What Emotional Withholding Looks Like And How To Handle It In Relationships

Relationship expert Esther Perel asserts that couples should maintain their separateness in order to maintain their connection, and that mystery is necessary to maintain desire. But when you aren't emotionally vulnerable with each other — sharing your needs, wants, and goals within the relationship — then it can create an unhealthy dynamic of sidestepping conflict and burying feelings. 

It can also be difficult to know if you're in a codependent relationship if your partner regularly withholds their feelings. Conflict avoidance stems from people-pleasing behaviors — in which a partner doesn't want to experience upheaval in the relationship — and they're likely to suppress their own emotions and even deny an issue exists. Ultimately, basing your behaviors on your partner is a codependent habit that can bring the relationship into further turmoil. 

The way you handle your feelings says a lot about your emotional availability, and you may find that you or your partner are not able to show up to the relationship with your whole selves. An avoidant attachment style might also contribute to withholding patterns in a relationship. But reframing your mindset and coping mechanisms might make the difference in how you and your partner express yourselves.

It's a behavior learned in childhood

A 2016 study analyzed the effects of husbands suppressing displays of emotions within their marriages, finding that this equivalent to "stonewalling" resulted in lower marital satisfaction for both parties. Making the effort to hide our emotions isn't lost on our partners, and we might also withhold physical affection or communicate closed-off body language while doing so.

Another study on the emotional effects of withholding our complaints in relationships found a correlation between rumination and emotional exhaustion. Rumination led to passive-aggressive behaviors like stonewalling and silent treatment, and passive-aggressive responses to emotions lead to fractures in our relationships. Tara Krueger, the national director of Family Therapy Services, shared with Insider, "Adults who withhold affection may also have experienced abuse as a child." Parents who use passive-aggressive behaviors to communicate their disapproval can form a direct connection between deserving love from your caregiver and receiving their approval. This may result in the development of an avoidant attachment style.

Researcher Jude Cassidy told Psych Alive about those who form an avoidant attachment: "During many frustrating and painful interactions with rejecting attachment figures, they have learned that acknowledging and displaying distress leads to rejection or punishment." However, despite evidence for intergenerational transmission of avoidant and withholding behavioral patterns, it's possible to reframe our childhood experiences to move toward healthier dynamics in our future relationships.

Withholding often coincides with avoidance

If we are the ones who are withholding, it might indicate that we aren't fully emotionally available. Psychotherapist Pam Shaffer, MFT, told mindbodygreen, "It doesn't mean that something is wrong with you, but it may mean that you are using your emotional bandwidth to cope with your own feelings or circumstances, so you don't have enough to necessarily tune into another person." Shaffer also explained one of the signs your partner isn't being open and vulnerable with their feelings: "Someone is leaving you guessing as to when they are going to talk to you, chances are good that they are not emotionally available to truly connect and make you feel heard." 

Couples therapist Brooke Sprowl explained that hyper-independence is a mechanism for self-protection, and that may be a motivator for those keeping their partner at arm's length. "Their greatest fear is engulfment—in other words, losing themselves in another person or being subsumed." She added, "They seek space and solitude to regulate their anxiety, especially during conflicts."

However, too much space and solitude can leave your partner in the dark and likely questioning themselves. And though it can be scary to express our emotions and needs, working on our communication is worth it for our relationships in the long haul. As Sprowl shared, "If we don't learn the lessons our unhealthy relationships are revealing to us, our damaging patterns will keep repeating over and over again with the same and different partners."