We’ve long understood the pain and perils of relationships characterized by physical and emotional abuse. The toxic and often tragic consequences of abuse between couples are as wide ranging as they are reprehensible.
However, there is another kind of abuse, often obscured and unseen, that wreaks havoc on relationships and leaves dissatisfaction, distress, and divorce in its wake. In a recent article for The Good Men Project, Thomas G. Fiffer explores the silent suffering of those in unhealthy and unloving marriages.
Fiffer describes the all too common, but equally overlooked unions marked by emotional withholding as one in which “coldness replaces warmth, silence replaces conversation, turning away replaces turning towards, dismissiveness replaces receptivity, and contempt replaces respect.” And because of the insidious, creeping and passive aggressive nature of this sort of dysfunction, Fiffer argues that it is difficult to identify and remedy.
Arising out of chronic breakdowns in communication, and likely informed by self-esteem issues and a lack of connectivity on the part of the abusive partner, the fallout manifests as a failure to love and be loved. Couples talk past and look through one another, and the problems triggered by loneliness and isolation begin to pile up on each other.
For instance, Christine and Jake have been married for fourteen years and they three children ranging from ages three to twelve. During a recent counseling session, Christine declared that they have fallen out of love and are considering getting a divorce. With intensity in her voice she states, “Jake has a pattern of withholding his thoughts and feelings from me and I’ve become very resentful and lonely.”
Christine put it like this, “For a few years, I saw myself as saving Jake from his unfortunate childhood. His mom died when he was eight and he was raised by an alcoholic grandfather and passive grandmother. But after we had our second child, things became unbearable, like I wasn’t even in the room and he only responded to our boys when he absolutely had to.”
Because emotional withholding lacks the obvious and overt trauma of physical and verbal abuse, the distance between partners grows slowly over time, giving way to quiet desperation. Without the closeness and companionship of a successful and supportive relationship, the emotional center of the couple is all but missing. The spouse who is the object of abuse is left with fear, doubt and the inability to trust in their partner or their future together.
Fiffer points out that victims of emotional withhold are paradoxically “wish[ing] for the fight… because even a shouting match, an ugly scene, would involve an exchange of words, because even physical conflict would constitute physical connection, because fire, even if it burns you, is preferable to ice.” And like a pot about to boil over, the possibility for physical and verbal abuse naturally grows out of this condition of emotional neglect.
The fragility and anguish caused by emotional withholding is described eloquently by Fiffer: “Your accomplishments go unrecognized, your contributions unmentioned, your presence at best grudgingly acknowledged, and any effort at bridging the chasm is spurned.” Indeed, the desperate search for love in a loveless relationship leads to “pleading, begging, literally on your knees, apologizing for everything, offering things that are distasteful to you, promising to be better, just to re-secure your partner’s affection.”
Christine continues, “Sometimes it’s like I’m so desperate to get Jake’s attention that I will go to great lengths to get him to notice me – even shouting at him or threatening to leave.”
In the end, Fiffer asserts that “there’s only one way to deal effectively with a partner who withholds from you, and it’s this: You must make it clear that the relationship is OVER, FOREVER, if your partner does not start acknowledging you and communicating.”
While ultimatums and hard decisions may lay ahead, it’s plain to see that an emotionally healthy and stable marriage starts with fostering — and actively practicing — an open dialogue, expressions of love, and the kind of supportive give and take that can make your relationship a two-way street.
Now that you know the signs that your relationship is suffering or dying due to emotional withholding, here are six things you can try before giving up.
- Stop criticizing your partner.
Talking about specific issues will reap better results than attacking your partner. It’s okay to complain a bit but criticism is a leading cause of divorce, according to Dr. John Gottman. For instance, a complaint is: “I’m upset because you didn’t talk to me about your problem at work. We agreed to be open with each other.” Versus a criticism: “You never tell me the truth. How can I trust you?”
- Take responsibility for our own actions and ask for what you need in a positive way.
Ask for what you need in an affirmative way, such as “I know I’m not good at asking for support but I’d appreciate it if you’d help more with preparing meals.” Be sure to turn towards each other with good eye contact and body language rather than turning away (such as starring at a computer screen) when your partner is talking to you.
- Practice managing conflicts as they arise.
Don’t put aside resentments that can harm communication. Experiencing conflict is inevitable and couples who strive to avoid it are at risk of developing stagnant relationships. Take responsibility for your part in a dispute. Avoid defensiveness and showing contempt for your partner (rolling your eyes, ridicule, name-calling, sarcasm). If you feel flooded take a short break and agree to talk later but don’t wait more than a day. During conflict, be sure to have five positive comments to every negative one.
- Boost up physical affection and sex.
Try to double the amount of physical touch you have as a couple daily by hugging and kissing more, cuddling on the couch, and having sex more often. According to author Dr. Kory Floyd, physical contact releases oxytocin (the bonding hormone) that reduces pain and causes a calming sensation. It’s released during sexual orgasm and affectionate touch as well. Physical affection also reduces stress hormones, lowering daily levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
- Practice a ritual of connection daily.
A positive activity such as giving each other a kiss on the cheek as you leave for the day can boost positive feelings. Also, going for a picnic, listening to music, or a daily walk after dinner can strengthen your bond. In The Intentional Family, researcher William J. Doherty says that a daily ritual is the surest antidote to marital failure.
- Nurture fondness and admiration for your partner.
Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities — even as you grapple with their flaws — and express your positive feelings out loud several times each day. Search for common ground rather than insisting on getting your way when you have a disagreement. Listen to their point of view and avoid the stonewalling, which is shutting yourself off from communication.
A happy couple is free from the agony of emotional withholding. As a result, they are able to build and maintain trust, and acknowledge their fears of failure; hopefully viewing their relationship as a source of security and strength. They turn toward each other often and look for opportunities for emotional and physical connection to enhance intimacy and communication.
Twitter, Facebook, and, movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Her new book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds True on February 18, 2020.
I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here. Thanks! Terry