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 perhaps someone close to you has given you the silent treatment or held back any emotional reaction or connection?
If you can identify with any of these things, you might be experiencing withholding, which is the most toxic emotional abuse tactic of all. When an individual tries to manipulate and control another person by refusing to authentically communicate, it can be incredibly damaging.
A co-worker who is collaborating with you on a project refuses to share pertinent information from the client so that you appear incompetent to your boss.
A partner who doesn’t allow you to talk on the phone with your family or denies access to basic needs like driving privileges.
A boss who doesn’t acknowledge your words in a conversation or won’t respond to emails.
A “friend” who minimises your success, gets angry and bullies you when you do not tend to their every whim.
When you find yourself facing an emotional stonewall, you may automatically wonder what you did to deserve it. After all, withholding is a pretty cruel thing for anyone to do. Similar to gaslighting, withholding makes a person 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 you cannot do anything to stop it; your only hope for relief is to leave the situation. The person who doesn’t see your value is blocking you from the one who will.
“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
– Brené Brown
Humans are born wired for connection – it’s in our DNA, as strong as the need for food, water and warmth. Emotional withholding is the toughest tactic to deal with, when trying to create and maintain a healthy relationship, because it plays on our deepest fears—rejection, unworthiness, shame and guilt. We instantly worry that we’ve done something wrong or failed or worse… that there’s something wrong with us!
If any of these scenarios 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. Your abuser may try to convince you that you aren’t allowed to leave or don’t deserve happiness. You do deserve it and you can have it if you take your power back.
“Abuse grows from attitudes and values, not feelings. The roots are ownership, the trunk is entitlement, and the branches are control.”
― Lundy Bancroft
Out in the Cold
Emotional withholding is so painful because it is the absence of love, the absence of caring, compassion, communication, and connection. It’s like being locked in a meat freezer with the upside-down carcasses of cows and pigs, shivering, as the person you are trying to communicate with casually walks away from the giant steel door. You’re desperately lonely, even though the person who could comfort you by sharing even one kind word is right there, across the boardroom table, seated next to you at the dinner table, or in the same bed with you, back turned, deaf to your words, blind to your agony, and if you dare to reach out, scornful of your touch.
When you speak, you might as well be talking to the wall, because you’re not going to get an answer, except maybe, if you’re lucky, a dismissive shrug. And the more you talk about anything that matters to you, the more you try to assert that you matter, the more likely the person enacting the withholding is to belittle or ignore what you’re saying and leave you out in the cold.
“I am worth more than these excuses. I am worth more than this inconsistent, unhealthy, disappointing dynamic. I am worthy of finding someone that is never going to allow us to settle into this toxic, distorted version of love.”
― Liz Newman
7 Reasons Why People Emotionally Withhold
Emotional withholding is used by many people to some extent, but there are those who resort to it on a regular basis. Why do they do this? What makes them think that this is the right approach to take?
- They don’t know how to deal with conflict in a healthy way.
Some people choose to withhold as a means to deal with conflict because they don’t know what else to do. They never learned other, healthier methods of resolving the inevitable disagreements that occur when two people come together to form a relationship, so they take the easy way out: they give you the cold shoulder. It doesn’t really take much effort to withdraw their emotions because it puts all the emphasis on you to make amends. They just have to stick to their guns until you make the first moves of reconciliation.
- They refuse to take responsibility for their actions and shortcomings.
It takes courage to admit to yourself that you did something wrong. It takes much more courage to admit that to someone else. Perhaps the person’s ego is so over-inflated that they do not have the humility necessary to own their mistakes or shortcomings. They might wish to appear as perfect or “right” in every situation, and to maintain this appearance, they will not entertain the idea that they were in the wrong. It stands to reason, then, that it must be you who is at fault, and they won’t be nice to you until you admit this and apologise.
- They learned this behaviour from their parents.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to grow up with parents who have healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with the inevitable challenges that children pose. Some parents resort to tactics such as emotional withholding in order to discipline their children or manipulate them into acting in a certain way. Those children then grow up thinking that this is an appropriate way to deal with people. They repeat the negative pattern.
“Fire False Friends as early as possible. Do it before they dig out the dream seeds you’ve planted! The earlier, the better; the quicker, the safer!”
― Israelmore Ayivor
- It has worked for them in the past.
Regardless of where this approach to conflict came from, if it has worked for them in the past, they are more likely to adopt it again later. Do what works, right? Of course, they can only see the effectiveness of emotional withholding from a selfish perspective within the narrow context of the immediate situation. They neglect to understand the wider effect it has on their relationships. They may use this tactic in relationship after relationship, not even realising that it drives other people away. They may even wonder why people always leave them?
- They feel a need to control everything.
Emotional withholding is a form of control. It says to the other person: “I have decided that you have wronged me, and I’m not going to show my love for you until you have apologised or made it up to me.” This puts the entire emphasis on you to take the appropriate action which is their way to control you.
- They want to punish you.
Whilst emotional withholding is often used as a way for a person to get what they want, it can also be used as a weapon. If the person feels attacked or offended by something you have said or done, they may cut off all affection/communication toward you in order to make you suffer. In their mind, this should make you regret your actions and behave differently in the future. This is similar to a choke chain or electric shock collar to correct unwanted behaviour in a dog.
- They have a personality disorder.
A person’s past – particularly their childhood – can lead to the development of a variety of personality disorders. Some of these make the use of emotional withholding far more likely. Narcissists and those with Borderline Personality Disorder, for instance, have lower levels of empathy, and so they are more capable of behaviour that causes hurt or distress in others.
“Staying in an unhealthy relationship that robs you of peace of mind, is not being loyal. It is choosing to hurt yourself mentally, emotionally and sometimes, physically.”
― Kemi Sogunle
What is a Toxic Relationship?
Being in a toxic relationship can feel like a living hell. You don’t know if you’re the crazy one or if they are. Often you don’t know what to do, who to turn to, or what to make of your situation. It can be very confusing. A toxic relationship is a relationship that is mentally, emotionally or spiritually damaging. Toxic relationships are defined by the qualities of fear, submission/domination (or inequality), and deception.
A toxic relationship occurs when one or both people are prioritising what they can get out of the relationship over the three core components of a healthy relationship: respect, trust, and affection.
If you prioritise what you get out of a relationship over the respect you’re given, you’ll tolerate being treated like a doormat.
If you prioritise what you can get over trust in the relationship, you’ll tolerate lying and cheating.
If you prioritise what you can get over affection in the relationship, you’ll tolerate a cold and distant existence between you.
Toxic relationships are often characterised by repeated, mutually destructive negative repetitive patterns of relating. These patterns can involve jealousy, possessiveness, dominance, manipulation, desperation, selfishness or rejection. The relationship in question doesn’t necessarily have to be a romantic one either. It could be with a co-worker, friend, or neighbour. The important thing to remember is that you are supposed to learn something about yourself from the painful experience.
“It wasn’t good. It was good in the beginning and I held on to that.”
― Dominic Riccitello
One common theme in a toxic relationship involves the intense draw toward each other, despite the pain they both cause one another. A ‘fantasy bond’ (illusion of connection) is created between two people that helps alleviate their individual fears by forging a false sense of connection. A fantasy bond is toxic to a relationship because it replaces real feelings of love and support with a desire to fuse identities and operate as a unit. As the couple relates as a “we” instead of a “you” and “me,” their relationship becomes more about form (based on appearances and roles) than substance (based on genuine feeling and authenticity).
There are specific behaviours that have a toxic effect on relationships:
- Being selfish or demanding, behaving as if you have power over your partner.
- Acting out the role of parent or child, by showing submission or dominance.
- Using emotional coercion or manipulation to get what you want.
- Denying your own (or your partner’s) separateness or individuality, and instead seeking a merged identity.
- Confusing real love with desperation or emotional hunger.
- Refusing to act in kind ways with actions that your partner would perceive as loving.
We tolerate toxic relationships for a variety of reasons. Often is a direct reflection of our low self-worth. Perhaps we’re not self-aware enough to even realise what’s going on. Perhaps we are emotionally immature and don’t have a good handle on our emotions. Unfortunately, all this does is create a superficial, psychologically unhealthy, and potentially abusive relationship.
“Mind Games: constantly bashing a brick wall with your head because you are giving all you’ve got and hardly receiving anything back (…) a series of deliberate actions or responses planned for psychological effects on you, typically for amusement or competitive advantage.”
― Efrat Cybulkiewicz
Relationships are important, and a toxic relationship can cost you dearly in time and energy that you could be putting to much better use. Stay true to yourself and your values, listen to your heart, and be strong if you need to extricate yourself from a toxic relationship. When you find yourself in a toxic relationship or suspect that you might be in one, it is time to understand it better – then fix it or leave.
“Like arsenic, toxic people will slowly kill you. They kill your positive spirit and play with your mind and emotions. The only cure is to let them go.”
— Dennisse Lisseth
15 Warning Signs You're in A Toxic Relationship
When a relationship becomes toxic, every interaction in the relationship can feel wrong or out of place, brimming with negative energy that makes both partners uncomfortable, angry, and disappointed. When a person is trapped in a toxic relationship, they can find it difficult if not impossible to pry themselves out without significant effort.
- Negative Repetitive Patterns
If you find you are both repeating the same arguments over and over again, this is a huge red flag. When you feel so enchanted by your partnership that you can’t leave their side, it’s time to get suspicious. This is especially true if you are experiencing a lot of negative emotions from your time together, yet, you feel like you can’t leave. Similar to alcoholism, you know that something is bad for you yet you can’t help but repeat the same mistakes over and over. If you’re with someone who puts you down, only leaving you to feel lost without them, you are in a toxic relationship. These repeated patterns mean that you have not learned the lesson that is being shown to you. The opportunity for personal growth is to break the pattern and learn from what caused you to go back and repeat the lesson over and over and over again.
In a toxic relationship, your partner gets used to you putting them first and this leads to selfish tendencies. They end up taking you for granted and walking all over you. They become keen to the fact that you feel you can’t live without them and they know they can get away with manipulating you.
- Control, Jealousy & the Blame Game
In toxic relationships, partners easily become controlling and obsessive about your whereabouts. Toxic relationships work both ways and they are just as addicted to you as you are to them. They may get nervous if they feel you are venturing too far away or becoming interested in other things. They want to stay at the centre of your attention and they will usually go out of their way to achieve this. Jealousy is fear, fear of loss. If you don’t have trust in a relationship, you literally have nothing worth holding on to. Being unable to control what may or may not happen to you in a relationship can be scary. Your partner could leave you for someone else. They might not need you anymore. These feelings of fear restrict your ability to fully love and support the person that you are with. Release the need to control your partner and let them be the free soul that they are. Your fear either has a rational basis or it does not. By letting go of jealousy, you will learn which one it is.
- Criticism and Contempt
No one is perfect, and the closer you become with someone, the more conspicuous their imperfections will become. There is nothing wrong with constructive criticism that comes from a positive place. When criticism is used as a channel to express contempt or disdain for someone else, it is malicious and damaging because it can make the other person feel unvalued and worthless. It’s very difficult for a relationship to come back from that.
- Hot and Cold
Toxic relationships constantly run hot and cold. It seems as if your living in one big bipolar mess. One day you two are so nice to each other, then you are shouting at each other over unimportant arguments the next. It seems as though you can never stay happy or calm for a long period of time. A repeated pattern of berating, shaming, criticising, threatening, and playing ‘mind games’ are all ‘body blows’ to your emotional health. Things escalate quickly because the pain is so close to the surface.
- You Put Them on a Pedestal
Even though they drive you crazy, you can’t admit it to yourself out loud. It’s hard to see all the flaws that your friends and family point out in your toxic relationship. You will likely choose to overlook the red flags and instead, put them on a pedestal. This becomes more and more detrimental because you put their needs above your own and it’s most likely they won’t even acknowledge or appreciate this.
- Arguing without Communicating
We all know that yelling over each other won’t get you anywhere. It’s natural to get upset and need to state your case when you feel hurt or wronged in some way, but if there’s no exchange of communication, and neither party conveys why they feel the way they do, nothing will be solved.
- Negative Energy
Feeling uncomfortable or tense around someone is your body reacting to the negative energy surrounding the two of you. Your body will always tell you. Negativity can drain you mentally, physically and emotionally. Your body’s messages will get louder and louder and louder until you listen.
- Avoiding Each Other
At the bare minimum, you should be able to tolerate their presence. If you can’t even bring yourself to be around them anymore, you should really just call it quits.
- You’re not Yourself
Change will happen regardless. When you’re in a healthy relationship, even if you both change, you will still be headed in the same direction. If your relationship changes you, it should only make you a better version of yourself. If you feel like you’re losing yourself or you don’t recognise who you are anymore, that’s a red flag: it’s not healthy.
- Feeling like There’s No Point
There is a difference between staying in a relationship because you’re comfortable and staying because you truly want to be there. If you feel like your relationship isn’t going anywhere, why waste the time? That’s time you will look back on with regret, and you’ll never ever get back.
- You Only think About Making them Happy
When we care about people, we want them to be happy. Healthy relationships require equal reciprocity and your happiness should mean be just as important to them and vice versa. If you’re constantly trying to make them happy, and you’re not getting anything in return, then that’s a red flag. Happiness should be mutual.
- You Can’t Seem to do Anything Right
Once you get to the point where you feel like everything you do upsets or annoys them, and you’re tiptoeing around in your own relationship, you need to understand that you aren’t the problem. There is something that the other person is unhappy about and they are not communicating that to you. Until they are honest and upfront with you, nothing you do will seem to be enough.
- Growth and Change are Seen as Negatives
See your partnership now and extend it out to 5 years time. How would you feel about running this same cycle for another five years? Relationships have to evolve in order to last. If you feel stuck, tied down, held back or weighed down by your partnership, that is a sure sign you need to get out. Memories of the honeymoon phase are not enough to sustain you. You can’t live in the past. Relationships develop, and not always for the better. Fantasising about what used to be is not living in reality.
- There are Just as Many Lows as Highs
No relationship is perfect and you will always have both highs and lows. It’s when the lows equal or outweigh the highs that you need to re-evaluate things. Healthy relationships reinforce each other’s strengths and bring out the best in you. If you feel as though you are intensely infatuated with someone who brings out the worst in you, you are in a toxic co-dependent relationship where you are reinforcing each other’s weaknesses. As hard as it is, you MUST let go. Even though emotional abuse leaves no physical marks on your body, your mental and emotional wellbeing are damaged, and these injuries can impact your life in every conceivable way. What it really comes down to is happiness. You don’t have to justify why you aren’t happy anymore. It isn’t realistic to expect to be happy in every moment of every relationship, but as a whole, your relationships should make you happier. They should make you feel supported and capable of doing whatever it is you want to do. If you are not happy, is it really worth it?
There’s nothing wrong with admitting a relationship has run its course. Even if you can’t conceptualise your life without that person, with time and distance, you’ll be able to see the relationship for what it was: toxic as hell.
“There’s nothing like emotional bondage to create the conditions for Ruinous Empathy.”
― Kim Malone Scott
So What Can You Do?
It may take some time to realise someone is emotionally manipulating you. The signs are subtle, and they often evolve over time. If you have any suspicion you are being treated in this way, trust your intuition. Make no mistake, this is psychological abuse. If you do not take action, it will only get worse. Do not try to beat them. Two people playing this game is lose/lose. Instead, learn to recognise the strategies so you can properly prepare your responses. Set boundaries. When an abusive, manipulative person realises they’re losing control, their tactics may grow more desperate. This is the time for you to make some difficult decisions.
If you don’t have to be near that person, consider cutting them out of your life entirely. When you find yourself in a toxic relationship, you can either learn, grow, and expand or obsess, stagnate, and break apart. All choice lies with you.
“Your level of ignorance is based on what you believe you know and your ego.”
― Kemi Sogunle
8 Steps to Escape Toxic Relationships
Psychological abuse doesn’t leave bruises or cuts, but its wounds run much deeper – including many people believing they may never escape. Recovery from any form of abuse can be a difficult journey. This is especially true when the mistreatment doesn’t leave any physical evidence of harm. The cryptic nature of psychological abuse leaves people unable to even trust their own judgements. It involves repetitious mind games that are played on purpose. If you have found yourself on the receiving end of psychological abuse, it is important to know that recovery is possible.
1. The Rollercoaster
Being in a toxic relationship is a lot like being on a rollercoaster. There are wonderful, exhilarating highs, and then scary, sudden drops where you lose your breath and wait in anticipation for the highs to return. Up and down, twist and turn, back and forth. Being an unwilling participant of an emotional rollercoaster is not fun. You have no idea when the relationship will, without warning, turn sour again.
The next time this happens, find yourself a picture of a large rollercoaster that has high peaks, steep declines and many twists and turns. Print out the picture and write the name of your psychological abuser at the top of the page. Sit back and reflect on the fact that this relationship only follows this pattern of an ever-changing, twisting, environment over and over and over and over and over again.
“Mind games contain only inner demons.”
― Fennel Hudson
- Party of One
You have most likely witnessed a side of the abuser that no one else has seen, and people find it hard to believe you when you try to explain it. Psychological abusers often have a great public image, and can even be leaders within the community. They sometimes seek out high-profile employment, which works as an excellent mask to hide their abusive side even further. In order to heal, you need to remind yourself that even if no one ever sees what was done to you, it still occurred and you know the truth. And you know who else knows the truth? The abuser. They are keenly aware of the games they play with you, and all of the people they abused before you.
Take comfort in knowing that even though other people don’t necessarily see the abuse as clearly as you do, the abuser knows that you’ve seen the ugliest parts of them. A very helpful grounding exercise is to write down 5-10 moments in the relationship that help you recall the toxicity in each experience. There’s no need to go into great detail on this list, just enough to remind yourself of exactly what you have dealt with in the relationship. How is a list useful? When you begin to doubt yourself, going back to the list will help you re-centre and you will probably find yourself saying “that’s right, I forgot about that!” You must not forget or you will lose sight of the truth and opportunity for healing.
“If you alter your behaviour because you are frightened of how your partner will react, you are being abused.”
― Sandra Horley
- A Raindrop in a Thunderstorm
One of the most difficult aspects of psychological abuse is that the abuser tries to get you to look at only one abusive episode at a time. This is a calculated tactic because if you zero in on one moment at a time, you don’t realise how deep the abuse goes in the full picture. This can mean you struggle with the temptation to make excuses for the abuser when they try to come back. Step back and see the “storm” for exactly what it is. This can bring the clarity needed to begin the recovery process.
“With emotional abuse, the insults, insinuations, criticism, and accusations slowly eat away at the victim’s self-esteem until he or she is incapable of judging a situation realistically. He or she may begin to believe that there is something wrong with them or even fear they are losing their mind. They have become so beaten down emotionally that they blame themselves for the abuse.”
― Beverly Engel
- Abusers don’t abuse every day
Abusers have good moments and days when they do the right thing. When this happens, do not fall into fantasy. One good day does not wipe their slate clean of all the other terrible days. In a healthy relationship, almost every day is a good day! If you are going to heal from the unhealthy trauma-bonding that happens in a toxic relationship, knowing that good days do exist is vitally important. Otherwise, you will be confused by the scarce happy times and be tempted into self-deception by only focusing on the days you enjoy.
Remind yourself that the toxic person will only stay enjoyable for short periods of time. Some abusers have a pattern of behaviour that can be identified. They may be able to hold it together for only a few days or weeks at a time. The abuser becomes less attractive when you can predict the length of the good days or weeks, and then watch the abusive behaviour return again. Try journaling about the cycle the abuse and good days seem to follow. You will no doubt begin to see a pattern emerge. It always does.
“Learn Boundaries – Define them, determine penalties, communicate them, honor yourself by enforcing them. Heal the PTSD and live the life you deserve. Be a SurThriver.”
― Tracy A Malone
People often fall into the trap of believing this behaviour is all the abuser has ever known. Pity clouds judgement and prevents you from setting boundaries so you can heal. Psychological abusers know the harm they inflict and do so because it is simply entertaining for them. Shocking, but true. Abusers choose to systematically deconstruct the self-esteem of another individual, knowing precisely the harm they are causing – out of free-will.
Wondering if the person you know behaves out of their free-will or their own wounds? Think about how they apologise and any lasting changed behaviour you may have seen. Free-will abusers give horrible apologies and, most times, they are not willing to apologise at all. Toxic people tend to have humungous egos and rarely make lasting changes. The key word here is ‘lasting’. They may shape up and behave better for short spurts, but that’s just until the dust settles in the relationship so they can then return to their abusive baseline. Free-will abusers rarely stick with individual counselling. They might go for a couple of sessions to complain about you and how they are the actual victim, but in the end are not capable of sustained self-reflection.
A wounded abuser is authentically remorseful for their actions, apologises specifically for the wrongs they have committed and will stay in counselling as long as it takes to unlearn their abusive responses. Once a victim is able to come to terms with the truth that psychological abuse is done out of free-will, the next step is to determine what boundaries need to be put in place.
“About the expression “Hurt people, hurt people”.. Hurt people are not going to stop HURTING other people until they receive the memo that it is WRONG, (or if there are actual consequences for their behaviour.) Feeling sorry for them and understanding where they ‘came from’ is not helping to stop the cycle of abuse.”
― Darlene Ouimet
- A Beautiful Collage
If you want to move forward and heal, you must begin to value the positive aspects of your life more than the toxic connection with the abuser. When you truly begin to find worth in the time you have in each day, your energy levels, emotional stability, financial security and physical health, the trauma bonding between you and the abuser begins to unravel. Creating a picture collage is a wonderful way to remind yourself of what you could lose by continuing to be in that toxic relationship. The pictures may include personal goals you know will not be achieved or aspects of life that may be lost if you stay connected to this poisonous person. A visual reminder of what must be protected often serves as a positive focus point when healing.
“A victorious person continues to learn in all given circumstances.”
― Patricia Dsouza
- Would I treat someone the same way?
Always remind yourself that the behaviours you’ve witnessed aren’t your fault. Emotional abuse is confusing and can cause you to misinterpret the actions of the abuser. One very helpful way to recognise the damage being done is to ask yourself if you would say the things to someone else. Take the time to reflect on how you have been treated and ask the hard question of whether you can justify the treatment you have received, even though you wouldn’t treat other people the same way.
“If someone is inconsiderate or rude to you, risk telling them how it made you feel or that you didn’t appreciate being treated that way. If you tend to talk yourself out of anger by telling yourself that you don’t want to make waves, try telling yourself instead that it is okay to make waves sometimes and risk letting people know how you really feel.”
― Beverly Engel
- What will I really miss?
There will always be fleeting moments where you felt loved and connected. You probably felt hopeful that the relationship could perhaps one day be healthier. Why is this important? Without addressing what will be missed by leaving the relationship, you cannot fully heal from the experience. Yes, of course there were good moments. However, those moments never lasted and were not sustainable as the norm in the relationship. Those times were like bubbles that would gently float in the air, only to be abruptly popped. Recognising the happier times and pausing to feel the loss of them will help you let go and fully move forward out of the toxic relationship.
“In a healthy relationship, vulnerability is wonderful. It leads to increased intimacy and closer bonds. When a healthy person realizes that he or she hurt you, they feel remorse and they make amends. It’s safe to be honest. In an abusive system, vulnerability is dangerous. It’s considered a weakness, which acts as an invitation for more mistreatment. Abusive people feel a surge of power when they discover a weakness. They exploit it, using it to gain more power. Crying or complaining confirms that they’ve poked you in the right spot.”
― Christina Enevoldsen
Get off Your Knees
The more we give our power over to others, by not standing up to those who attempt to treat us as less than equal, the more they will continue to behave as if we are subservient. Once a pattern is set it is much harder to change it, so do your best to speak up sooner rather than later should someone attempt to lord power over you today.
A tell-tale sign is needing to let off steam by ranting about someone – be they your boss, your neighbour or your partner. If you’re telling someone else how out of line they are, you can guarantee things will get worse until you find your voice. The victim mindset dilutes human potential. When you don’t accept personal responsibility for your circumstances, you greatly reduce your power to change them. You stop attracting certain people when you heal the parts of you that once needed them. So remember today, the power is within you and always has been. No one has power over you unless you allow it.
“I think this point is so important, I’m going to repeat it: You should never listen to criticism that is primarily intended to wound, even if it contains more than a grain of truth.”
― Robin Stern