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.