the relationship
  • Denying they need anything emotionally from others
  • Workaholics (to avoid emotional intimacy)
If this is what the partner who is the emotional pursuer sees in the emotional withdrawer, is it any wonder that the pursuer becomes frustrated and unhappy with the withdrawer?  

In these situations, the emotional pursuer feels like s/he just can't get through to the withdrawer because the more the pursuer pursues the more the withdrawer withdraws.

But What is Really Going on Internally For Emotional Withdrawers?
Most of the time what the emotional pursuer perceives from the outside is only a part of the story as compared to what is going on for the emotional withdrawer on the inside.

In other words, although the emotional withdrawer appears on the outside as if s/he has no emotions or doesn't care, they often care very much.  

The key to understanding someone who withdraws emotionally is that they're uncomfortable with conflict and they automatically seek emotional safety by outwardly withdrawing. Often what the withdrawer experiences on the inside is fear and then emotional shutdown (see my article: Are You a Stonewaller in Your Relationship?)

The emotional withdrawer often doesn't know how to self soothe in an emotionally stressful situation with a partner, so they withdraw until they feel safe again.  This might mean that they cut themselves off from their emotions or, as previously mentioned, they withdraw physically into another room or out of the house (see my article: Fear of Emotional Vulnerability).

Usually when a withdrawer hears complaints from their partner, they feel like they have failed in their relationship.  Even if their partner is trying to come across as empathetic and tactful in their approach, the withdrawer can still feel like a failure in the relationship and this is often emotionally intolerable for the withdrawer.

This dynamic of seeking emotional safety by withdrawing doesn't work in a pursuer-withdrawer relationship because the emotional pursuer, in frustration, will double down on their pursuing when their partner seems to be distancing (see my article: An Emotional Dilemma: Wanting and Dreading Love).

At that point, when the pursuer pursues, the withdrawer often withdraws even more, which exacerbates the situation. It sets up an ongoing negative cycle in the relationship where each person engages in their individual pattern and each person feels increasingly unhappy and frustrated with their partner.

How Did the Emotional Withdrawer Become This Way?
People who are emotional withdrawers often have an avoidant attachment style (see my articles: What is Your Attachment Style? and Understanding the Avoidant Attachment Style).

As children, people who have an avoidant-dismissive attachment style usually had a primary caregiver who was emotionally unavailable. The primary caregiver was either unable or unwilling to meet the child's emotional needs, so the child was emotionally neglected.  In some cases, the caregiver might have also been emotionally or physically abusive, especially when the child sought affection or emotional support (see my article: What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?).

This is pattern can be understood as involving intergenerational trauma: The primary caregiver didn't get their emotional needs met, so they don't know how to meet the emotional needs of their children.  Most of the time, they are emotional withdrawers themselves so that they become very uncomfortable when the child seeks affection or emotional support.

Children who grow up with a primary caretaker who is an emotional withdrawer learn early in life that they must fend for themselves emotionally.  

But the problem is that, developmentally, children can't fend for themselves in a healthy way, so the only way they can cope with this dynamic is to keep their emotions to themselves by shutting down emotionally.  They become emotionally avoidant or dismissive. Then, when they become adults, they continue to cope in the same way, which becomes problematic in a relationship (see my article: Understanding How an Avoidant Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship).

These same adults were often ridiculed by their primary caregivers for being emotionally vulnerable and wanting emotional nurturance: "Don't be a baby" or "Boys don't cry" or "You're being a sissy" or "Don't be weak."

Adults, who grew up being ridiculed as children for having normal emotional needs, are often afraid to be emotionally vulnerable because their needs were used against them by their caregivers. And these adults are sometimes right because in the heat of an argument even the most empathetic pursuer can say hurtful things (see my article: Are You Afraid to Be Emotionally Vulnerable in Your Relationship?).

Seeking emotional safety is the primary objective of the emotional withdrawer, but it often doesn't look that way to the emotionally pursuing partner.  To the pursuer it looks like the withdrawer is either rejecting them or doesn't care, but looks can be deceiving when it comes to the dynamics of an emotional withdrawer.

Although it can be challenging, understanding what's really going on for the emotional withdrawer is one of the keys to having a more empathetic and effective response. It also helps to know when to back off and when to engage (see my article: An Empathetic Response Can Change a Negative Cycle in a Relationship).

These dynamics can change as each partner learns to be more emotionally vulnerable with the other (see my article: Emotional Vulnerability as a Pathway to Greater Emotional Intimacy in a Relationship).

My Next Article
Understanding emotional withdrawers is a large topic, so I'll continue this discussion in my next article (see Part 2 of this topic).

Getting Help in Therapy
Changing lifelong behavioral patterns is difficult--whether you're an emotional pursuer or a withdrawer in a relationship.

Getting help in individual or couples therapy with a licensed mental health professional, who understands the pursuer-withdrawer dynamic and who can help you to make changes, can save your relationship (see my articles: What is Emotionally Focused Therapy, EFT, For Couples? and How EFT Can Help Withdrawers Cope With Their Emotions).

Instead of struggling with a negative cycle that isn't working in your relationship, seek help so you can have a more fulfilling relationship (see my article: (see my article: Emotionally Focused Therapy For Couples: New Bonds of Love Can Change a Negative Cycle in a Relationship).

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT (for couples) and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individuals and couples, and I have helped many people to improve their relationships.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.