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Saturday, March 19, 2022

Relationships: Understanding a Partner Who Withdraws Emotionally - Part 2

In Part 1 of this topic, I discussed the typical characteristics of emotional withdrawers, how they usually develop these characteristics, and how these dynamics affect their partners who are emotional pursuers.  In Part 2 of this topic, I'm providing a clinical vignette to give more details illustrating how these dynamics play out in a relationship and how Emotionally Focused Therapy For Couples can help.

Understanding a Partner Who Withdraws Emotionally

As a brief recap of Part 1: Whether they're aware of it or not, emotional withdrawers' objective when they withdraw is seeking emotional safety because they're overwhelmed by the conflict.  They often need time to regroup before they can engage with their partner, but they might not have the words to say this while they're in an overwhelmed state.

Their partners, who are emotional pursuers, often misunderstand the withdrawer because, from the outside, withdrawers appear as if they don't care or they're rejecting their partner. This, in turn, creates anxiety for the emotional pursuer, who wants to resolve their problem, so they pursue the withdrawer while the withdrawer is overwhelmed, which makes the withdrawer withdraw even more.

As I mentioned in Part 1, a major problem in a pursuer-withdrawer dynamic is that each person's behavior exacerbates the other's and it creates an ongoing negative cycle that keeps the couple stuck.

A Clinical Vignette: The Negative Cycle of an Emotional Pursuer and a Withdrawer and How Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) For Couples Can Help
The following clinical vignette is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information removed:

Mary and Joe
By the time Mary and Joe came to couples therapy, they were already discussing the possibility of divorce.  They were typical of many couples who wait until their problems are dire before they seek help.  They were each aware that a divorce would be very upsetting to their 12 year old son, so they decided to make one last ditch effort to save their 15 year marriage before they contacted divorce attorneys.

During their first session with their EFT therapist, Joe explained that Mary had suggested couples therapy many times over the years and he had rejected that idea, which he now regretted.  He also admitted that he had problems expressing vulnerable emotions and the thought of talking to a couples therapist made him uncomfortable, to say the least (see my article: Fear of Emotional Vulnerability).

What changed his mind, he explained, was when Mary told him that she couldn't tolerate spending another 15 years with a man who withdrew emotionally whenever there was a problem between them.  He realized he needed to put aside his discomfort to give couples therapy a try because he didn't really want a divorce.  He also didn't want his son to be hurt by a divorce.  Then, he threw up his hands and said to the therapist, "So, here I am..."

When it was Mary's turn to talk, she hesitated before she told the therapist, "I'm here, but I feel burnt out from trying all these years to get Joe to express his feelings."  Then, she recounted all the ways she tried over the years to get Joe to tell her what was going on with him--all to no avail.  

Neither Mary nor Joe had ever been in individual or couples therapy before.

As their couples therapist listened to each of them, she realized that Joe is the emotional withdrawer and Mary is a burnt out emotional pursuer.  Their negative cycle was entrenched and neither of them seemed hopeful of a good outcome, which would make the couples therapy challenging. But, as a resourceful Emotionally Focused therapist for couples, she had plenty of tools in her toolbox and she saw it as hopeful sign that they came to couples therapy at all.

Early on in their couples therapy sessions, the therapist asked for Mary's and Joe's family histories, which is an important part of the assessment process in EFT.  

Mary described a childhood in a middle class family in California where both parents were professors.  She was the older of two daughters growing up in the suburbs.  Her parents were open, affectionate and emotionally supportive with Mary and her sister.  

She knew she could always go to either of her parents if she had a problem and she often did. They also had strong roots in their community and their local church. Although they attended their church, Mary said, they weren't especially religious--they just liked the communal atmosphere at the church.  She identified herself as agnostic.

There was a period of time when her parents went through a rough patch when Mary's father lost his position at a major university and there was financial uncertainty.  She was aware that there was tension between her parents due to financial stressors, but things calmed down when her father became tenured at another university.  Mary explained that she continued to have good relationships with her parents and sister. She denied any major trauma in her family history or in her personal history.

When it was Joe's turn to talk about his family history, he hesitated, and the therapist tried to reassure him that she knew it was often difficult to talk about one's family in therapy.  In response, Joe gave a terse description of his family while he was looking down at the floor, "There were five of us. We weren't rich, but my parents did the best they could.  I can't blame them for my problems."

As the couples therapist urged Joe to go into more details, he paused and then he described a working class family in New York City that struggled financially most of the time.  He said his father was the sole breadwinner and, even though his father was a hard worker, he was frequently laid off from his jobs as a construction laborer. These layoffs created tension between his parents.  

According to Joe, neither of his parents were physically or emotionally affectionate with him or his siblings, and he never saw them express affection towards each other, "They didn't have time to get mushy with us or with each other.  My father focused on work and my mother focused on raising the kids and keeping a good home."  His parents didn't have friends or close family nearby, and they weren't involved in their community.

But he knew his parents loved him from their things they did.  His mother enjoyed cooking for the family and took pride in setting a nice table.  His father taught him how to repair cars when Joe was a teenager, so Joe could get a part time job while in high school at a car repair shop to buy his own clothes, books and an attend an occasional sports event if there was money left over.  

Joe explained to the therapist, somewhat defensively, "I knew my parents were overwhelmed just trying to make ends meet so, as a child, I didn't want to burden them with my problems, so I mostly kept my feelings to myself.  But I think I had good parents and a good childhood.  We didn't talk about problems--we just got on with it and did what we had to do."

With regard to family trauma, Joe's mother had a miscarriage when Joe was 10 years old. Since his parents were stoic, they never talked about it with Joe or his siblings, but he knew his parents were sad.  He also had no one to talk about it, "I had to grow up fast."

Over time, their couples therapist provided psychoeducation about Emotionally Focused therapy and couples' dynamics, including the pursuer-withdrawer patterns and the negative cycle, attachment styles and how different styles affected relationships, and the impact of childhood family history on adult relationships (see my articles: What is Your Attachment Style? and How Early Attachment Bonds Affect Adult Relationships).

Initially, Joe didn't respond well to the psychoeducation that the therapist provided, especially as it related to his family.  He was annoyed and defensive, but when the therapist asked him if he was raising his son the same way that he was raised, he paused and looked sad, "No, I'm a lot more open with my son than my parents were with me.  We talk when something is bothering him, so I guess I see the difference. I just don't feel right criticizing my parents.  Compared to their parents, they did a lot better" (see my article: Understanding the Avoidant Attachment Style). 

The therapist explained that the psychoeducation about the impact of his family history wasn't meant to criticize his parents.  Based on what Joe had told her about their childhood, she said, she realized his parents had it tough too when they were children and this dynamic often persists from one generation to the next, "That's why it's great, Joe, that you're able to be open with your son--even though you didn't experience that in your family" (see my article: Intergenerational Trauma).

As Joe and Mary continued to attend couples therapy, Joe opened up more. Mary also became a lot more empathetic towards Joe when she realized how his family background impacted him as an adult.  They both began making more reparative gestures towards each other by looking at each other affectionately and reaching out to hold hands, which the therapist knew was a good sign.

Their therapist explained to Mary and Joe that there were "no bad guys" in their relationship.  It wasn't about finding someone to blame for their problems. Instead, she told them, they were stuck in a negative cycle and she encouraged them to work together in therapy to change their cycle as opposed to blaming each other.

Over time, Joe and Mary looked forward to their couples therapy sessions. They practiced the exercises the therapist gave them to do at home and came back to talk about what happened during their next session.  

Joe came into session one day full of pride to talk about the first argument they had since they began couples therapy where they used the tools they learned in their sessions. The argument was about whether or not to repair their existing washing machine or buy a new one, "When Mary told me she wanted a new washing machine, I became so angry that I wanted to storm out of the room and spend the rest of the day in the garage.  But then something happened--I remembered that I didn't have to leave.  I could take a moment to calm myself and continue talking to her-- and I did."

Mary smiled at Joe, "At first, I thought for sure you were going to storm out the way you usually do. Then I usually run out after you to try to force you to keep talking to me, which makes matters worse.  But then I thought about our negative cycle and I made up my mind that if you stormed out, rather than running after you, I would give you the space you needed to calm yourself.  But you didn't walk out.  You stayed and we were able to talk it out, which made me so happy."

Gradually, Joe and Mary changed their dynamic.  There were times when they slipped back into their usual negative cycle, but those times were fewer as time went on.  Even when they did slip back into their negative cycle, one or both of them made a reparative gesture so they didn't remain stuck in it for long.

By the time they completed couples therapy, Joe and Mary were getting along much better.  They still had arguments, as all couples do, but most of the time they weren't entrenched in a pursuer-withdrawer negative dynamic (see my article: EFT For Couples: New Bonds of Love Can Change a Negative Cycle in a Relationship).

Couples often get stuck in a negative cycle and they don't know how to get out of it.  Many factors contribute to the negative cycle, including each person's attachment style, which is developed early on in childhood based on family of origin dynamics.

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) helps couples to identify their dynamics and provides tools for change (see my article: Emotional Vulnerability as a Pathway to Greater Emotional Intimacy in a Relationship).

Future Articles
The last two articles focused specifically on emotional withdrawers, but I don't want to leave the impression that withdrawers are the sole problem in relationships.  In future articles I'll focus on emotional pursuers and how they interact with withdrawers.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you and your partner are stuck in a negative cycle, you can both learn how to work towards changing that cycle if you're motivated to work in couples therapy.

Getting help sooner rather than later is one of the key factors to having a successful outcome in couples therapy, so don't wait.  

Seek help from a licensed mental health professional trained in EFT for couples.

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

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many couples to have a more fulfilling relationship.

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.