It’s unlikely that you’ll hear the word “withholding” very much in regular conversation. But it’s something that certain people do to others on a daily basis.
The term “withholding” comes from the field of psychology. It refers to the act of purposefully not offering something that we know a friend, loved one, or someone we otherwise relate to wants or needs.
You can refuse to give anyone anything. But it is on persons with whom we are or should be intimately connected that withholding conduct has the most impact. This includes family members, close friends, and romantic partners.
What exactly do people withhold from each other?
Love. Affection. Attention. Encouragement. Praise. Sympathy. Emotional support. Withholding basically has to do with the emotional needs of another person. In healthy relationships, it is expected that we will come through emotionally for the other person or for other people who are important to us, and vice versa.
When a person withholds, they actively choose not to honor someone else’s feelings or emotional needs. They do this by either ignoring the person and pretending that the emotional need is simply not there, or by doing the very opposite of what the other person would need at that moment.
The fact that it’s purposeful is what makes this withholding behavior
Let’s go a little bit deeper into the concept of withholding. Normally, when we get a sense that someone else has an emotional need of some kind, we choose to honor that need and offer support. This happens in big ways, but it can also be a very subtle dynamic.
Some ways that we can actively respond to the emotional needs of others include:
Noticing and honoring the times when they might need encouragement or praise, and giving it to them.
Being sensitive and responsive in times when someone else may be experiencing a moment of weakness or vulnerability.
Responding positively to a direct request for emotional support, attention or affection
We notice and have awareness of other people’s emotional needs based on what they say, what they do and also any nonverbals they may be communicating by way of facial expressions and body language.
At any time, we can decide to positively respond to another person’s needs when we pick up on those needs. Of course, there will also be times when we’re preoccupied with our own things. Or, we might have too much going on, and as a result we may miss a nonverbal cue or subtle suggestion from a friend or loved one that this person could use emotional support of some kind.
Does that mean we are withholding?
If we do manage to overlook someone else’s feelings, it doesn’t always mean that we are withholding at that time. More likely it just means that we have too much going on; and because of that, we didn’t notice what they needed at the time when they needed it.
At other moments, we may have a lot happening in our lives and someone might pipe up needing something from us. In such a case, maybe we feel aggravated that they have brought in a distraction to take us away from our goal. We might also feel frustrated that we are unable to accommodate them. In a case like this, we might actually withhold on purpose. We have decided to prioritize our own emotions over theirs.
Yes, it is normal to withhold at some moments of our lives. Withholding happens all the time. The key is to know when a person nearly always withholds; or when that person’s withholding behavior is based on some sort of toxic pattern that’s causing them to reject closeness in their relationships and purposely act in ways that block intimacy.