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When Your Partner is Emotionally Withholding

when your partner is emotionally withholdingI recently wrote about emotional abuse, and how often people think of it as name-calling or explicit cruelty, when really, it might be about someone controlling you with silent disapproval. It’s when someone causes you to feel you can never be good enough.

That ties into my topic today. Are you in a relationship but often feel completely alone? Your partner might be emotionally withholding.There are some tell-tale signs of this. But I want to distinguish between emotional withholding (a behavior that is deliberate) and someone who is either not in touch with his/her own emotions or shut down, possibly because of trauma.

Emotional withholding is about keeping control in the relationship. Often, people find themselves in a dynamic where they’re always pursuing the affection of their partner. They’re always trying to prove they’re good enough.

Sometimes this replicates childhood trauma. You might have had a withholding, rejecting, or absent parent. So it feels natural to have to pursue love, rather than having it freely given.

Ask yourself how generous your partner is. How invested does he/she seem to be in your well-being, in making sure that you feel positively about yourself? Or is it the opposite–that he/she is maintaining the upper hand by ensuring that you continue to seek approval?

Emotional withholding is a way to keep the balance of power in their favor. You seek, and only very occasionally do you find. The person gives you just enough to keep you wanting more, to keep you lusting after that feeling again, to keep you trapped in pursuit.

Consider how much of your relationship you spend emotionally satisfied. How often are you sated, versus hungry?

If you feel like you’re often hungry for love, affection, and support, it means that your partner is emotionally unavailable. Then you need to consider whether it’s because your partner is, say, depressed or going through his/her own mental health issues that should be dealt with or whether it seems more strategic–i.e. the withholding accomplishes the task of maintaining a power balance that’s comfortable for them and not for you.

This dynamic is probably doing a number on your self-esteem, and making you believe you don’t deserve better. If that’s the case, it might be time to get outside support (from validating friends and family, or from a professional.)

Because you do deserve better. You deserve love.


When Your Partner is Emotionally Withholding

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2016). When Your Partner is Emotionally Withholding. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 21 Jul 2016
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