Perhaps more than any of the other Losing Strategies, withdrawal can take various forms and may arise from a wide array of motivations. Anything from not expressing your genuine feelings in order to avoid conflict to punishingly giving your partner the silent treatment can qualify as withdrawal.
Withdrawal can be a gradual loss of intimacy and closeness in all aspects of a relationship or it can be a deliberate decision to not talk about a certain hot issue that seems to always be a source of disagreement. But regardless of the form of withdrawal or the motivation for it, withdrawal harms closeness, genuine connection, and intimacy, making it the fifth and final behavior on Terry Real’s list of Losing Strategies for getting what you want in your relationship.
This is not to say that there is never a time when the functional response is to step away from a conflict or a conversation that feels too difficult. But Terry Real explains the difference between withdrawal and what he dubs “responsible distance taking” by describing withdrawal as “unilateral and without functional communication.” The alternative that he offers instead is a formal time out. A time out follows a clearly defined process, but the key elements of it, which differentiate it from withdrawal, are that it includes “an explanation and a promise of return.”
Instead of a door slamming “I’m out of here!” or an exasperated “Whatever. You’re going to do what you want. I give up.” followed by silence and a refusal to engage further, a formal time out is a continuation of communication, even while you take a break.
Perhaps the most insidious form of withdrawal is when people believe that by withdrawing that that they are moving into acceptance about a dissatisfying aspect of their relationship. But there is a critical difference that can serve as your litmus test for whether you are truly in a state of acceptance – if you experience resentment about the issue then you aren’t accepting a situation, you’re withdrawing from conflict.
This doesn’t mean that you should expect to get everything you want in your relationship. Your partner will always be imperfect, we all have unmet needs, and there will be aspects of your relationship which will be disappointing. If you use all your best skills (which I’ll elucidate in the coming weeks from Terry Real’s list of Five Winning Strategies for getting what you want in your relationship) and it becomes clear that this is an area where you aren’t going to get what you want you must face what Terry Real calls a “relationship reckoning.” As Terry explains in The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Know to Make Love Work in a relationship reckoning:
“You ask yourself: Are enough of my needs being me in
relationship to make grieving those wants and needs that
will not be granted worth my while?”
If your answer to this is yes, then grieve, find a way to really accept what you aren’t going to get. But don’t tell yourself that you are accepting a situation when you are actually feeling resentful. Resentment is perhaps the most foolproof way to rot your marriage from the inside out.
In the coming weeks, I’ll discuss the Five Winning Strategies that you can use to replace the Losing Strategies that we’ve explored so far. These alternatives will equip you to communicate in a way that should avoid more of the resentment, frustration, and pain that we all experience in our relationships.
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The relationship you wish for is possible, but sometimes skills and tools aren’t enough to get you there. Most of us have times in our lives when we need help to rebuild the passion and connection in our relationships. If this is where you are - reach out. I can help.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nikki Loscalzo, Ed. M. is an RLT Certified Therapeutic Coach who helps couples and individuals learn to get past surface issues and heal the damage that gets in the way of intimate connection. Nikki first discovered the tremendous power of Relational Life Therapy when the RLT creator, Terry Real, transformed her own marriage.
Inspired by her personal experience with RLT, Nikki trained directly with Terry Real through his Relational Life Institute to learn how to empower couples to transform their relationships. Through his intensive certification program, she learned the skills that she employs every day in private practice at Savvy Strategies Relational Life Therapy, where she works with couples to quickly diagnose the problems in their relationships, uncover why these issues exist, and repair damage to shift unhelpful relationship dynamics and rebuild a truly intimate relationship.