Are You Withholding Love?
Many wounded people put walls around their vulnerability.
Posted Jan 27, 2016
Relationship seekers today are likely to go through a series of lovers before committing to a long-term relationship. Sadly, some don’t ever succeed in finding the kind of love they seek. If they keep trying but continue to fail, they become so disillusioned that they finally give up and stop risking their hearts.
Sequential set-backs leave emotional scars. They also can turn people into cynics and pessimists, certain that the promise of true love will only become a reality to very few. With each new failure, they become less willing to risk the next time around.
Most people who are cumulatively wounded in love eventually put walls around their vulnerability, believing that is the best way to avoid being hurt again. If they don’t let their partners know that they need or might depend on their love, they won’t risk anything they aren’t able to lose. Unfortunately, that “nothing ventured-nothing lost” philosophy also dooms whatever love might have flourished had it been given a chance.
There are two very common ways that people keep love at bay. They can either not ever let love in so that the walls around their hearts remain impenetrable, or they can withhold the love they do feel inside so that their partners cannot get access to it.
The latter are the love-withholders; those partners who are too afraid to let their partners know what they feel inside. They are concerned that, once their vulnerability is exposed, they might be helpless to protect themselves if their partners go away. They do not intend to deprive their partners, and are fully aware that their partners are putting more into the relationship than they are, yet can’t seem to feel safe doing anything else.
Over the last four decades of my therapeutic career, I have asked many of my patients why and how they became love-withholders. Here are some examples of how they feel inside.
“I was always a little shy as a kid. My mom lavished her affection on me, but it mostly made me feel uncomfortable. I tolerated it because I didn’t want to hurt her and I knew my dad didn’t show her the love she needed. When I got older, I pretty much stayed away from women who needed to be pursued. Maybe I worried about rejection, I don’t know. Or, maybe I just didn’t want to work that hard, but that’s probably an excuse. Women often told me I was a cool guy, not pushy like most of the others. They liked being in charge of the situation, I guess. They’d try anything to get me to tell them I cared. I think I just didn’t want them to know because maybe they’d want to control me or ask for more than I could give. I think, in retrospect, I’ve hurt a lot of my partners, but I never meant to.”
“I’ve always had deep feelings for my partners but I never wanted them to know. I was always afraid that they wouldn’t feel the same if they knew, or I’d scare them away. I daydreamed a lot as a young girl, creating romantic fantasies in my head. Somehow, the right guy would just know how I felt and be able to sort of bring me out. I could be very sexual and know how to be desirable but saying or showing my vulnerable emotions, just forget it. Men often told me I was mysterious. I guess I got to like that label. But, I’m so lonely inside for a relationship where I could be more authentic.”
“Women scare the hell out of me. You tell them where you’re vulnerable or needy, and they move right in. I’d just as soon keep my internal world private. That way you don’t risk anything you don’t want to lose. The men in my family have always been silent. We’d do anything for our women, but they don’t get to rule our hearts. Some people see me as a pushover. That’s probably true. I hate conflict so I just let my partners rule the roost, but only on the outside. They know that if they push, I’ll pull away. My girlfriend told me I’m like an armadillo. She’s probably right. Sometimes I see her crying and I feel like an idiot, but I just can’t tell her. It’s too hard.”
“I stay friends with a lot of my past partners. It’s so amazing. They all tell me the same thing. They never knew how much I cared about them until later, when we weren’t together anymore and I felt comfortable letting them know. It’s kind of sad that always happens but I don’t know how to change it. My therapist told me that it has to do with my relationship with my dad. I always wanted to tell him how much I loved him but he was so quiet and into himself, I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. I told him on his death bed that I loved him, and he turned his head away from me and started to cry. I wanted desperately to hug him, but I couldn’t, not after all those years of holding back.”
“I’m just not a mushy kind of guy. I come from a long line of military men. You get rewarded for being independent and tough. Women like my strength and I don’t ever complain. If I can’t get what I want in a relationship, I just end it. There’s no point in dragging a dead horse or crying over spilled milk. If a woman doesn’t understand how I show my caring for her, that’s her problem. I’m a good guy and I don’t need to prove it, just because a woman needs me to say the words she wants to hear.”
“I had to dote on my first boyfriend because he kept threatening to leave me if I didn’t do everything he wanted. I gave everything to that guy for five years and it was never enough. I finally decided that I’m only going to be with guys who make all the moves. They don’t need to know how I feel inside. That way they can’t take advantage. I especially don’t like being on the other end of the guys I attract because they are just too nice, and not very sexy. But it works better than telling someone how much you love and need them, and then have them reject you anyway. That would really hurt.”
How to Change Your Love-Withholding Behavior
The people who share these stories often worry that they may just be rationalizing. But, more often, they are not. They never mean to make the people they love feel rejected or unimportant. They sincerely want to change these patterns to avoid hurting them. Loving deeply and passionately on the inside, they are imprisoned by their inability to share the way they feel.
To help them, I’ve created seven guidelines to aid their journey. I ask them to answer the following questions:
- Where did your inability to share your loving and vulnerable feelings begin? If they started when you were young, you may have inadvertently repeated the only patterns you’ve learned and they have become internalized. You may now be repeating them without even realizing where they came from. Remember, the past does not have to predict the future if you are conscious and intentional about changing your intimate interactions.
- Pay attention to the type of person you find yourself in relationships with. If they tend to reinforce your love-withholding behavior by over-giving in return, you will eventually create a repeated pattern that will eventually hurt you both.
- When you meet someone who seems a hopeful match, tell that person upfront how you have protected your independence by waiting for the other to come forth, and how that eventually traps you into withholding when you never wanted to be that way. Share your desires to be open and your fears of being vulnerable. A potentially great partner for you will listen and understand.
- If your current partner starts giving more than you can return, ask them to wait for you to equalize the caring. It may take you a while to find a way to share your internal world, but you don’t want to be responsible for accruing an emotional debt in the meantime. Tell them that you are not criticizing their love of giving, but that it sets up an imbalance you find hard to change later.
- Work on sharing a little more than you normally would while telling your partner how vulnerable you feel as you are opening up. Ask him or her not to reciprocate immediately but to let a period of time elapse while you evaluate how you feel.
- Reach out when your partner isn’t giving. A little bit of genuine affection or sharing goes a long way when he or she isn’t expecting it.
- If you find in your commitment to change that your basic nature is more internal and independent and you are more comfortable in that behavior, tell your partner that doesn’t define how much you actually care. Ask him or her if there are other ways you can let them know that your love is real.
If you work on these seven behaviors, your withholding behavior will change for the better. You may also find that you attract a very different kind of partner and create a more successful relationship than you have in the past. In any case, you will find how comfortable it becomes to be clear and honest about who you are in an intimate relationship.