Emotions are at the core of our relationships. When we can’t (or won’t) express our feelings, connections with other people suffer.
That’s why emotional withdrawal can be so toxic, particularly in romantic relationships. If you feel yourself—or your partner—pulling back, it’s important to face the situation head on. Here are some of the signs and triggers of emotional withdrawal, as well as advice for overcoming the situation.
What Is Emotional Withdrawal?
Emotional withdrawal is defined as when someone disconnects from others emotionally either consciously or unconsciously. This detachment comes from an inability to connect or an aversion to connect due to feeling uncomfortable with feeling emotions. It’s an unhealthy coping mechanism that can stem from past rejection or even abuse.
This isn’t to say that all forms of emotional withdrawal are unhealthy, however. When you purposefully set boundaries to maintain a mentally safe distance from others this allows you to attend to your own emotional needs. Doing this helps you avoid codependency and creates healthier relationships.
So how do you know when emotional withdrawal is unhealthy? You might feel like you’ve lost interest in people and activities you once enjoyed, for starters. You might feel less connected to your emotions and feel like you can’t be as empathetic as usual. You may also physically withdraw from your relationships by not reaching out to friends or rebuffing attempts at intimacy from your partner.
What Triggers Emotional Withdrawal?
There are three main triggers of emotional withdrawal to be aware of. They are:
When you’re setting healthy boundaries, you might choose to withdraw emotionally from a situation or person as a form of self care. This is healthy and preserves your peace.
Traumatic childhood events
Emotional withdrawal can result from childhood abuse and neglect if you learned to withdraw or numb out as a coping mechanism. If a situation or person in your life reminds you of your childhood you might rely on emotional withdrawal as a reflex or habit.
If you experience PTSD or depression, this can trigger emotional withdrawal. Instead of reaching out to others for connection, you may turn inward and isolate yourself as a way of coping. While taking time to focus on yourself can be healthy, rejecting the outside world can be emotionally and mentally harmful.
How to Handle Emotional Withdrawal in Yourself
When you’re the one in a relationship who withdraws, it’s up to you to pull yourself out and find ways to reconnect emotionally with others, particularly your romantic partner if you don’t want to lose the relationship. Taking ownership of what you’re going through, and why, is a key component to healing and creating new, healthier coping mechanisms.
Clearly identify the trigger
First, work on identifying why you’re choosing to withdraw and understand if you’re doing so consciously or unconsciously. There may be a clear reason you are removing yourself from a situation and your decision to do this may actually be the best thing for you, especially if you’re in an abusive relationship or toxic friendship. Figuring out why you’re withdrawing is important for determining your next steps.
Work on feeling worthy of love and connection
At the heart of emotional withdrawal are fears of unworthiness and abandonment. People turn away from others so that they can be the rejector instead of being rejected. This pattern of emotionally withdrawing, however, only perpetuated insecurities. To break the cycle, ask yourself why you feel unworthy of love and belonging and start to question your beliefs around being rejected by those close to you.
Enlist your partner in your emotional journey
Don’t keep secrets from your partner about what you’re feeling. Understand that your partner is your teammate and work with them to reconnect emotionally. It’s important to understand their needs for connection with you and make those needs as important as your own. To do this, you’ll need to establish clear communication with each other about what you’re feeling. As your trust in your partner builds, being able to talk about your withdrawal will become easier—and your partner will be able to listen to you without taking it personally the more you let them in.
Get help from a therapist
Don’t try to go at all of this alone, even with your partner by your side. If emotional withdrawal is an issue for you, you likely need assistance from a therapist who can help you identify patterns and recreate healthier ways of coping.
How to Handle Emotional Withdrawal in Your Partner
If your partner is the one who is withdrawing there are some things you can do to support them. While they are on their own healing journey, and you can’t do the work for them, you can advocate for them and for yourself to help preserve the relationship.
Work on your own emotional regulation
It’s important to make sure that you’re not making your partner’s withdrawal all about you. While it does affect you emotionally, and it’s important to acknowledge that, you shouldn’t play the victim in this situation. Try not to panic, place blame or take the situation personally. Your partner likely has a lot to work through and they need someone who can be supportive, not someone who points fingers.
Ask questions and actively listen
Be curious about your partner’s actions and emotions. If you’re able to listen without judgment you can find out a lot about their inner world and become an ally in their healing journey. Don’t try to fix the situation or offer quick tips and advice. Simply listen and provide a sounding board.
Express your needs calmly and clearly
Your feelings matter too in this situation. If your partner emotionally shuts down and gives the silent treatment regularly, this may not work for you in the long term. You both need to balance the other’s needs. You might need more connection and reassurance from your partner. It’s okay for you to express that and explain how they can meet your needs even while they work through their own emotions.
Offer support—but realize you can’t be your partner’s therapist
Remember that you are your partner’s other half but you’re not their therapist. You can provide emotional support, however, you shouldn’t be their only source of support. Your partner likely needs professional help to work through their issues. Even if you have a desire to “fix” your partner, know that it’s not your job to do that.
Dealing with emotional withdrawal, in yourself and in others, can be challenging. But awareness of the situation goes a long way. Once you realize what’s really going on, you can work on healing, managing expectations and clearly communicating each of your needs. By doing the emotional work, you can enter a new, more connected chapter of your relationship.
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