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Emotional Withdrawal: 5 Reasons Men Do It and How To Open Them Up

Emotional Withdrawal

Have you ever been confused, frustrated or angry by your partner’s emotional withdrawal, their inability to respond to you with emotion?

Do you wonder how and why your partner can seem so void of emotion regardless of your attempts to pull emotion out of him?

Do you feel alone or unloved when your partner won’t share his emotion?

Emotional withdrawal is often misunderstood. And sadly, it is one of the biggest destroyers of marriage relationships. So there’s no time like the present to take a closer look at what makes a withdrawer check out emotionally.

Though both women and men can withdraw, emotional withdrawal is more common for men. (I’ve written this post from that, the more prevalent scenario.)

John Gottman, world-renowned relationship researcher, calls emotional withdrawal stonewalling. After decades of couples research, Gottman has concluded that stonewalling is a big predictor of future divorce.

If you or your partner withdraws, or shuts down emotionally, I’m here to assure you… you’re not alone. Emotional withdrawal is not uncommon.

The lack of compassionate response from your partner, or even laughing together, can rob your relationship of the life it needs in order to grow and thrive.

Emotional withdrawal is not a sign of weakness. Nor does it indicate a lack of caring or love. However, when someone withdraws emotionally, their partner often feels unloved and alone.

Women often become more and more angry and emotionally aroused in response to their man’s emotional withdrawal. The escalation of female emotion in response to the absence of male emotion creates a deadly cycle that gets worse over time.

To break this cycle it is important to understand why so many men emotionally withdraw when their partners need them the most.

Emotional Withdrawal: 5 reasons men do it and how to break the cycle

1. Men don’t always know how to make their wives happy:

Every man wants to be his wife’s Romeo. This is easy during dating when dopamine is running high. After he says “I do” his brain decreases the production of this new-love hormone. Whatever he learned about emotional communication growing up comes to the surface. If he was taught to stuff his feelings and do the right thing this is what will happen when the marriage progresses.

Most women want to be listened to and not fixed. When his need to protect is expressed by fixing, rather than listening, she will express more and more frustration. He will begin to feel sad and frustrated that he doesn’t know how to make his wife happy like he did earlier in the relationship. She will feel hurt and abandoned when he doesn’t emotionally respond to her joys, hurts and fears.

Breaking the cycle: Tip #1

Women, even though it may seem obvious, you can help your man by gently reminding him that you need their ear much more than you need their strong arms.

2. Men feel overwhelming shame

Shame is a paralyzing feeling of not being worthy in relationships. It destroys confidence and self esteem. Shame often deepens in men when they feel less and less capable of making their wives happy.

Shame researcher Brene Brown has linked shame to depression, anxiety, domestic violence and relationship failure. Check out her Ted Talks or many resources on shame and vulnerability.

Shame is hard to explain, often difficult to make sense of. The diffuse dark yucky feeling that shame produces often makes men want to emotionally pull away until they feel better.

Breaking the cycle: Tip #2

Shame can be minimized by understanding that it is human to be vulnerable. None of us should feel inadequate, stupid or ‘less than’ because we don’t know the answer or solution to a problem. Men and women, you can help each other stay out of shame by being non-judgmental and accepting of each others emotions.

3. They are emotionally flooded

The intensity of female emotion can cause men to be overwhelmed with their own emotion. Even if men don’t know how to name their emotions, the fear and anxiety that they feel makes them want to explode.

Being emotionally flooded is so painful that it triggers fight-or-flight responses. This can look like anger, showing no emotion at all or even being unable to talk.

Men are often afraid that if they begin to express what they are feeling in the face of their wife’s frustration it will come out as anger and make the situation worse. They feel that by expressing no emotion they are taking the high road to preserve the relationship.

Breaking the cycle: Tip #3

Flooding (emotional overload) can be repaired when both people in the relationship learn to stop defending themselves and slow down their communication. By slowly and compassionately expressing hurt, safety will be created in order to respond without being overwhelmed.

4. They have difficulty identifying what they are feeling

In many cultures men are taught to repress their emotions. Powerful instructions on how to “be a man” – be tough, don’t cry, that doesn’t hurt, you’re fine – those messages are carried into adult love relationships. It’s no wonder men often have difficulty identifying what they are feeling, other than anger.

When they do not know how to speak the language of emotion they can become defensive and pull away when emotion is being expressed to them.

Breaking the cycle: Tip #4

When this is happening, women can help their men by helping them to feel safe. Be patient and give them time to find words for what they feel. This isn’t always easy. In fact, it sometimes takes a skilled therapist to help them connect uncomfortable tension in their body with feelings of sadness, hurt or fear.

5. They automatically dissociate during conflict

This one often requires professional help. Both men and women who have been traumatized learn to disconnect from their feeling awareness when they are threatened. They dissociate (separate) from their own emotions to protect themselves from feeling pain.

Breaking the cycle: Tip #5

To heal the tendency to automatically dissociate, they need to feel their pain while having a new experience of being loved and accepted. A therapist can help the woman to 1) recognize dissociation and 2) become the loving presence her partner needs to stop running from his trauma triggers.

Sounds like work!…if you’ve stayed with me thus far, you’re on your way to a more satisfying, fuller, deeper long-lasting relationship. We hope you have a better understanding of emotional withdrawal and how to begin to create a safe environment for open emotional expression in times of happiness or hurt, joy or sorrow.

Sharing emotion makes a relationship fun. Most importantly, emotional expression allows our partner to feel and believe our love for them is real…and that’s a really great feeling!



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