Every family is its own story, what role do you play in yours?

April 27, 2020 by Valerie Tate Leave a Comment (Edit)

Today, I will discuss Relationship No-No #2: Withdrawal. My goal, is to bring this defensive strategy to light, and offer alternative routes to strengthening versus destroying bonds.

why we are defensive

Everyone has defenses. They are part of how we cope with and adapt to stress as children. It is natural to have defensive impulses, yet acting them out in relationship causes hurt and damage to the connection. The first step in working with defensive acting out patterns is to recognize which ones you use most often in relationship.


It is a lot different to point out the defensive strategy in your partner, than to own it yourself. Pointing it out in your partner is cause for more defensiveness. I encourage couples to own their own defensive strategy first to themselves, and then to share it with their partner. This establishes trust in the relationship, in that it acknowledges a universal truth of relationships…it takes two to tango. For example, one person might tend to raise their voice to protect themselves while another withdraws. Both are defensive strategies that need to be brought to light.

Relationship No No #2: Withdrawal

Withdrawal is a defensive strategy that comes in many forms. Withdrawal can be emotional, such as hiding feelings or not showing emotional affect to your partner. Withdrawal can be physical by not being affectionate or sexual. Withdrawal can also be verbal, not speaking to your partner ie. silent treatment. Withdrawal is a quiet killer of relationships. Couples can go for years slowly withdrawing on many levels and eroding the connection. Withdrawal can also activate reactionary defenses in their partner as well, such as yelling or criticism. Often times, the person who withdraws doesn’t realize they are doing something that causes harm. It feels integrated in ones self, as if their snail shell becomes a feeling of home. For those who know this about themselves, this is their moment to choose a different pattern.

What’s the difference between withdrawal and taking space?

Withdrawal is covert and taking space is overt. Withdrawal doesn’t let the other person know where you are mentally, physically or emotionally. This will create a reaction within your partner because they can feel the separation. There may be an unconscious desire or familiar pattern to have your partner chase after you in the separation. This can create a ‘mind reading’ dynamic in the relationship that doesn’t end well. In adult relationships, each person needs to take responsibility for sharing where they are at. Mind reading is like telephone. The message comes through, yet distorted and missing subtleties. Taking space consciously is different. You tell your partner that you need a moment to yourself, an hour or a day to process thoughts and feelings. Your partner will know you care about working things through. For the person needing space, it creates a healthy boundary and safety.

Taking space is vital for the nervous system

Relationship triggers can activate the freeze, fight, flight response of the sympathetic nervous system. It may feel as if you’re experiencing a painful event “right now instead of in the past.” If you’ve ever felt frozen or as though you can’t think clearly when you’re triggered, your brain activity is impacted when something sensory reminds you of a painful experience of the past.

In this state, there is a reduction in activity in the ‘thinking’ parts of the brain, which help you with planning, organizing and impulse control. There is a lot of activity in the survival parts of the brain, including the centers for fear and aggression. You might feel fear, and as if there’s an emergency even if there isn’t. Your brain is scared, ready to defend itself, and not thinking as clearly as usual.

When either partner is triggered, it is not the right time to discuss, process or hear one another. It is prime time for defensive and acting out behaviors. Taking a pause or conscious space is VITAL in calming ones nervous system. The most productive dialogues happen with two calm nervous systems.

What if my partner wants to talk right away and I need space?

This happens a lot. One person wants to talk it out in the heat of the argument, while the other needs space. This difference comes from our family of origins’ style of conflict resolution. While I personally came from a work it out right away style of family, I have come to learn as an adult in my own relationships and as a therapist, that taking a pause is KEY in having the best outcome for a couples dialogue.

If withdrawal is used, this is not taking space. Consciously taking space is the way to go.

Shifting out of withdrawal benefits

Making the shift, you will give yourself the chance for boundaries. You will take the time and space you need to process, and be more able to re-connect with your partner. Relationship trust will improve, in the foundation and elasticity of your connection. You can consciously take space when you need it, in order to have a better dialogue. They can trust that taking space will increase the positive outcome.

Setting up a healthy dialogue

When you are feeling calm and centered, invite your partner to a healthy dialogue. Ask if they are ready and if not, ask them to let you know when they are ready. Healthy dialogue is only appropriate when both parties are ready to hear one another with calm, curiosity and attention.

The growth opportunity, is to bring awareness to the autonomic defense response and question whether it is helping or hurting the outcome we want. Stop the defense, provide self-care, and invite your partner to a new conversation when the time is right. Everyone wins.

Artwork by Clark Tate http://clarktate.com/

If you’re not on my calendar and want to be, I am offering tele-medicine Video sessions through state of the art HIPAA compliant software. I am also offering EMDR Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing on Video. Book an online session or FREE 15 minute consultation here: https://valtate.com/

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Valerie Tate

Reader Interactions


  1. Audrey Dory says

    Thank you for discussing an important topic in the relationship. Hopefully it will come in handy for those who want to move forward with a lasting relationship.

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