Is there someone in your life who treats you as if you aren’t a valuable person, who often ignores what you say and doesn’t engage with you in what seems like a normal manner? Or maybe someone close to you has given you the silent treatment or held back any emotional reaction or connection?
Keep reading; oftentimes, learning the words and labels that define our emotional abuse experiences is the empowerment we need to move forward and make a change.
If you have ever felt these things, you might be experiencing withholding, which is the most toxic emotional abuse tactic of all.
Traditionally, many think of withholding as denying sex or affection. This is one form of it, and a spouse or partner who refuses to show affection without offering an explanation is certainly withholding a valuable and needed aspect of a healthy union. (However, refraining from sex or affection because you do not feel comfortable with the act or do not trust the other person is actually a healthy form of boundary-setting, and it should not be confused with withholding, which is never done for a healthy reason).
But even more common and perhaps more damaging than refusing to engage in affection is when an individual tries to control or domineer over another person by refusing to authentically communicate.
There are myriad ways in which withholding can manifest. A few examples are:
- A co-worker who is collaborating with you on a project and refuses to share pertinent information from the client so that you appear incompetent to your boss.
- A spouse who doesn’t allow you to talk on the phone with your family or denies access to basic needs like driving privileges.
- A spouse who doesn’t acknowledge your words in a conversation. Maybe it’s at the dinner table with others present or in a group.
- A “friend” who minimizes your successes and gets angry and bullies if you do not tend to their every need and whim.
Similar to gaslighting, withholding makes the victim feel as if they are isolated, ignored or do not have control over their own lives. One of the reasons it’s so damaging is because the victim cannot do anything to stop it; their only hope for relief is to leave the situation or rid themselves of the abuser.
To learn more about sorting through the challenges of withholding and other relationship conflicts, check out MEND’s workshop “Finding Clarity and Healing in Difficult, Confusing, Stressful or Abusive Relationships.”
You cannot force authenticity out of someone; that’s a personal choice. To a victim who feels trapped in a circumstance or relationship with someone who withholds, every instance of abuse sends the message, “You don’t deserve to be treated well.”
This is false. You don’t deserve days of silent treatment. You don’t deserve to be yelled at for exercising freedom. You don’t deserve to have your schedule and privileges regimented like a parent does for a child.
If any of these behaviors sound familiar to you, we encourage you to remove yourself from the person or relationship inflicting withholding sooner rather than later. It’s not important if other people say you’re overreacting, because they don’t understand what you’re enduring unless they’ve been in your position. It’s not important if your abuser says that you aren’t allowed to leave or don’t deserve happiness, because you do deserve it and can have it.
What’s important is that you seek healing from emotional abuse. Talk to a counselor or trusted friend if you aren’t sure where to start. If you are still not sure if you should stay or go, remember that sometimes separation can help you gain clarity.
Also, if you are a friend, counselor or trusted advisor who knows someone experiencing withholding, know that you need to be careful how you respond to the victim. Make sure you are giving them a safe space to share and offer support. If you need help knowing what to say or do, we can help. We are rooting for you.