Reasons Men Withdraw in a Relationship

by Stacey Elkins

There’s a serious issue that you want to discuss with your male partner, but rather than talk, he has withdrawn from you. The more you push him to talk, the more he withdraws from you. Fortunately, understanding the reasons men withdraw in a relationship can help you realize that the problem isn’t with you.

Response to Stress

A study conducted by Mara Mather et al., compared how stress affects the brains of men versus the brains of women when viewing facial expressions. Utilizing functional magnetic resonance imaging, the study reported in the Journal, NeuroReport, "Sex Differences in How Stress Affects Brain Activity During Face Viewing," shows that a man's brain responds to acute stress differently from a woman’s brain. Acute stress diminishes a man's response to another person's facial expressions. During the study, men viewing angry facial expressions displayed diminished activity in the areas of the brain that interpret and understand another person's emotions. This lack of recognition of facial emotions also means a lack of response to those same facial emotions. The study also finds that a man under stress tends to socially withdraw from others. For example, if you get angry with your male counterpart and accuse him of flirting with someone else, the stress can make it difficult for him to read your facial expressions and cause him to withdraw from you and the situation.

Genetic vs. Learned Response

Some people believe that a man's withdrawal is a learned response, while others believe it is a genetic response. One school of thought is that society has taught a man that he needs to address his problems and emotions on his own. Therefore, when a man feels angry, upset, guilty or fearful, he withdraws to deal with his emotions. A woman, on the other hand, generally will make an effort to reach out to discuss her partner's feelings and issues. However, her attempts to reach out to him will feel like an attack to him, leading him to further withdraw, says Debi Smith, a licensed psychologist and author of "Why Do Men Stonewall? Maybe It's Just the Man Cave" on the website, Understanding Men. However, according to Barton Goldsmith, a psychologist cited in the article, "Cracking the Male Code of Silence" on TwoOfUs.org, men may withdraw because of a conflict of conversational style between men and women. For instance, when a woman is upset, she tends to talk faster and interrupts her male counterpart while he is trying to formulate what he wants to say. This interruption can cause a man to withdraw. A man has a harder time verbally expressing his emotions, and when he is cut off, it can be very difficult for him to resume the conversation, says Goldsmith.

He Feels Shame

Feelings of shame and inadequacy because of a conflict can lead a man to withdraw from his significant other. A man is programmed to be a protector and fighter, and if he can’t do these things, he likely feels shame and a sense of failure, causing him to withdraw, says Gerti Schoen, a psychotherapist and author of “Why You Can’t Get Your Husband to Talk” on the PsychCentral website. For instance, you may initiate a conversation with your partner because you feel distance due to a lack of communication. Upon confronting him, it produces a feeling of shame, and he withdraws from you. On a subconscious level, he feels as if he let you down by failing to protect you from your anger, says Schoen.

He Doesn't Like Fighting With You

A woman who isn't happy is a distressing situation for a lot of men, says Shawn Smith, a licensed psychologist and author of "Five Reasons Men Go Silent, and What to Do About It (Part One)" on the Psychology Today website. It can be incredibly frustrating for a man when there is repetitive fighting. For example, regularly arguing that he doesn't spend enough time with you may make him feel helpless and believe that your happiness is out of his control. Withdrawing and inadvertently making the situation worse can be easier to tolerate than talking and making the situation worse, says Smith. Also, according to Smith, a lot of men don't feel that they are adequately prepared to debate with a female counterpart. For example, if you're arguing about a particular situation, you might bring up a similar past situation. You may also appear more prepared for the argument or you might be quicker to respond with multiple points. A man might stop talking because he feels vulnerable to criticism, says Smith. A man might also withdraw because he's angry. It can take a man some time to realize what caused his anger and withdrawing seems the safest response until he's ready to talk, says Smith. For example, a man could be angry with you, but might not realize it until later, when a comment from you prompted more a more noticeable anger response.

About the Author

Stacey Elkins is a writer based in Chicago. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and a Masters in social work from the University of Illinois in Chicago, where she specialized in mental health.

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