3 Reasons People Withdraw in Relationships

relationship advice

This article is written by Nicole and is also on NicoleNenninger.com.

At the outset if I was more mature, aware, and conscious, I would have recognized that my first marriage was a disaster from the start (except that I got three beautiful children from this relationship).  Oh, our marriage was okay-ish for a long time–until we both hit middle age. 

In the beginning of our marriage, we found distractions from the pain we were both carrying.   My distraction was our children, his was his work.  Enter middle age…The kids are all in school, my ex is settled into his private practice.  Now how do we distract ourselves from our unresolved pain?  Oh, hey–how about a mid-life crisis to complicate life?

My mid-life crisis turned inward in a quest for spiritual and psychological growth. I read voraciously, went to therapy, registered for college to finally complete my bachelor’s degree, and began training for 5ks and half-marathons. 

My now-ex’s mid-life crisis was expressed outward–and not just in a fancy sports car.  He began to withdraw (even more) from our family and me.  Out of an unconscious need to avoid abandonment and rejection, I began to pursue him.  I had been through the recent deaths of my younger brother and my beloved grandfather, and I needed emotional closeness.  In the past, because of my childhood wounds (the death of my mother at age 7, PA, emotional and physical abuse), I did not need a lot of emotional closeness–I had built up a wall like a very thick scar to protect my wounds.  At this time when I reached middle age, after being in therapy for a year, I recognized I needed the safety and unconditional love only a partner could give to me.  Little did I realize, he was having an affair which in hindsight explains his excessive withdrawal.

Therapists would say we were living out the distancer-pursuer relationship theme.  Ours was more extreme–you do not have to have a person distancing themselves through an affair–it can be the computer, working late, friends, other family members, etc.  One person in the relationship distances themselves while the other person pursues them to engage them using the only tools they are familiar with (for example, nagging).  It doesn’t matter who begins the pattern, the result is thatyou can remain stuck in this pattern if you don’t know how to disengage.  And, the roles can change. The pursuer can change to distancer and vice versa.

My ex would provoke me to become angry, then I would get angry, then he would withdraw. A little side note here: My ex later said he provoked me on purpose so he could have an excuse to divorce–that is, to tell people that I had anger management issues.  My first marriage didn’t make it.  Even if I did have access to all the marital tools in the world, it would not have helped.  Both people need to be committed to make the relationship work and they also need to be honest with themselves and with each other.

Why do so many spouses/partners play the parts of distancer and pursuer? Maybe it’s how they saw things worked out when they were kids watching their parents handle their conflict.  Is it effective?  Actually, and this may surprise you, sometimes people need some time to decompress and get grounded–and some couples need a person like the pursuer to re-engage a spouse who remains distant–as long as this is done positively, respectfully, and lovingly.  This is where I would ask couples:  How’s this working for you?  Just because you might fit the roles of distancer/pursuer doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship is dysfunctional.

Why do some people in relationships withdraw? 

Here are the three most common reasons:

  1. One reason is that physiologically when confronted with an intense moment of conflict, the male (and research has found it is almost always the guy in this situation) becomes flooded with adrenalin–their heart starts beating rapidly and they get into a fight or flight mode.  Guess which one they choose?  They choose flight.  They don’t want to attack the one they love.  Over time, this becomes a conditioned response.  Any time conflict comes up, they get in that flooded state, and they want to clam up and bolt.  If this resonates with you–this can be deadly to your marriage/relationship.  Learn some self-soothing methods to help you through it–or have your partner help you de-escalate your response.
  2. Another reason partners withdraw from their spouse is that over time, if they had tried to connect in the past and their partner turned them away repeatedly, they stop reaching out.  Repeated rejection is another deal-breaker and inevitably leads to major issues and breakdowns in relationships.
  3. A third reason why people withdraw in relationships is that there is pain or a lack of pleasure associated with connecting.  The pain can take many forms:  Maybe the couple does not have shared dreams, values, goals, rituals, etc. and there’s no common thread of connection.  There’s a loss in that.  Or, it could be an outside person or thing that has breached the couple boundary–like an affair, an enmeshment with a child, or an addiction.  In this instance, there is more perceived pleasure outside the relationship than inside.  Or, they have reached a point in their level of comfort for experiencing love and they need to back off for a little bit because they are fearful.  It’s too much and their self-regulator clicks in and says:  “Back off!  This is uncomfortable!”

Humans are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. 

When someone withdraws from the relationship, there is more perceived pleasure for them in withdrawing than in connecting–even though the opposite may be true–I mean, don’t we all crave love and connection?  What gets in the way of this is different for each relationship.  Something is blocking the connection of being intimate with a partner.  If they had another tool, they’d use it.  Instead, withdrawal becomes a tool for handling fearful thoughts, feelings, and actions in the relationship.  People want love and connection, but when they become fearful of it, they may withdraw.

Withdrawal is counter-intuitive to getting the love you want and deserve.

But, some people do need some space for their own benefit to recharge or get centered (maybe they’re an introvert or a highly sensitive person).  When couples talk about what is going on for them without taking the other partner’s responses personally, it opens up the space for deeper love and connection.

Withdrawal can lead to checking out of a relationship. Eventually it may lead to divorce or the relationship breaking up.  If this is happening in your relationship, this is definitely a topic you’ll want to bring up with your partner or with a trained professional.


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Why Knowing This is a Must!

There she was…crying and wiping her tears away while trying to tell me what was troubling her.

She didn’t understand, she said. How could he do this? He wanted an open relationship. How did this happen? He mentioned it months into their relationship. He changed his mind. She agreed to the open relationship, reluctantly, but she agreed she said because she never thought it would happen. And it did. And here she was a couple months after that conversation, crying in between statements of incredulousness.

“How could he do this?” “How could she want this, too, knowing that I’m also his girlfriend?” “I don’t want this at all.” “Doesn’t he love me?”

And there she was, crying, and wondering how it came to be this way.  Some couples choose to have open relationships. They talk about it, are honest with each other, and make it work. It takes a tremendous amount of work – on yourself and on the relationship- for this type of relationship to survive. I give her boyfriend credit- he did say he wanted an open relationship. He didn’t hide it.

Some cultures and religions accept open relationships as part of their belief systems. Before you shake your head in disagreement, it’s not that open relationships are “bad” or “wrong,” it’s what works for you. When you’re in a relationship, there’s an opportunity to talk about your beliefs, your wants, and needs with your partner, particularly in the beginning stages of a serious relationship so that you can determine whether an open relationship will work for you. It’s vitally important to have these kinds of discussions about your needs and wants before weeks and months go by and you’re invested in the relationship. And, it’s vitally important to be honest with yourself and your partner so that months in, you’re not devastated because you weren’t truthful about what it is you really need.

When I (Nicole) begin working with a couple, I often start with an exercise I adapted from Harville Hendrix’s work (he wrote Getting the Love You Want).  It’s called the Relationship Needs exercise.

The exercise helps couples and individuals become clear in what they absolutely need in their relationship. They become crystal clear on what they can compromise on and what they won’t. Many couples enter counseling in crisis- and this exercise helps provide couples with not only getting in touch with their needs, but also how to communicate in a healthy and respectful manner. For example, if a wife puts down a husband because he needs to be close to family and she doesn’t care- we then shift the work in that moment to communicating with each other in a way that is curious, nonjudgmental, respectful, loving, and compassionate. Many couples don’t have these kinds of discussions because of the perceived repercussions- conflict, disrespect, shame, or blame, for instance.

When I spoke to this young woman, I immediately asked her what she wanted. While many people would tell her to leave the relationship, I don’t think that’s helpful. That’s my opinion- maybe she’d like to explore what an open relationship looked like and what the rules might be.

Knowing what your needs are before you become serious with someone is incredibly helpful- and it’s a must! Many couples get married and don’t have these kinds of discussions. Or, one or both partners aren’t honest with each other or with themselves and push aside what they really want.  Know that, over time your needs will change. You may not have wanted children 5 years ago, but now you do. You may not care if your partner is a democrat and you’re  a republican, but now it’s important you have the same political viewpoints. Whatever your needs are, take the time to get to know what they are and what your partner’s are. It will save you a whole lotta unhappiness and misunderstanding.

The One Critical Question that Can Help Your Relationship

relationships

We often go about our days in default mode. For example, by “default mode”  we get up in the morning, brush our teeth, drive, eat- we do these things out of habit so that often we often don’t pay attention to our behaviors and actions.

Try this: Switch hands the next time you brush your teeth. It’s not easy, is it? It’s because you’re mindful of doing a task in a new way. Your muscles and your mind aren’t used to using the other hand to do a task you’re so used to doing by default.

We’ve worked with couples in crisis who ask us:

  • What can they do to stop the fighting?
  • What can they do to feel more connected to each other?
  • What can they do to get the passion back?
  • Why does their partner do this or that?
  • How can they change their partner?
  • What if they can’t save their relationship?

They’re asking about the problem. They’re looking outside of themselves for an answer when the shift first starts within yourself.

Questions are wonderful, however if they aren’t guided to helping you find solutions, what do you do? You keep asking questions that keep you in a loop of being problem-focused, and in a powerless state. Great if you want to continue to be in a victim state, but not if you want to move forward toward changing your relationship. Which leads me to this…

I (Nicole) listen to podcasts during my workouts as a way to motivate myself and listen to others’ views on life. Many of the guests on the shows are successful people who talk about, for example, how they came from humble or traumatic beginnings, how they motivate themselves, how they balance their lives, how they shifted their mindset…

This is great to play in the background while you’re working out!  Your brain is pumping out all these endorphins from the workout and the motivational material is adding to the feeling of awesomeness (DO try this at home!).

What I’ve noticed during these shows is that the guests all have a vision they’re driven by. They’re successful in part because they have not given up on their vision. Powerful, right? Their vision is pulling them forward toward positive growth. Now, take that and apply that to your relationship!

Here’s the one critical question that can help your relationship:

What is your vision of your relationship?

  • Is it compelling?
  • Is it of long-lasting love?
  • Does it bring up feelings of unconditional love and appreciation?
  • How do you see yourselves 1 year, 5 years, and 20 years from now?
  • How does your vision guide your thoughts, beliefs, and feelings today?

Now, question is, how will you take this new information and allow it to change the way you view your significant relationships? You can apply this question to other relationships as well, not just with your significant other. What’s your vision of being a parent, sister/brother, aunt/uncle, daughter/son, friend, co-worker, boss? How do you want to be remembered in life?

When I was 7 years old, my mother passed away suddenly. She was 6 months pregnant and 32 years old. Her legacy that she passed on to me was to be passionate, cultivate beauty in your surroundings and appreciate beauty, be kind to others, we’re all human despite what we look like or believe, and to love your children and still have a life outside of them. This was her vision even though she likely never thought she was creating it at the time. How wonderfully loving and beautiful! She created that unconsciously even though her life was cut too short.

What are you creating unconsciously and what do you want to create with intention and consciousness now that you’re aware of what can be?

I will leave you with that thought to self-reflect on what your vision is and how it impacts, not just your life, but those around you.

7 Reasons Why Your Relationship May Not Make It

relationship advice

When it comes to having a happy and healthy relationship, there’s all kinds of advice out there. Some advice is good, and some not so good. We’d venture to say that most relationship advice is not good. How do we know? The statistics show that over 50% of marriages end in divorce (the rate is even higher for 2nd and 3rd marriages!). Then, factor in the serious relationships that also fail- and you’re looking at close to 95% of relationships that fail or are miserably failing and no one’s made the move to change it.

Consider then, that with all the knowledge, all the technology we have available in the world- that the rate of relationships failing is 95%!!

Why is it that 95% of relationships fail?

Chances are you may be in default-mode. Over time you got comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Or, consider that you haven’t really taken a look at where your beliefs about relationships came from. Let’s face it: Your relationship modeling from your parents is not likely not an adequate source for a successful relationship.

Okay, so what about all the information that is available to you basically instantaneously? The books, articles, workshops, counseling, advice…Tried that and it didn’t work? It’s no wonder! It’s not your fault most of the time!

How much time, money, and effort have you put in to having an extraordinary relationship? Because they do exist and you deserve to have one!

When it comes to relationship advice, it is important to think about the source. There are relationship “experts” who don’t “walk their talk.” Unfortunately, some also provide disastrous advice to couples. For example, one of my (NIcole’s) clients told me about going to a prior counselor who focused solely on boosting her and her partner’s sex life. My client quit counseling after the first session because she hated it! The counselor missed a key piece of what was keeping her relationship from blossoming sexually- many women, if they lack emotional intimacy with their partner, will be reluctant to have sex if the emotional connection is missing.

Trusting who/what is a good source can be difficult. Pay attention to your intuition if/when you hire a counselor or coach. There are some great coaches and counselors who are doing good work. My client’s old counselor may have been a good fit for someone else, however it didn’t work for her.

Many counselors and relationship coaches keep current with the latest research on relationships. We both love to read up on what helps or hinders relationships. Reading the latest research helps counselors to better help their clients. If a counselor is focused on sex, but the research says that emotional intimacy for many females needs to be established first, then your hard-earned money and time is going to fly out the window. I think though, even with being up on the latest research, that really good coaches and counselors are able to intuitively sense what a client responds to- or they’re checking in with them to see.

Many couples go to counseling when the relationship is in dire need of repair- and many of these couples don’t make it. They waited until it was too late. It’s like expecting your car to run even though you haven’t taken care of the maintenance.

You don’t have to wait until it is too late. We’re going to give you 7 powerful ways you can use to protect your relationship from divorce or a break-up.

How can you create a loving, healthy, and long-lasting relationship?

Based on recent research (Epstein, Robertson, Smith, Vasconcellos, & Lao; 2016)* there are 7 key relationship skills you can use to keep your partnership healthy, loving, and long-lasting.

  1. Communication. Knowing how to communicate in a healthy way makes a huge difference. This includes listening, keeping a majority of your interactions positive, and being open to sharing what you are thinking and feeling. If you want to read more about healthy communication, I recommend Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg and the work of John Gottman at the Gottman Institute.
  2. Conflict resolution. All couples have conflict. This means knowing how to work through the conflict and learning how to recognize when it may never be resolved.
  3. Knowledge about your partner. Ask your significant other about their dreams and preferences. Ask them what makes them laugh and what triggers them when they are sad or angry.
  4. Life skills. These are the skills that concerns life matters like managing the finances, managing your health, and the ability to find work and/or keep the job.
  5. Managing yourself. This one’s more about self-growth and self-awareness. Do you know your goals and how to achieve them? Do you know your weaknesses? Your strengths?
  6. Managing stress. Not being able to adequately manage stress wreaks havoc on relationships- and also on the relationship you have with yourself.
  7. Romance and sexual intimacy. Making intimacy- sexual and emotional- one of the priorities of the relationship and not letting yourself go. Physical attraction, while it may not be the predominant factor of what keeps your relationship together, it is important for many partners.

*References

Epstein, R.; Robertson, R. E.; Smith, R.; Vasconcellos, T.; & Lao, M. (2016). Which relationship skills count most? A large-scale replication. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 15(4), 341-356.