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The Effects of Withdrawal or Withholding Emotion on Your Couple Relationship

images-847Studies show that stuffing or denying emotions can be as harmful to a couple relationship as blasting one another in anger. Communication is a life tool that connects us to others, as well as our self. In the same way that we cannot not communicate, we cannot not relate. 

It’s not communication per se that is harmful or beneficial. It’s how we emotionally connect with self and other with the words we speak and our bodies, our eyes and stance, and voice in particular. 

The question is: Are we communicating in ways that restore our sense of safety and love connection in the presence of the other in certain situations — or are defensive strategies increasing the distance and sense of loneliness or anxiety each partner feels about their own effectiveness in restoring the sense of connection to the other they once had.

Many couples are surprised to find themselves in a therapist’s office. They thought it would never happen to them. They tried for years to “fix” the problem and one another. Some used to joke about people who go to counseling.

As studies of intimacy show, at least at the start of a relationship (which can last for years of decades), one partner is more likely to avoid discussions at the sign of any conflict, whereas the other is anxious about resolving a situation, and being treated as if their feelings and wishes matter.

Naturally the attempts of one to avoid, mask or shut down the other’s or own emotion not only utterly fail, they also inflame the intensity of the other to keep reaching for a closer connection.

Consciously our mind persuades us that it is possible to avoid, dismiss or numb emotions, and cultural messages especially to me portray this as strength, being in command, in control. Blocking upsetting emotions and feelings from being expressed may practical and beneficial in war condition, however, a couple relationship is not a battle, and conceiving it in competitive terms as a “battle” of who “wins” or “loses” is a guarantee that both will lose on the benefits of a vibrant couple relationship as a haven. Avoiding painful emotions appears to work, for a period. Before long, however, the part of the brain that runs the body, the subconscious mind, takes over and begins to conspire old and new ways of “acting out” these painful emotions.

When this happens, it’s usually not pretty. We act out our anger, fear or rage in ways that are harmful, often making problems worse. It’s not a good idea to leave the release of painful emotions to the subconscious. It’s a much better idea to live your life consciously aware of your feelings, willing to feel your feelings, and willing to put your feelings into words when possible and helpful to do so.

This is especially true in close relationships, where withholding emotions makes it more likely that one person’s negatively charged emotions will eventually ignite the other. Fear brews hurts and disappointment and can turn into rage and bitterness. Meanwhile, the effort and energy it takes is not only enormous, it is also wasted.

Denying our feelings creates a huge disconnect between you and your partner. It is a lost opportunity to connect. Painful emotions are vital teachers, action signals and important messages to us from our body.

In fact, your emotions are most important to you as they really tell you a lot about what is going on side you, more specifically, they let you know where you are in terms of where you want to be. They are vital opportunities for you to listen, understand, fully accept and connect lovingly, caringly with yourself.

Telling your partner, “I’m not angry!” or “I’m fine, don’t make a big deal of this” blocks you and your partner from enjoying one of the two most important ways you build healthy emotional intimacy in your relationships: you support one another through challenges and conflict with your presence. The other is just having fun, enjoying and laughing together!

This also confuses you and your partner. Your emotional sensors are telling you one thing, yet your partner is saying another. It merely adds to the tension overall. And, when we’re tense we’re de-centered, off balance in our giving and receiving. It is likely we get defensive.

And by the way, long before you tell your partner that you are not angry, your subconscious mind has already picked up and transmitted the information to your brain, even before you speak. Your logical brain takes about 600 milliseconds to react whereas the transmission of your emotion takes only 100 milliseconds. That means even before you determine how you’re going to respond, the muscles on your face and body have been expressing how you really feel for a whole 500 milliseconds!

Another reason you want to express rather than deny your emotions is that it builds trust between you. You and your partner feel emotionally safer because you feel comfortable being emotionally open with one another.

Otherwise a partner feels dismissed.

So what does this mean?

It’s important to note that the reason we deny emotions is because we don’t feel safe. It is the way we handled painful emotions as a child, and it worked then. We get defensive, protective out of habit. In adult relationship this merely keeps partners in survival mode in their relationship, gradually building distance between them.

And, one way to think about your emotions is in two categories of either love- or fear-based emotions. Emotions of compassion form the fibers that connect us in meaningful ways in our relationships. In contrast, emotions of fear, and related emotions of shame or guilt, tend to put distance between us — at the same time feeling our fears is useful because on the flip side of each fear is vital information of what each partner yearns. Our fears remind us to keep reaching to realize our core emotion-drives (needs) to matter (which are as real as our need for water, food and oxygen).

Truth be told, expressing your painful emotions and listening empathically to those painful emotions is a mutual process that, once couples take a chance and experience, find it surprisingly freeing and rewarding. At first, it’s quite challenging yet most all the couples I see tell me that it is no where as difficult as they had thought. At last, the discovery that they can be in charge of their joys and fears is liberating.

The Effects of Withdrawal or Withholding Emotion on Your Couple Relationship

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2014). The Effects of Withdrawal or Withholding Emotion on Your Couple Relationship. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 6, 2019, from


Last updated: 9 Mar 2014
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