Withholding In Relationships: An Essay

Lately I’ve been observing something around me in relationships that I want to put on paper to make sense of it to myself. I also talked to a lot of you on Instagram about this topic and as usual when you learn more about something, the more you realise how complicated something is.

Relationships are complicated, and the things people do are nuanced and complicated. There are no villains out in the world. Just people doing the best they can and using the strategies they are equipped to use, even though they suck. Just people who care more or less about you than you realised, creating skewed relationships and unmet expectations. It’s a big grey area.

But ya’ll can go with me on this journey as I try to make a little more sense on it.


So I was thinking about withholding for a while.

In my eyes withholding is the act of withdrawing your love and attention from another person or an interpersonal relationship after someone has said or done something you don’t like as a tool.

It is striking and you notice, because it is a departure in how somebody usually treats you or acts around you. It feels uncomfortable to you, the other party.

I’ve dubbed it withholding, because I think it’s also a term that gets used when it’s used as a tactic in neglectful or abusive relationships. But I don’t just see in dysfunctional romantic relationships; I see it around me all the time.


I have a friend who drops off the face off the earth whenever I say something to him he doesn’t want to hear. I’ve been in a few groups where one person just completely checks out whenever we talk about a sensitive topic, either offline or online, and only pops back up after enough time has gone by (or after severe cajoling on our parts.)

I know people who I cannot ask the questions I want to ask them as a friend. (Have you been hanging out with your ex? How is therapy going? Did you go to the doctor like you said you were going to do?). They ignore me, change the topic without answering my questions. And fine, I’m not entitled to your answers. But I ask because I care, and it hurts my feelings when people I care about ignore me or stop reaching out to me. Completely.

Outside of the scope of my own friendships, I’ve seen it and I’ve listened to your stories.

I know someone who is enveloped in a battle of wills over problems in a relationship, and that person is now threatening her to not show up for important life events. Someone else cannot be in a conflict with her mother, because if she does that her mother just disconnects and doesn’t stay in touch. Another example would be if your dad doesn’t wish you a happy birthday if he thinks you haven’t been a good daughter. You guys told me about friends who stop talking to you instead after a bad joke or a point of criticism.

That’s withholding too.

Withholding is when people either consciously or subconsciously take away the affection, interest and love they usually give another person. It happens when you don’t enable someone, when you’re honest, when you do something they don’t like, when you do something that threatens them in whatever type of way.

And it isn’t functional.

I’m not blameless

I should know, because I used to torture one of my best friends with this when I didn’t know how else to express myself. Withholding love and attention and affection was what I did to signal to her that I was hurt, without actually having to man up and fess up what was bothering me. I could be mean and distant, and if she didn’t call me on it, I could keep going until I felt better, and than I’d turn around and be my usual affectionate and loving self again. Until again, she’d do something I didn’t like but wasn’t strong enough to talk to her about, and I’d do the same thing all over again.

You guys were honest about your own withholding too.

But what is what, exactly?

Withholding is different from the act of actually withdrawing from people you no longer like and relationships that you no longer want. Of course you don’t have to stay friends with people who hurt your feelings, who bring you down or who put you down.

And there is also this big and confusing grey area where a friendship might have taken a hit and you’re not necessarily withholding with an agenda, but you’re just not as relaxed and affectionate as you used to be.

But if you love someone and you want to stay their friend, withholding is a tool you use to avoid actually talking about something and to make someone act they way you’d like them to; a temporary trick to make your friend perform more to your liking by not giving them something you know they want (and expect) from you.

I think it’s cruel. And somewhat cowardly. And reduces the people in your life to simple output machines. I didn’t like output X, so I’ll just let you sit there until I am over it or until you start delivering output I do like.

And that’s not what another person is. Your friends and loved ones are not required to just give you the output that you like. Chances are that not only does their output come from a genuine love and concern for you, but you need some of it in your life.

Over the past couple of years, a combination of physical training (kickboxing as well as strength training), therapy and learning to assert myself better, I’ve stopped equipping it as a tactic as much.

I don’t withhold because I’m pissed anymore, I try to communicate about the way I feel. However, of course I am not as engaged with people who have hurt my feelings or who I am not longer really in sync with. And sometimes I don’t see the point of communicating, so I withdraw for my own sake. But maybe that could be taken as withholding? Or when I think someone is being stupid and I just don’t want to reinforce their narrative or behaviour, and therefore I don’t engage. A close cousin to withholding, that last one, I think.

So where is the line here?

I don’t know, honestly.

I realise there are so many complexities and shades to a relationship in any shape or form, so something I view as withholding might just be something else entirely to someone else.

As I said in the beginning of the essay – I really haven’t figured this out. But I know I don’t withhold to signal my displeasure to others in order to get them to be nicer to me anymore, and I’m glad I kicked that habit.

If you can I recommend you do the same.

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  1. I have a friend who tells me a little bit of what’s going on and then says ‘No, no I don’t want to talk about it any more. I don’t want yo go there’. I find this infuriating and hurtful. Even when her poor little dog died she said ‘oh imagine, he lived 18 years and then came to a tragic end’, but she didn’t tell me what happened and left me wondering (was he hit by a car? Poisoned?)
    Why is she doing this?

  2. You sound like a great person to have as a friend. Self-reflective and aware of the nuances in relationships. The Internet has been quick to spread this concept of a “toxic friend.” It paints a person as “bad,” when the reality is that there are nuanced, subtle dynamics in relationships where each person’s behavior responds to the others’. We can all only hope to get into situations that are healthy for both parties and not label each other one way or another.