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7 reasons why your partner withholds affection (+ What to do about it)

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When you find yourself facing an emotional stonewall, you may wonder what you did to deserve it.

After all, withholding affection is a pretty cruel thing for your partner to do.

It takes aim at our innate need for warmth and connection from those we love and care about.

Emotional withholding is used by many people to some extent, but there are those who resort to it on a regular basis.

Why do they do this? What makes them think that this is the right approach to take?

Let’s take a look at some possible reasons.

Aside from the advice in this article, you’d almost certainly benefit from one or two sessions with a relationship counselor. Getting expert input from a neutral source along with tips and strategies that are tailored to your unique circumstances is often the quickest way to put these problems behind you. To connect with a certified relationship counselor in your area (or one who works remotely), simply fill out this form.

1. They simply don’t know how to deal with conflict in a healthy way.

Your partner may withhold affection as a means to deal with a conflict or disagreement you’ve had.

They fall back on it because they don’t know what else to do.

They never learned other, healthier methods of resolving the inevitable clashes that occur when two people come together to form a relationship.

And so they take the easy way out: they give you the cold shoulder.

It doesn’t really take much effort to withdraw their emotions because it puts all the emphasis on you to make amends.

They just have to stick to their guns until you make the first moves of reconciliation.

2. They refuse to take responsibility for their actions or shortcomings.

It takes courage to admit to yourself that you did something wrong, or that you have flaws.

It takes many times more courage to admit that to someone else.

Your partner might simply not have the humility necessary to own their mistakes or shortcomings.

They might wish to appear as perfect or “right” in every situation, and to maintain this appearance, they won’t entertain the idea that they were in the wrong.

It stands to reason, then, that it must be you who is at fault, and they won’t be nice to you until you admit this and apologize.

3. They learned this behavior from their parents.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to grow up with parents who have healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with the inevitable challenges that children pose.

Some parents unfortunately resort to things such as emotional withholding in order to discipline their children or cajole them into acting in a certain way.

Those children may then grow up thinking that this is how you deal with people.

They may become people who withhold affection from their partners because this is how they were treated as a child.

4. It has worked for them in the past.

Regardless of where this approach to conflict came from, if they have seen it work in the past, they are more likely to adopt it again later on.

It’s a case of: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Of course, they can only see the effectiveness of emotional withholding within the narrow context of the immediate situation. They neglect to understand the wider effect it has on their relationships.

And so they may use this tactic in relationship after relationship, not realizing that it drives other people away.

5. They feel a need to control everything.

Withholding affection is a form of control.

It says to the other person: “I have decided that you have wronged me, and I’m not going to show my love for you until you have apologized or made it up to me.”

This puts the entire emphasis on you to take the appropriate action which is their way to control you.

If your partner likes to control everything in their life as much as possible, it’s not surprising that they adopt the cold shoulder approach.

6. They want to punish you.

Whilst emotional withholding is often used a way for a person to get what they want, it can also be used as a weapon.

If your partner feels attacked or offended by something you have said or done, they may cut off all affection toward you in order to make you suffer.

In their mind, this should make you regret your actions and behave differently in the future.

They may see it as similar to a choke chain or electric shock collar to correct unwanted behavior in a dog.

7. They have a personality disorder.

A person’s past – particularly their childhood – can lead to the development of a variety of personality disorders.

Some of these make the use of emotional withholding far more likely.

Narcissists and those with Borderline Personality Disorder, for instance, have lower levels of empathy, and so they are more capable of behavior that causes hurt or distress in others.

Is the withholding of affection a form of emotional abuse?

Now that we have explored some of the reasons why a person may consistently withhold shows of love and affection from their partner, we have to ask: is this abuse?

As we stated at the start of the article, many people do this sort of thing. But there is certainly a range of severity.

Some people take longer to calm down after an argument and process what happened. They may not wish to be physically or emotionally close to their partner during this period.

This doesn’t necessarily constitute emotional abuse.

To judge when it turns into abuse, you have to ask the following:

– Who is the first person to offer an olive branch? If it’s always you and never them, it is likely to be abusive.

– Do they apologize? Even if you are generally the one to say sorry first, if they reciprocate and seem genuinely remorseful, it’s less likely to be abuse.

– Do they set specific time periods? If they tell you that they are not having sex with you for a week, for instance, they are trying to punish you, and this is abuse.

– Is this how they always deal with conflict? If it is, it is quite likely to be abusive.

– Do you do things you’re not comfortable with in order to appease them? If you have to say or do things you’d rather not, it’s a form of control and is abusive.

Whilst it is not always black or white whether emotional abuse is present, you’ll likely know in your gut if the behavior you are experiencing is abusive.

What to do when your partner withholds affection.

It is difficult to know how to respond to a partner who is purposefully holding back affection, love, and even physical intimacy on a regular basis.

After all, you don’t want to encourage this behavior by backing down and grovelling for their forgiveness.

But, at the same time, you probably don’t want to engage in your own form of emotional withholding either.

Here are some things you can do instead.

1. Choose how to think and feel about their behavior.

You have more say over your thoughts and feelings than you give yourself credit for.

When your partner has closed off from you because of something you seemingly said or did, you can still choose to maintain a positive mindset.

It requires practice, but you can remind yourself that you are your own primary source of happiness and satisfaction. What your partner does is their choice and your choice is to not let it affect you.

An important part of that is recognizing that you are not to blame for their choice and their behavior. Even if you were a part of a disagreement, how your partner has reacted is not down to you.

You certainly do not deserve to be treated this way – remind yourself of this often.  

2. Continue to be kind and pleasant toward your partner.

One way to drive home your positive thoughts and feelings is to keep treating your partner with the same care and respect you always do.

Sure, they won’t reciprocate at first, or even acknowledge your actions as being kind.

But if you show them that you will not be affected by their withholding tactics, they should eventually begin to interact with you.

It might remain frosty at first, but as time passes, things will return to normal.

They will probably never raise the incident, and you might be better off letting it go too – you have to decide how comfortable you are with this form of resolution (or non-resolution as it really is).

3. Take responsibility for the part you played in any argument.

Whilst withholding affection is an unhealthy way to deal with conflict, it happens to be your partner’s way.

But this does not absolve you of any responsibility. Just because they are acting in this toxic way, it doesn’t mean you don’t have anything to be sorry for.

If you said or did something to contribute to their offense and hurt – even if it was in the heat of the moment – be willing to step up, admit this, and apologize for it.

It may not appease them straight away, but it will hasten the process.

Just be sure that you’re not simply apologizing to regain their affection and attention. If you didn’t do anything wrong, it’s better to just stick with the approach in the previous point.

4. Look into therapy – both joint and individual.

Certified mental health professionals and relationship counselors have more tools with which to address issues such as the withholding of affection than any web article can provide.

So whilst the advice here is meant to be helpful for everyone, some people and couples will find that they need to seek proper help to overcome their problems.

A couples therapist will help you to air your grievances in a safer and more productive environment. The same goes for your partner.

They may be able to provide a framework for healthier conflict resolution and better communication.

Both you and your partner may also wish to seek separate therapy from a mental health practitioner.

They may be able to help your partner find the root cause of their behavior and offer ways to slowly change it.

And they may be able to offer you support and guidance for the issues your partner’s behavior can cause with your own emotional well-being.

5. Look at the wider relationship.

As we discussed in the earlier part of this article, there are several reasons why your partner may choose to withhold affection from you.

But depending on the severity of their behavior, you may still enjoy much of what they bring to the relationship table.

Perhaps, yes, they use affection as a means of control to get their own way, but they are actually quite loving and caring when they want to be.

Sure, it may not be the Hollywood vision of love or romance, but it may also not spell the end of things.

People are messy creatures, and some of them can be quite difficult to deal with.

It’s up to you to judge whether the good points outweigh the bad, or vice versa.

6. If this form of abuse is constant and severe, leave them.

When you look at the relationship as a whole, you may find very little to be grateful for.

Not everyone is able to be in a healthy, stable relationship, and your partner may be one such person.

If their behavior is not improving – or is getting worse – and it is having a sustained negative impact on your self-esteem and self-worth, you should seriously consider ending the relationship.

You do not owe them anything other than a clear and amicable separation.

Your emotional health and well-being is more important than any relationship you have.

You should never feel pressured to change who you are just to please someone else.

If you have given the relationship your best shot and you’ve given them ample opportunity to change their ways, this final solution is your only remaining option.

Still not sure what to do about your partner’s withholding of affection? One or two sessions with a relationship counselor could help you tackle this precise issue so that you can move on and enjoy a happier and more fulfilling relationship. To connect with a certified relationship counselor in your area (or one who works remotely), simply fill out this form.

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About The Author

Steve Phillips-Waller is the founder and editor of A Conscious Rethink. He has written extensively on the topics of life, relationships, and mental health for more than 8 years.