I was at a lunch recently with some friends, where one guy ended up sharing about his dating life. First, he told us he’d never told his girlfriend of five years that he loved her. Then, he said point-blank, “I don’t really show my feelings in a relationship.” It was interesting that he made these comments not in a I’m-embarrassed-to-tell-you way but rather in a this-is-just-the-way-it-is way. When clients I work with say something like this, I always ask the following question: “Is this something you’re okay with or something you want to change?” Because this particular man wasn’t my client, I spared him the psychoanalysis. But the thoughts he shared are important because there are many other men who are just like him, withholding affection and feelings from their partner in a relationship.
Women are free to date whom they want, so why would some women put up with a man who is emotionally withholding? In many cases, women who are drawn to men like this had an unavailable man in their life early on (father, step-father), and they seek out unavailable or withholding men because this type of man is familiar and because this type of man reinforces what she already feels: that she isn’t really worthy of affection or consistent love. Think about the woman I talked about whose boyfriend didn’t say “I love you” for five years. Come to think of it, when he confided that he had never shared these words at lunch, he actually smiled. Psychologically, I imagine that this man treated women in this way as a defense. He feels powerful having the upper hand in his relationships and believes he will be less likely to get hurt if he doesn’t make himself vulnerable by developing strong feelings.
The “needy” woman
The man who spoke to us at lunch also shared another disturbing consequence of these unhealthy relationships in which a man is withholding. He talked about how his girlfriend was “needy” and how he found her neediness unattractive, causing him to leave her. So, to be clear, here’s the relationship profile: woman dates man for five years; man never says “I love you” and withholds feelings and affection; man disrespects and has contempt for woman; and man finally leaves woman. How sad for that poor woman! Without even knowing the woman’s name, I guarantee you that some other man in her past – probably a father figure – messed up her self-esteem. Some other man taught her that she should never expect much from a relationship, and that she ought to appreciate whatever morsels of love or affection she can get. The reason that woman stayed with that man for five years: she was settling for whatever morsels she could get. Plus, she was probably also living in a fantasy world in which she was hoping that he would one day change. (Let’s all vomit together now.)
Can the withholding man really change?
Reality check: a grown man who withholds affection and won’t make himself emotionally vulnerable is not going to change unless he has a major life crisis; works on his issues by reading, writing, and asking for help; or he gets months or even years of good psychotherapy. The poor woman who dated the man I had lunch with was waiting in vain – for years. Imagine how she must have felt after waiting for him to change for so many years and then later being dumped. Everything about the relationship for her was a lose-lose. She wasn’t happy in the relationship because her most basic emotional needs weren’t being met, and then she wasn’t happy when it ended it because she was discarded. By the end of the relationship, the woman’s self-esteem must have been even lower than it was when she started seeing him.
One of the techniques I use in psychotherapy is to ask my clients to think about a certain issue from the perspective of their own hypothetical child. For example, in this case, I would talk to the woman who was broken up with and ask her the following question: “If you had a teenage daughter and she told you that her boyfriend never told her outright that he likes her, what would you say to her?” For some men and women, it’s hard for them to feel empathy for themselves, but they can access that empathy if they imagine how they would feel if the same thing happened to their child. Let’s agree to set this goal: We will all work to protect our own feelings as much as we would protect the feelings of a young child.
Drawing boundaries and minding a timeline when dating withholding men
If you find a guy you want to date, give him a chance. Look for patterns early on, and ask yourself if he treats you well enough and gives you what you need from the relationship. Does he give you meaningful compliments? Does he tell you he likes or loves you? Does he share his feelings and convince you what about you he likes and admires? Does he need you enough? Remember, for a relationship to be successful, both partners need to feel needed. If you have been dating someone for a month or two and you have the sense that he is holding back or not sharing himself enough emotionally with you, you need to have a talk with him. Tell him what needs you have that are not getting met; tell him you need him to meet these needs on a consistent basis going forward; and make a mental note to give him another month or two to see if he values and needs you enough that he is willing to change his behavior. If he doesn’t make the required changes, think about the woman I talked about who was broken up with after five years and ask yourself how many years of your life you’re prepared to lose to someone who doesn’t value you enough to try and change.
About the Author:
Dr. Seth is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, Psychology Today blogger, and TV guest expert. He practices in Los Angeles and treats a wide range of issues and disorders and specializes in relationships, parenting, and addiction. He has had extensive training in conducting couples therapy and is the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve