Chronic withdrawal leaves a relationship deprived, and partners lonely. The withdrawn partner feels arguing is not worth the trouble. He or she talks less, finds reasons to leave for work early, and goes to bed later. The relationship grows in distress with each passing day.
Let’s talk about it…
You’ve come to the conclusion that your partner just doesn’t care. You’re fighting for the relationship. You want this to work. You’re trying.
Your partner? He or she just sits there. Withdrawn. Silent. Disengaged. Disinterested.
For you, the silence is deafening. It’s confusing. It’s hurtful.
“What kind of person does this to someone they claim to love?”
“If he or she really cared, they would say something — anything!”
“I’m just not important enough,” I often hear from the engaged spouse.
Consider — your partner is experiencing those same feelings of disconnection, rejection, inadequacy, and abandonment.
The one difference is that your emotional response is pursuit — verbally expressing complaints and feelings. Your partner’s emotional response is withdrawal — suppressing complaints and feelings.
Equally important, your emotional response activates your partner’s emotional response — and your partner’s emotional response activates your emotional response.
Your complaints activates his or her silence — their silence activates your complaints. The more you want your partner to open up, the more your partner shuts down.
You both get stuck in this cycle that presents itself over and over and over again. Typically, instead of seeing it as a negative cycle that needs to be adjusted, partners blame each other.
“Your complaining is the problem!”
“No, your silence is the problem!”
What if I said — your partner’s silence is less about not caring, and more about how much he or she does care.
Would you believe me?
Underneath the silence is fear that whatever he or she says will lead to another bad argument (overwhelmed), further distance in the relationship (hopelessness), or that they’re not entitled to their feelings.
In that case, suppressing his or her thoughts and feelings makes more sense. Because what once felt safe, no longer feels safe.
When partners sense danger, they often go into fight-or-flight mode.
You fight. Your partner flees. It’s not about which is right, or which is wrong. Both of you are scared, you just deal with it differently.
The silence — the flight — is a response to emotional disconnection. More specifically, a protest against it. He or she doesn’t want to lose you, just as much as you don’t want to lose them.
Seeing your partner as overwhelmed and hopeless is different than seeing him or her as not caring. Seeing your partner’s silence in a different way evokes a different response.
How can you respond to your partner’s silence that (hopefully) encourages him or her to say something — anything?
Slow down. If your approach comes across as an interrogation, it only activates their flight.
Reassure him or her of your willingness to listen — “I get the sense you’re nervous about how I will respond to what you have to say. I get that, my record of slowing down enough to hear you is shaky at best. But it’s important to me that I hear what’s on your mind.”
Your approach draws your partner in, or pushes him or her away.
Compassionately responding to your partner’s fears moves him or her to connect with you in a new way.
It helps the relationship recover from distress.
It reassures your partner he or she doesn’t have to hide or deny their feelings.
You’re able to understand each other differently.
Remember, your partner’s silence is not necessarily a reflection of selfishness, but a reflection of the panic that comes with emotional disconnection. And the fear of losing the person they love.