You are currently viewing Episode 221: When Two Withdrawers Relate

Episode 221: When Two Withdrawers Relate

When two withdrawers are in a relationship, certain patterns recur. Understanding the motivations of each of the withdrawers can open up better conversation and connection. Avoidance of negative emotion can build walls that shut the good emotions as well. Join sex therapist and author Laurie Watson and couples therapist George Faller as they talk about withdrawers in relationship.


Laurie Watson: We’re going to start talking today about withdrawer/withdrawer relationship. George and I have an example from our relationship. Welcome to Foreplay Radio, Couples and Sex Therapy. I’m Laurie Watson, your sex therapist.

George Faller: I’m George Faller, a couples therapist.

Laurie Watson: We are passionate about talking about sex and helping you develop a way to talk to each other.

George Faller: Our mission is to help our audience develop a healthier relationship to sex that integrates the mind, the heart, and the body.

Laurie Watson: Hey, check out with the coupon ‘Foreplay.’ With your support, this really helps us keep delivering free content to you. Gee, this morning you wanted to podcast earlier. Tell me about that. You called me or you texted me and said, what time are we going to start? But you didn’t say what you wanted. Tell me why.

George Faller: Well, hey, listen, us withdrawer really like to start off and not offend people, not to be too pushy. We like to come across as respectful. I assumed it was Saturday morning, you were sleeping nice and early. I was the only one in America who couldn’t sleep and was up too early.

Laurie Watson: I sent you a text the day before that said, anytime you want to do it. I just want to make you guys happy. Like whatever works for your life. Did you get that text?

George Faller: That one little text doesn’t erase a lifetime of training, right? I think it’s great as today our topic we’ll be talking about withdraw/withdraw couples. Just starting off with that, that intent that doesn’t want to hurt other people’s feelings, inconvenience other people, that usually is what stops their engagement and stops their words. I guess if you’re talking about me this morning, I assumed you probably could use a little Saturday morning rest. We got the rest of our lives to work. It’s supposed to be a day off. How are we starting even earlier than nine o’clock in the morning? What’s wrong with the two of us?

Laurie Watson: Yeah, I’m probably more typically a pursuer, but I didn’t know you well enough. I was wide awake. I was ready to go. Then when I asked, what time do you want to start and you said nine. I’m like, okay. I have literally been sitting from about 8:10 to 9:00. Of course then we had technical difficulties, but just waiting for nine o’clock. We are learning. We are learning each other.

George Faller: 10-4.

Laurie Watson: 10-4. Now we’re going to talk about couples who are withdrawer/withdrawers that are married to each other. Of course, that gets really problematic. Like you said, they are that way because they don’t want to inconvenience each other or hurt each other or be too demanding.

George Faller: Yeah, we’re starting off with that good intent of trying to protect and trying to not hurt. It comes from such good place.

Laurie Watson: You think that the withdrawer is saying to themself, I would be asking too much or something or another and so they just don’t represent what they really want? You got to help me because I’m normally not a withdrawer.

George Faller: Yeah, I think we’re talking about sex. If I bring up something I want and my partner is not in a mood, I’m going to hurt my partner’s feelings. I’m going to bring up feelings in myself that I don’t like around rejection. If I just avoid the conflict, there’s safety in avoidance, right? It gives me a place to feel in control and things calm down. So often a withdrawer’s fear is increasing emotions. Well, not taking a risk is a safe way to stop bad things from happening.

Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I was working with a couple who they were both in different ways essentially withdrawer/withdrawer. They also gave me permission to talk about them. I’m not going to use their names of course, but he definitely wanted sex and she did too. She wanted him. She didn’t feel as much drive for sex itself, but they had good experiences when they were together. He kept getting this message over time that said, she’s not sexually attracted to me. He just turned all of his energy into work. He would text her during the days, he was traveling a lot. He would text her and she would be too busy to respond. Actually, she wasn’t too busy to respond it turns out. She was afraid that he would think she wasn’t productive enough. She didn’t want to say what she was really doing or feeling because she feared judgment too.

Laurie Watson: She just tried to be nice but then would say things like, I’m tired, I need to go. He kept getting this message over and over that she didn’t want to talk to him. Then he would come home and he would come home late often at midnight. He would judge on whether or not he was going to be accepted home by whether the porch light was on. Frequently, she was an early to bed person. She go to bed about nine and forget and not leave the porch light on. That was his signal. She’s not awake. She doesn’t care if I’m home. His feelings were hurt and then he would go to the gym on Saturday morning for a few hours. She was a morning sex person. He didn’t like morning sex that much because he felt like he was unacceptable.

Laurie Watson: He wanted to get up, shave, shower, and then by that time he was wide awake. For her, she liked that roll over in bed, lazy, have sex in the morning. When he would get up and go to the gym because she wasn’t awake yet, she felt his absence and disappointment and it just went around and around.

George Faller: Right. That’s too common of a story that’s so many of couples we see are fallen into that feedback loop where the fear of having a conversation, which is just going to lead to a fight or a lead to more hurt feelings for both the person who’s starting the conversation and the person at the other end. That avoidance is a way of protecting from that. What we’re trying to do is also to help people see the costs of that avoidance, which it can become pretty intense, right? These walls that they’re putting up, just keep out of the bed starts to keep out the good.

Laurie Watson: Right. The thing I see the most in withdrawer/withdrawer couples is that they really become sexless because their feelings get hurt. She thought he didn’t want to have sex with her in the morning. He thought she didn’t want to have sex with him at all. They never said that. They never said, hey, I’m a morning person or when the porch light isn’t on, I feel so rejected. I think they did a little better than some. One of the things that happens with withdrawers couples when they come in and see me, it seems like they often come in and they say, you know, we get along so great. We don’t have any conflict. I’m like, okay, do you have any sex at all? Because I know that in order to reveal ourselves sexually, we have to be ourselves. If we’re always trying to make the other person happy, we’re not showing ourselves. We’re not exposing ourselves literally or emotionally.

George Faller: Well, let me take out the highlight here. What you’re saying that’s so important is the partner, this is universal. We interpret the lack of engagement as the person not caring or not being interested. So often that’s not the truth when you get in that other person’s body, right? It really is just about protection and not wanting to feel bad things. We need to empower couples to start seeing, what feels like the right thing for them to do to avoid conflict is landing in their partner as a way of not being interested and not caring. When you have two people with those moves of protecting themselves by embracing the distance and putting up the walls, how could it not start to crush the levels of engagement in that couples climate? Right? What we’re trying to do is honor that.

George Faller: Say, hey, we get what you’re trying to do, but can you also see that in hiding yourself in trying to avoid the criticism of your partner, you’re actually taking away the energy that’s needed to create that robust relationship that we’re all looking for.

Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely. You talk about resentment that goes underground, right? Because they’re not clearing the air regularly. They don’t clear this stuff away. They just stay hurt.

George Faller: They have to have success to have the conversations and the track record is the conversations lead to making things worse. They get stuck and in that spot of not wanting it to get worse, but losing that bridge to actually make it better.

Laurie Watson: They don’t want to make it worse by having a conflict. They don’t want to feel bad. They don’t want to feel rejected. They don’t want to hurt their partner.

George Faller: Look at all those possible hurts that could happen.

Laurie Watson: I mean, there’s so many things that have to be worked out in a longterm sexual relationship. You got to be able to talk about it.

George Faller: That’s the goal. It’s just a lot easier to connect with what people are willing to do. I mean, it’s such a beautiful sacrifice to say, I would like to have sex but I don’t want to lead to a fight so I’m trying to hide this part of myself or repress it or keep it down. Focus on my work, focus on the kids, focus on other things. It’s so sad. What we’re trying to get couples to start touching is listening to their own body. It will tell them that this avoidance, this putting up walls really starts to cause them to lose parts of who they are. Right? If you can’t communicate turning off these feelings, your body will then do it for you. You will start to dead it, right? The erotic feelings will start to really start to go away when you just don’t have any avenue for it to come out.

Laurie Watson: If you’re turning it off and you’re not letting out what you need, you have one choice certainly maybe would be to act out. We’re going to talk about that later, but I think the other choice is just to let it die. I would say that women let it die more than men do because men are pushed by testosterone to still want sex. Maybe they masturbate or they look at porn. I’m not saying they would just act out, but I think for women because their body doesn’t push them as much, they just let it die. I have lots of women who come in. The bottom line after an assessment is that they actually have a really sexual sexy part and they think that they’ve communicated that to their partner and their partner hasn’t heard. Maybe they are a sexual withdrawer, so sexual withdrawers I believe have sexual desire often, but they’re whispers.

Laurie Watson: They tell you once and if you don’t pick it up, they believe that you didn’t care enough about them to want to know what makes them happy, what pleases them sexually, so then they just turn it off. A lot of these women come in and say, I just don’t have any libido. Then they tell me the whole story. I’m like, gosh, you’ve got plenty of libido, you’ve got ideas, you’ve got sexy thoughts. You just decided to let it all go because of these misunderstandings.

George Faller: That’s a good spot to take a break on how we get these withdrawers who are whispering to speak up a little louder.

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George Faller: Hey listen man, Uberlube is a good thing. If it helps your partner, it helps you.

Laurie Watson: Hey, I want to let you guys know all about George. He’s written and contributed to several books. I’d especially like to draw your attention to his book, Sacred Stress: A Radically Different Approach to Using Life’s Challenges for Positive Change. His book is about a mission on how you adopt new strategies and turn stresses into a positive force in your life. Who among us doesn’t live with a lot of stress these days? We’ll keep you posted as to all he’s doing. George and other EFT therapists all around the country and the world hold couples retreats called Hold Me Tight, which is developed by Sue Johnson. It helps secure your own relationship. If you’d like therapy with George, find him at

George Faller: We’re back. We’re trying to figure out how do we get these withdrawers who for good reasons, when they do speak, it comes out in a whisper to start seeing the predictable results of what distance is going to do and putting up walls and suppressing their feelings. We’re big fans of communication. That’s why we’re doing this podcast. We’re trying to get people to recognize it’s okay to have problems. It’s okay to have difficulties. It’s okay not to want to have sex, but as long as you can talk about that, there’s a doorway into fixing it into engaging. What’s death for a relationship is no conversation. If you’re not having sex but you can’t talk about that, then there really is no road towards recovery.

Laurie Watson: Right.

George Faller: What we’re seeing is that opportunity to have conversations. I’m thinking about a couple similar to what you talked about. Kids, work, too busy, not want to hurt each other’s feelings, growing up in families that are polite and respectful, not knowing how to talk about difficult topics really starts to lead to these massive levels. Most people think that relationships break up or we get divorced because we fall out of love. It’s not actually accurate. What happens is the distance just gets too great. Our needs just start to die and wither and the mistrust takes over in a relationship. That’s usually when someone else enters the picture. Right? For a couple I was working with, with massive distance, the husband winds up having an affair with somebody at work.

George Faller: What most people don’t recognize even about an affair is what it does to high levels of engagement. It’s more than just the sex. I mean both people feel broken and bad about what they’re doing, but in that brokenness, which is forced vulnerability, they actually find acceptance in a place they’ve never had before. If this guy hates himself and can’t believe he’s doing it, but actually can talk about that for the first time and it’s in the arms of the person he’s with, that he starts to feel this acceptance and vulnerability that he’s never experienced before.

Laurie Watson: You know, when I read your note, I think that is so true. It’s both kind of scary to recognize that because it is saying the affair is such an intense feeling. I agree totally with you that it’s more than sex, but I think what you nailed here is the sense that they share something, both of them. It’s this powerful connection of I’m a broken person. I have all this need, you have all this need. We’re doing this bad thing together. It’s like, man, that’s just so powerful. It does meet the whisper and intense connection for a little bit. I don’t think it’s true connection, but it does meet that for them for a period of time.

George Faller: It’s about in that moment it feels that way. I agree with you. It’s an illusion because that partner that you’re having an affair with is getting these super high levels of engagement. Maybe only 10% of your time, but they’re getting 90% of your engagement. Right? Where your partner at home is getting 90% of the time, but really low levels, 10% levels of engagement. There’s a reason why that doesn’t work so well.

Laurie Watson: 10% of their time and they are like all there.

George Faller: All there. This guy only love when he gets it right. Here he is feeling he’s being loved and accepted even when he’s doing something horribly wrong. It does feel good. It feels safe. This man starts to feel things he never felt before. It’s heartbreaking for his wife when they’re trying to reconcile and he shares this truth that he actually found something else with another woman that was more than sex, was this deep, vulnerable intimacy that he never gave her a chance to experience.

Laurie Watson: Right. Oh yeah.

George Faller: Which is horrible, but the good news here is what he experienced with the affair partner, that’s easy because they are in it together. What the wife had to learn to do is to learn to accept his brokenness even though the brokenness is what hurt her. That’s real love right there.

Laurie Watson: Yeah, I agree, but it’s a tall order.

George Faller: It’s a tall order. It’s lots of safety to get there. We’re not coming right out of the gate trying to get the wife who’s been hurt to respond to the husband. At some point, we got to have a plan for that.

Laurie Watson: Let’s think about this. The guy is a withdrawer and she was a withdrawer too. She’s a withdrawer too.

George Faller: They were both withdrawers. Yup.

Laurie Watson: She wants this intensity but doesn’t know how to ask for it. Wants engagement, maybe isn’t complaining. I mean, withdrawing people are so nice. They’re the nicest clients. She’s longing and she doesn’t express that and he’s longing and he doesn’t express that, and so then he has it with this other woman. It’s everything she ever wanted.

George Faller: Right.

Laurie Watson: Now we’re going to ask her to forgive him and see his brokenness so that they can experience deep connection.

George Faller: The missing ingredients with two withdrawers is that high levels of engagement around their vulnerability. That sometimes it takes the adversity or something bad to get people heading in that direction.

Laurie Watson: Yeah. I agree with you, George, I do. I hate affairs for people, but I do see people turn around sometimes. It’s like it wakes them up too, that they needed each other, that they could have something so much more. It’s not an easy thing to talk about because we’re not endorsing an affair as some solution but gosh, I do see it sometimes.

George Faller: It’s just like anything that happens in life, it’s really the choice of the couple and how they deal with it. Do they learn to face it together and head towards each other and strengthen their bond? Or does it become something that divides them and pushes them further apart? The wife in this situation had every right to feel betrayed. This guy had no track record of being able to deliver for her. If she felt that was too much for her to take and she needed to go in a different direction, that certainly was her right. In this case, and her husband really did a lot of work to try to understand what led him in that direction and tried to be there for his wife’s pain. To change a negative cycle, both people have to do their part. Right? What we’re highlighting here is just how withdrawers need to find success in these places they normally hide.

George Faller: Both of them didn’t have anybody show up for them in their fearful, broken places, right? To survive, then they hide those places. What both don’t recognize in that hiding and in that protection is they’re leaving out very thing needed to make a relationship vibrant and healthy. If that’s the impetus to get them heading in that direction, okay, we’ll work with that. I’d much rather like you said, have couples hear this podcasts and say, you know what? We really don’t do that with each other. We don’t have those conversations, but we want to learn how to have those conversations. If you could just identify that and just accept that, then you’re already on the road towards doing it so differently.

Laurie Watson: Absolutely. The couple that I was talking about, neither one of them acted out of the relationship, but they turned it around. They took a few steps and started to dare to tell each other some really deep things. I think our work, we get to witness such beautiful things when people open up and share their vulnerability with each other. It’s amazing. I saw this couple do that. It can happen without a crisis.

George Faller: Absolutely. That’s probably the easier way of doing it, but the target is still the same. We’ve got to get these withdrawers to pace themselves because it’s so easy to either one of them to feel overwhelmed and to go back to the safe place. Then when one partner starts to retreat, the other one who took the risk can feel rejected. Then that’s what makes change in a withdrawer/withdrawer cycle hard. I think the more we can normalize the process and what it takes. Even when you miss each other, when you try to put yourself out there and your partner doesn’t know how to respond, that’s a great opportunity to start to see what both people feel in that moment. The person who’s being rejected or the other person who’s feeling they’re getting it wrong and they freeze up. These are all doorways into understanding each other in a deeper way.

Laurie Watson: Yeah. What would we tell the withdrawer who’s listening today? What’s their first step? What’s their first move that we want them to try?

George Faller: The first message I’d want to say is, you’re not doing anything wrong. You’re doing what has worked well for you and you’re trying to do the right thing. I want to honor the intent in the protection. My second part would be just trying to get you to explore some of the costs of putting up those walls, right? The moment we’re looking for in both of those withdrawers, right that moment, right when they retreat, why are they going away? Because something emotionally is happening to them. There’s a fear, there’s a concern, there’s a hurt. What’s so sad is nobody actually ever sees it, right? It’s the encouraging part of us saying you deserve to be seen in those moments.

Laurie Watson: I love that when you say that. I think this is so powerful that the withdrawer needs to be comforted. The person going away, nobody sees how upset they are and they need to be comforted too. Are we asking them to see that their partner may be withdrawn because they’re afraid of conflict?

George Faller: Instead of saying partner is not caring, to start to see the partners being exactly like you, just not knowing how to do this, being alone in their own fears and insecurities, and really needing somebody to fight for them in a very different way. Right? When both people recognize they’re in that together and they reach out and just grab each other’s hands, they’re already doing the very thing they’re supposedly not able to do.

Laurie Watson: I often think that people are in mirrored places. They have come to the same conclusion about the other as their partner has. I guess what we’re saying is if you long for more as a withdrawing partner, your partner, maybe they don’t look like it, but they’re longing for you too.

George Faller: What a beautiful way of ending.

Laurie Watson: George, if you text me at seven o’clock in the morning, I’m going to believe that you just want to podcast.

George Faller: All right.

Laurie Watson: Okay. You’re listening to-

George Faller: Foreplay Radio, baby.

Laurie Watson: Keep it hot. George, we’re going to offer an intensive on May 14th in Raleigh to two couples. We have two two hour slots. We would love to get a couple to come in who has sexual problems and you’ll be able to work with George and I. Right, George?

George Faller: That’s right. What a great opportunity to just open up some space to hang out and see if we can make some progress in these areas we’re stuck in.

Laurie Watson: You can just reach us on Foreplay Radio by email and let us know if you’re interested. There is a cost for both George and I. We are videotaping this for our trainings that only are shown to students.

George Faller: We look forward to seeing you there.

Laurie Watson: Hey, don’t forget to check out with the coupon ‘Foreplay.’ Buying this product is a really good way to support us and it helps us keep delivering free content to you. Foreplay family, I want you to know we had our highest download day ever thanks to you. Our downloads are just increasing by leaps and bounds. We are so grateful for your sharing. Thank you again. Definitely subscribe. That helps our rankings in iTunes, which is important for us.

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