Mutual Withdrawal: Breaking the Pattern of Silence in Your Relationship

Mutual Withdrawal: Breaking the Pattern of Silence in Your Relationship

Couple wondering how to break the pattern of withdrawal in their relationship

Can you hear it?

Listen closely…

It’s the loud silence that reverberates around the house when conflict makes its all too familiar appearance.

Some couples are explosive — loudly blaming each other. But not you two. You two drift into silence.

Mutual Withdrawal

Withdrawal is sometimes our response to disappointment and frustration. For some couples, it becomes a matter of pride. He or she won’t engage with me, so I won’t engage with them. Humph, two can play this game.

For some, it’s about not making it worse — I don’t want to say anything that will start an argument.

It’s understandable. You’re exhausted. Why waste more time saying the same things you’ve said over and over. He or she didn’t hear you then. Why would they hear you now?

Maybe you’re not necessarily exhausted. Maybe you’re non-assertive. How your partner perceives you is important. That being a concern, you back away from conflict. You’re not going to rock the boat.

You don’t want your partner to see you as nagging or annoying.

Like other couples who fall into this pattern, you go on with life. Independently. Separate activities. If there’s any engagement it’s for the sake of the kids, or a joint business, or an already planned scheduled night out with friends.

You get the picture.

Whether it’s pride, exhaustion, or lack of assertiveness, the silent discord fuels the undiscussed conflict. And the undiscussed conflict fuels the silent discord. The cycle grows larger, seemingly insurmountable, seeping into other areas of the relationship.

Choosing silence means hesitating to bring up any issue that needs tweaking, adjusting, or improved.  These are the times eating together, taking the kids to the park, or visiting family on the weekend, feels void of true intimacy and closeness.

We Can’t Seem to Get Past It

Right — because it’s self-generating. Your tendency to withdraw sparks the tendency in your partner to withdraw. In this particular relationship pattern, silence provokes silence.

And the longer the silence takes residence in between you two, the bigger the conflict gets. The bigger it gets, the more intimidating it becomes.

Understandably, It feels overwhelming. It feels too big to overcome. It feels debilitating. It feels like you can’t (and won’t) get past it.

Getting Past It

Cautiousness prevails in mutually withdrawn partners. The act of communicating thoughts and feelings feels intimidating.

As a result, you suppress whatever’s on your mind.

If I say I’m angry, I know they’ll say, “WHY would you be angry about that. What’s wrong with you?”

Or you may feel what you have to say will hurt your partner’s feelings. So, to avoid hurting them, you withhold your hurt.

A no-win situation. Holding back what you want to say leads to resentment, and saying what you want to say leads to more relationship distress.

Getting through what feels like a no-win situation starts with an agreement that expressing complaints are an important part of your relationship. It’s healthy for the relationship, and it’s healthy for you.

Here are three thoughts to consider as you work towards breaking the pattern of mutual withdrawal:

  • Permission to make complaints: Not permission as in, “yes, you can go to the movies, but be back by 11:30.”

Permission, as in, agreement — an implicit acceptance, on your part, that it’s acceptable for your partner to express complaints. A complaint is an opportunity to learn how to love your partner differently; better.

  • An agreement to make complaints:  It needs to be clear that complaints are okay. They’re encouraged.

And when they are expressed, there is…

  • A safe context to do so: This is where you have to believe that “just listening” does help. You don’t have to convince your partner that you will never again forget to setup the kid’s dentist appointment.

Giving them space to be upset that you forgot to setup the appointment validates their anger. Knowing their feelings won’t be disqualified frees your partner to express complaints without wondering if it’ll lead to an unmanageable argument.

Consider this short dialogue:

Lisa: It’s been quiet between us all day, huh?

Todd: Yea. It feels like one of those times where we’re worried about arguing.

Lisa and Todd, no longer mutually withdrawn, talk about the fact that they’re not talking.

Sometimes the problem is more manageable when you can step back and talk about how you’re talking about the problem — or in this case — talk about how you’re not talking about the problem.

Speak Your Mind

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