Is Your Partner Showing Withdrawn Behavior?
How to Communicate With a Partner Who Shows Withdrawn Behavior
Does your partner show withdrawn behavior? As a couples counselor and marriage counselor with decades of experience helping couples grow together, I know that few things are as frustrating, or as hurtful as trying to communicate with an avoidant partner who refuses to engage with you. It’s hard NOT to get upset and angry when you’re feeling rejected, unloved, or uncared for when your partner shuts you out, gets defensive, or invalidates your feelings.
As I wrote in “How to Communicate With Someone Who Shuts Down,” the problem is that many people who clam up as a defensive strategy when things get tense don’t understand how destructive their behaviors can be to your relationship. They often feel like they’re trying to protect the relationship from conflict with withdrawn behavior. Of course, this strategy generally leads to more conflict as the person attempting to get through (like you) will naturally become more and more upset when you feel like you can’t actually get through.
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy for Withdrawn Behavior
This communication dynamic, with one avoidant partner withdrawing further and the other becoming increasingly escalated and upset, becomes a classic “pursue-withdraw” cycle, which tends to get increasingly worse over time.
But there is help, and there is hope. One evidence-based form of couples counseling that highly effective marriage counselors use called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (or EFCT) is extremely helpful in going right to the emotional heart of this cycle and helping couples heal their bond.
Knowing about the type of marriage counseling and couples therapy is important because other approaches to couples counseling are not as effective when you are attempting to break the pursuer-distancer pattern in relationships. Let’s face it, when both partners are viewing each other as the “hostile enemy” because of having had so many negative interactions with each other, basic relationship advice like “go on a date night” is not going to be helpful (and definitely not fun). Couples in the grips of a negative relationship system can dutifully go on date nights at the suggestion of their marriage counselor only to have yet another yucky feeling (but usually quieter) fight in the middle of a restaurant.
Withdrawn Behavior and How to Stop a Pursue / Withdraw Cycle
While many couples really do need the support of a professional couples counselor to extract themselves from an entrenched pursue/withdraw cycle through EFCT patterns can become really entrenched over time, it is possible to reverse these when they’re still gestating. If this is an emerging dynamic in your relationship, I thought it might be helpful to you if I put together a “Communication Problems” podcast-mini series to help you understand what’s going on underneath the surface and offer some guidance to help you improve your communication with your partner if their showing withdrawn behavior.
Communication Issues with a Partner Who Shows Withdrawn Behavior
“Communication Issues” is the single most common presenting issue that brings couples to marriage counseling. The first thing to know about communication problems: Absolutely ALL couples struggle to communicate with each other from time to time. Just because it’s happening in your relationship does not spell doom. Truthfully, by making a few positive changes in the way you interact with each other, you can avoid many communication problems — and start enjoying and appreciating each other again.
To help you with this, I put together a few podcast episodes on the topic of communication issues to help you understand what’s going on. I designed these to listen to in order. If you haven’t listened to the first two yet, I strongly suggest going back and doing so before you move on to this one.
In episode 1, “Communication Problems and How To Fix Them,” we discussed the most important and empowering things you can remain mindful of if you want to improve the communication in your relationship: Systems theory, and your own empowerment to affect positive change.
In episode 2, “Dealing With an Angry Partner,” we addressed the oh-so-common “pursue / withdraw” dynamic that so many couples can fall in to. I discussed the communication issues that you might encounter, and how to resolve them, through the lens of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy — one of the most well researched and scientifically supported approaches to couples counseling. (And what we practice here at Growing Self!)
Specifically in episode 2, we looked at this communication pattern from the perspective of the “withdrawer” (i.e. the person in the relationship who might be perceiving their “pursuing partner” as angry or even hostile). In that episode I gave you some tips to help get back into the ring with your partner, some insight into why they may be so angry, and things that you can do to help soothe their anger and bring the peace back into your home.
Withdrawn Behavior in Your Relationship
In this third and final episode of our “Communication Problems” series, we will be discussing how to “deal with a partner who shows withdrawn behavior” and exploring the dynamic from the perspective of the partner who pursues — the one who is attempting to engage with a partner who seems emotionally distant, avoidant, and unresponsive. If you’ve been feeling frustrated or angry because your partner refuses to talk to you, this one is for you. In this episode I’m talking about what may be leading your partner to seem emotionally withdrawn, as well as things that you can do to help your partner come closer to you emotionally, and start opening up again.
If you’ve listened to the first two episodes already, I invite you to listen to this one too (or access How to Communicate With an Avoidant Partner on Spotify) to learn:
- The issues that may have nothing to do with you that are leading your partner to show withdrawn behavior
- The biggest mistakes you can make when dealing with an avoidant-prone partner who shows withdrawn behavior
- Strategies for dealing with your anger and / or anxiety if your partner is making you crazy
- Communication strategies to help make it easier for your partner to open up to you
- The paradoxical trick to making your partner feel more interested in coming toward you
I sincerely hope that this series helps you understand what may be happening at the root of your communication problems, as well as some real-world tips for things that can help you improve your relationship.
P.S. One fantastic, low-key strategy to start a dialogue with your partner is by taking our “How Healthy is Your Relationship” quiz together. You can send your results to each other, which opens the door to talk about how you’re both feeling — with out an anxiety-provoking conversation for your conflict-avoidant partner. Just be ready to learn some things you didn’t know! Here’s the link to get the relationship quiz. xoxo, LMB
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Is Your Partner Showing Withdrawn Behavior?
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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