During the four decades counseling intimate partners, I have witnessed many of them in the midst of conflict. In most of those arguments, disputes, one partner typically wins and the other is defeated If that power imbalance becomes a pattern, the relationship will eventually be in peril.
One of the most common and destructive of these conflict patterns happens between one partner who withholds and the other who concedes. “Withholders” keep their thoughts and feelings hidden during a conflict, while “conceders” too quickly reveal them.
When these two conflict styles interact, the withholders usually win. Holding their internal experiences close to the vest, they are able to expose the other partner’s internal experiences without reciprocating. That gives them both the advantage in the argument and the power to resolve the conflict in their own favor.
On the other end of these withholders, their partners typically become uncertain, not knowing what is going on or what to expect. To force the situation to resolve their anxiety, they often reveal their internal thoughts and feelings too soon, playing into the hands of their silent partners.
It might sound as if all withholders are self-serving people who only strive for their own gains at their partner’s expense, but that is rarely the case in a committed relationship. Some withholders do fight to win no matter what, but, fortunately they are in the minority. Similarly, most conceding partners are neither passive nor impotent individuals, with legitimate reasons for freely exposing their thoughts and feelings during a conflict.
Unfortunately, these kinds of repeated interaction patterns take their toll over time. Too often, the withholder lives in a lonely internal world, never feeling deeply known or understood. His or her partner, offering too much information too soon, doesn’t get the chance to explore deeper thoughts or motivations. If relationship partners continue to argue in this way, they are likely to lose the deeper emotional connection that sustained intimacy requires.
To change this potentially destructive conflict pattern, both partners must have the courage to identify which role they play and what drives them to do so. This can only be accomplished if they refrain from blaming one another and commit together to changing their pattern.
Though there can be many different “drivers” that motivate either role, the following six are the most common.
The Withholding Partner
1. The Strategist
Some people feel they have to be strategic everywhere in their lives to physically or emotionally survive. They have learned to become that way in their childhoods to make certain they had the early advantage in any conflicts.
Though their skills are admired in many situations where others depend on them to know more than they reveal, they do not bode well in intimate relationships. The partners who use these strategic skills in intimate relationships may unwittingly see their partners as similar targets to those in the outside world. Having practiced that strategic withholding for so long, they end up alone and lonely. The more their partners try to get behind their masks, the more the withholder feels cornered and becomes even more hidden.
2. The Wounded Warrior
If childhood trauma is the driving force behind withholding, the partners who have been damaged by those experiences may have ample reasons to fear the vulnerability that comes with exposure. It is highly likely that they were children on the other end of people who used their openness against them.
Wounded warriors often come across as stoic and armored in conflict. They are often perceived by the other partner as cold and uncaring, causing insecurity and uncertainty. Though they are not necessarily intending to pressure their partners to disclose first, their silence and seemingly unassailable stances too often have that effect.
Some people become quiet and withdrawn because they cannot handle conflicts of any kind. As soon as the drama of an intense dispute begins, they shut down and pull away. Their partners, feeling excluded, tend to push harder for connection or resolution, often making things worse.
Too often, the partner being pushed and pressed to come forth will eventually explode. When that happens, the reaching-out partner pulls back and disconnects, misunderstanding the eruption as underlying anger rather than a response to internal fear.
4. Needing to Win
Some people withhold their thoughts and feelings from their partners because they thrive in battle. If the other partner doesn’t mind that sparring game and doesn’t experience malicious intent or discomfort on the part of that partner, he or she may willingly participate in the process.
Unfortunately, that is rarely true. If those partners who like to fight are on the other end of a concede, the unintended effect can be dire. That defeated partner may end up humiliated and embarrassed when they do not have the same thirst for battle.
5. Conflict-Ready Defenders
There are times when withholding partners actually feel their best defense when threated is staying hidden. They are ready-prepared to defend, excuse, justify, or explain away whatever their position is in the dispute if necessary, but they would rather not have to use those responses. Silence affords them that option.
People who internally live in that hyper-vigilant mode may stay silent until they know exactly what to expect. Once their partner appears to be ready to attack, they are prepared to counter-attack. As the other partner continually tries to get them to reveal how they feel, they are internally forming their case to invalidate whatever comes.
6. Flight or Freeze Responders
There are people who, under perceived attack, rapidly retreat into a state of immobilization. From the outside they may appear to be hiding something or trying to force the other partner to reveal, confess, or plead for connection. Internally, they are frozen and unable to respond.
They may use physical gestures of pre-defeat or attempt in other non-verbal ways to push that partner away, but, inside, they are truly unable to share what they are feeling for fear of being annihilated.
The Partners Who Give In
1. Harmony Seekers
When faced with withholding partners, many people cannot bear the tension and disharmony of trying to interact with someone who hides from them. If unable to get their partners to open up and share what they are thinking, these people often will try anything to break the tension in order to recreate harmony as quickly as possible.
If their partners continue to be withdrawn, unavailable, or unwilling to participate in the interaction, people who cannot bear disharmony feel desperate to make the situation better at any cost. The price they pay can sometimes be their own self-respect or giving up their own thoughts about the matter at hand.
2. Fears of Abandonment
There are people who are so frightened of the loss of a relationship, that they will reveal whatever the other partner seems to want to know, even if they might expose too much vulnerability in the process. Their behavior has only one goal, and that is to keep the other partner from pulling away.
When they feel threatened in a conflict, they will do anything they can to appease the other partner. When that other partner is hiding thoughts or feelings, the partner fearing abandonment becomes anxious and insecure, not knowing what to expect. Conceding is a sacrificial offer to regain a sense of certainty.
3. Pre-Defeated Sacrificers
If people have, as children, consistently seen disputes between their parents where one always wins by silence and withholding, they may have internalized a pre-defeated stance the moment they feel the other partner behaves as that out-to-win parent.
If they enter any dispute with a pre-defeat, they will do anything they can to get the pain over as quickly as possible, often willing to concede any of their own needs to do so. They cannot bear not knowing what to expect that the other partner is going to say or do. When faced with a withholding or hiding partner, they don’t feel any option other than to get the situation over with as soon as possible at any cost.
Sadly, there are people who feel more noble when they concede in a conflict. They see challenging their partners thoughts, feelings, or behaviors as undignified or without honor. Letting their partners define and control the interaction is somehow the righteous thing to do. They truly feel uncomfortable if they win an argument and prefer to tend their own wounds rather than ever harm another.
Interestingly enough, martyrs may end up winning the power they don’t aspire to. If the partner on the other end is using withholding to keep on top of the dispute, facing a self-sacrificing partner may disable that strategy because it doesn’t work the way it was intended.
5. Avoiding Expected Loss
Sometimes when partners become silent and hide their thoughts and feelings, they are certain that, once shared, they will lose the fight anyway. They feel powerless in the relationship before a conflict even starts and will feign agreement rather than face loss.
These people tend to be careful and unwilling to take risks in all of their relationships and do not challenge situations they believe can only lead to more loss. They can sometimes come across as very compatible or innately convivial, but it may just be a successful cover to what they truly feel inside.
6. Fear of Escalation
If people are in a relationship with partners who will not reveal their thoughts, feelings, or conflict strategy, they may fear that any challenge might lead to greater drama and potential harm. If they’ve grown up watching a silent person burst into anger seemingly out of nowhere, their automatic response is to neuter that potential explosion before it happens.
Many times, silent, withholding partners have no intent or need to threaten or harm the other, nor do they even realize the other partners are conceding in fantasy fear. They instead assume that the other partner is fine with what they want to happen.
* * * * *
The relationship dances that occur between all possible combinations of these two types of responses can become very complicated, particularly because there can be more than one motive for silence, and more than one motive for conceding too quickly.
What is important is that these repeated patterns never bode well for an intimate relationship. As long as one partner is able to stay hidden while the other reveals and concedes, there can never be the authentic, open sharing that exists in all mutually fair interchanges.
Withholding partners, whatever their reasons for hiding their thoughts and feelings, must be willing to open up their hidden world to their partners. And those who too easily concede must value their own internal world by protecting it until they are certain it is right to let it be known. That takes the willingness for both partners to choose honesty and openness no matter what the outcome.
Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you’ll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded “honeymoon is over” phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring. www.heroiclove.com