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

emotional withdrawal

How would you answer these questions? Do you know which ones might have some link to emotional withdrawal?

Does your husband accuse you of becoming too emotional?

Do his responses to you seem flat and uncaring?

Does he run and hide when you need him the most?

Is he void of emotion regardless of your attempts to pull emotion out of him?

Does he look away when he sees your tears?

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

Does it feel like he shuts down emotionally in the middle of a conversation?

How many yesses did you have? And what do they mean?

Many people misunderstand emotional withdrawal. 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.

Is Emotional withdrawal destroying your relationship?

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. The cycle will get worse over time.

We cannot break this cycle unless we 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 he’ll continue to do that as 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.

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. It may even be helpful to preface a conversation with “I’m not looking for a solution here, just for you to listen.” Fixing is not what women want.

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.

Minimize shame 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. Shutting down emotionally – emotional withdrawal – is what it looks like to the partner.

Flooding, or 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.

They can become defensive and pull away when emotion is being expressed to them unless they know how to speak the language of emotion. Emotional withdrawal has become their go-to response.

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.

You can help heal your partner’s tendency to automatically dissociate. You can make this happen by feeling her pain while she is 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. Won’t it be great when shutting down emotionally is no longer his go-to?

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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I’m Michael W. Regier, Ph.D. and am highly trained and skilled as a clinical psychologist, Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist and EFT Supervisor serving clients throughout California via teletherapy. Give me a call to learn how I can help you understand and break your cycles of emotional withdrawal.





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