Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Do you ever find yourself being withholding toward your partner? Or do you ever feel your partner is withholding from you? Here are a couple of examples:
Tara is disappointed with her husband, Max. She had hoped he would help her with a home do-it-yourself project she was trying to finish. Tara had planned to complete it on her own, but she hasn’t been feeling all that energetic the past few days.
When she asked Max for help, he promised to give her a hand over the weekend. But then he remembered a volunteering event he had promised to attend on Saturday. And on Sunday he begged off because he was also feeling tired. So Tara finished it on her own.
On Monday, Max had a rough day at work. That evening, he started to tell Tara about it.
“Let’s catch up later,” Tara said. “I need to call my sister while it’s still early.”
Now, Tara knew that Max needed some support. But she wasn’t feeling all that supported by him. And she knew she was being withholding. Giving him a taste of his own medicine, her mother would have said. Tara knows that she and Max would benefit from having a talk about what has happened over the last few days and how disappointed she felt. But right now, it just feels good to withhold the listening ear she knows he relies on.
Withholding from your partner feels good in the moment. But what about the impact?
Then there’s Mark. Mark has hit a rough spot with his chronic condition. He has had to change his treatment regimen twice in as many months, and he isn’t sure if the current regimen is working all that well either.
He knows his doctor is doing the best she can. And he knows he has to try and be patient while they see if this regimen is doing the job. Mark is frustrated and angry. Not at anyone in particular; maybe just at life in general.
His wife, Tess, is doing everything she can to support him. She has encouraged him to talk about how he feels. She tries to do things around the house that he usually appreciates. She has suggested they get out and do something fun together.
But Mark hasn’t been very responsive. He basically just shrugs his shoulders when Tess asks him how he is feeling and offers to be his listening ear. He doesn’t show any appreciation for the things she does for him, like making his favorite meal last night. And he has refused to go out for an evening.
Like Tara, Mark is also aware that he is withholding from his partner. And like Tara, Mark knows this isn’t fair to his companion. Or good for his marriage. Kind of like taking out his anger at the world on his wife. He knows he might feel better by talking things out with Tess, venting about how he’s feeling, and showing appreciation for her offers of support. But Mark is so frustrated! Right now, being withholding just feels like the best he can do under the circumstances.
And what about Mark and Tara’s partners? Most likely, they’re feeling hurt, angry, and maybe justified in doing some withholding of their own. And so the cycle continues …
Breaking the cycle
Withholding is a normal human reaction in situations when you feel disappointed, angry, frustrated. It’s normal to just want to build a wall around yourself, to refuse to be giving when you feel like you aren’t getting much from your partner, or the world in general.
But as you may have experienced yourself, withholding from your partner—whether it’s affection, communication, or acts of kindness—builds walls that leave both of you feeling unsupported.
When the urge to withhold visits your relationship, here’s what you can do:
Start by owning up to your own feelings. If you’re not staying aware of your feelings, you can easily slip from Point A to Point B—from disappointed, for example, to withholding. But if you make an effort to monitor yourself emotionally, to remain aware of the emotions you’re experiencing, you have the opportunity to avoid the withholding trap. It’s as simple as asking yourself, “How am I feeling?” Followed by, “What can I do to help myself cope with the way that I feel?” In this way, you are heading the urge to withhold off at the pass, stopping the cycle before it gets out of control.
Recognize withholding behavior for what it is. And here’s what it is: A surefire way to cause conflict, to cause hurt feelings, to drive a wedge between you and your partner. Sure, it can feel justified in the moment, and deserved. But the potential damage isn’t worth it. Hold this thought when feelings flare up that might normally lead you to withhold from your partner.
Don’t criticize yourself. As I said before, withholding is a normal reaction to feelings like disappointment and anger. I don’t know anyone who can’t look back on the past and recognize times when they have been withholding toward someone close to them. So if you feel the urge, don’t criticize yourself. Decide to find a healthier way to cope with your feelings. And if you give in to the urge, also don’t criticize yourself. Resolve to learn better ways to cope with your feelings rather than taking them out on your partner by withholding.
Consider the potential benefits of saying no to the urge to withhold. Just in case you need to give yourself an additional pep talk, review what resisting the urge gains for you and your partner. Open communication. Honesty. Support. Respect. Kindness. Basically, avoiding being withholding with each other leads to a more loving relationship. And isn’t that what your relationship is all about?
Be willing to take the first step. Whenever it’s needed, choose to either not withhold from your partner in the first place or to get your communication back on track when you, your partner, or both of you are withholding. It’s as simple as saying, “I see what I’m doing here. I’m feeling ___ and because of that I've been withholding from you by ___. That’s not what I want our relationship to be about.” Be prepared to ask for forgiveness. Remember, peace in your relationship is more important than being right.
Open the door to better communication. And invite your partner to help. Be clear with each other about your needs and expectations. In the moment! Ask for what you need. Ask how you can help. Disclose how you’re feeling. If you’re doing this with your partner, the urge to withhold will be less likely to gain a toehold at your house.
And if your partner is withholding from you, be willing to take the first step here, too. You can say something like, “I know I’ve upset you by _____ and, because of that, it feels to me like you’re feeling I don’t deserve _____. If that’s how you feel, I understand why.” Get things out into the open. Ask what you can do to help bring some healing into your relationship. Not accusing, just asking for help. Asking for forgiveness may also be needed here.
Maintain an attitude of goodwill. Keep in mind that appearances can be deceiving. Making assumptions about your partner’s behavior can lead you down the wrong path. Assume that your partner means well even if it doesn’t always appear that way. Take a step back and consider the circumstances before you make an assumption that might lead you to feel justified in withholding from your partner. Also recognize that your chronic condition may leave you feeling especially sensitive and vulnerable.
You, your partner, and the urge to withhold. It’s only human to feel justified in holding back when you feel your partner isn’t giving you what you need and deserve. But ask yourself what this is doing to your relationship. Keep the communication honest and open. Be willing to be giving. Always.
What helps you and your partner avoid withholding? Share your experience or advice by adding a comment below.