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When Your Partner Stops Giving: The Silent Pain of Emotional Withholding by Thomas G. Fiffer

When Your Partner Stops Giving: The Silent Pain of Emotional Withholding


The suffering caused by emotional withholding can be more excruciating than verbal or even physical abuse. How to recognize it—and what to do.

Confession: I’ve been holding out on you. When I wrote The 7 Deadly Signs of a Dysfunctional Relationship, I left out the eighth: emotional withholding. A reader pointed this out in a haunting comment. Sara wrote:

What’s missing from this discussion is the kind of dysfunction that isn’t tyrannical but instead quietly sucks out your integrity and self-respect because there are NO fights or fireworks. This is the passive-death non-relationship in which every dissatisfaction you express is completely ignored or casually dismissed. Not with a bang but a whimper……….

Wow. Right? In my response to Sara’s comment I directed her to a post I’d published on my blog a while back on emotional withholding. It starts out like this:

If you’ve lived with a dysfunctional partner, chances are you’ve experienced it.

Coldness replaces warmth.
Silence replaces conversation.
Turning away replaces turning towards.
Dismissiveness replaces receptivity.
And contempt replaces respect.

But Sara’s description is more accurate and compelling than mine. Her line, “quietly sucks out your integrity and self-respect” is still stuck in my head three days later. It makes me think of those films where an alien creature hooks up a human to some ghastly, contorted machine and drains him of his life force drop by drop, or those horrible “can’t watch” scenes where witches swoop down and inhale the breath of children to activate their evil spells of world domination. In the movies, the person in peril always gets saved. The thieves are vanquished. The deadly transfusion halted. And the heroic victim recovers. But in real life, in real dysfunctional relationships, there’s often no savior and definitely no guarantee of a happy ending. Your integrity and self-respect can indeed be hoovered out, turning you into an emotional zombie, leaving you like one of the husks in the video game Mass Effect, unable to feel pain or joy, a mindless, quivering animal, a soulless puppet readily bent to the Reapers’ will.

Emotional withholding is so painful because it is the absence of love, the absence of caring, compassion, communication, and connection.

You’re locked in the meat freezer with the upside-down carcasses of cows and pigs, shivering, as your partner casually walks away from the giant steel door.

You’re desperately lonely, even though the person who could comfort you by sharing even one kind word is right there, across from you at the dinner table, seated next to you at the movie, or in the same bed with you, back turned, deaf to your words, blind to your agony, and if you dare to reach out, scornful of your touch.


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