Withholding Contact: When Silence Is Worse Than Verbal Abuse

October 24, 2017 Emma-Marie Smith

Withholding contact can affect us more than verbal abuse and make us feel like we don't matter. So why do abusers withhold contact and how can we stop it?

Withholding contact is something your partner could do that could make you feel worse than hearing his verbal abuse. Picture yourself in a relationship in which there are no violent outbursts, no explosive fits of rage, no words thrown at you like hand grenades, in which your only punishments are silence and deprivation. It may sound like a favorable option to anyone on the frontline of a verbally abusive relationship, but so-called "withholding" is a particularly insidious method of abuse that deprives us of our basic comforts and makes us feel less than human. Here's why verbal abusers withhold verbal and physical contact, and how to respond.

Withholding Contact Can Affect Us More than Verbal Abuse

Perversely, one of the verbal abuser's most effective methods is to withhold contact entirely. He will ignore all of your efforts to communicate until you're literally pleading for him to acknowledge you. He may ask basic questions such as, "Did you walk the dog today?" or "Have you seen my keys?" but he will avoid all unnecessary interaction with you unless you're around others.

So why does this happen? According to The Good Men Project, verbal abusers withhold contact when they need to reestablish their dominance and encourage us to resubmit.1

Your partner's absurd argument is that if you just give up your silly notion of having a healthy, communicative relationship between two equal partners and resubmit to emotional domination and abuse, the warmth and love will return.

This rings true for my experience and helps me to understand why I felt like I was imagining the abuse in my relationship. My ex-boyfriend regularly denied me affection, communication and even information for days or weeks at a time. He would often take off in the middle of the night and not tell me where he was going or when he would be back; other times he refused to even look at me, but he would never accept that any of this was strange or that I deserved any better.

I now recognize that his need for control was born out of fear, but at the time it made me feel like a ghost, like I was less than nothing.

How Do I Stop an Abuser from Withholding Contact?

Make no mistake: withholding contact is a form of emotional blackmail, and it is not okay under any circumstances. Your partner will tell you he has "every right" to take some space or that he's not obliged to talk to you because of something you've done. He will say that you're "overreacting" to his vow of silence or that you deserve to be ignored. He may not even make eye contact with you. It is painful to be on the receiving end of this behavior, so here's what to do when it starts.

  • Leave home for a few days. Explain that you're going to stay with family friends, or even in a hotel until he is ready to stop withholding contact and start to communicate.
  • Seek affection from friends and family. Although the comfort you receive from loved ones won't replace the kind of intimacy you get from a spouse, it will help you feel less alone.
  • Set clear boundaries. Tell your partner that unless his behavior changes, the relationship will end for good. Be prepared to follow through with this threat if the withholding continues.
  • Don't pander to his needs. Don't beg him; don't pester him. Calmly explain that his behavior towards you is not okay and that it needs to change if he wants to continue the relationship.

I realize that these actions require willpower and self-belief, both of which are difficult to muster when you feel hollow inside. However, the only way to stop the abuse is to tell your partner that you won't accept the verbal abuse anymore. He may not acknowledge your threats unless you leave, which might be your best and only option if he continues to treat you as if you don't matter.


1 Fiffer, T. G. (2015, March 26). When Your Partner Stops Giving: The Silent Pain of Emotional Withholding. Retrieved October 23, 2017.

APA Reference
Smith, E. (2017, October 24). Withholding Contact: When Silence Is Worse Than Verbal Abuse, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Author: Emma-Marie Smith

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July, 6 2021 at 8:48 pm

I just ended a 6 year relationship due to this pattern. I’m sad because he has also suffered so much trauma and loss in his life but I finally realized the impact that this kind of emotional abuse took on me. A classic case of “hurting people, hurt people.” I hope he gets the healing he needs. I miss him everyday.

anonymous man
November, 28 2018 at 7:20 am

Why is it always a "he". I am involved with a woman who does this very effectively.

August, 13 2018 at 5:11 pm

I'm doing research on this subject because of my own past with abuse. My ex-wife at the time was emotionally, physically, and mentally abusive. When confronted, she pointed a loaded gun in my face. I'm lucky to still be here. After 3 years of hell, I'm still alive. It doesn't seem like I'll ever be over it. The nightmares, anxiety attacks, depression, and PTSD hasn't gotten much betters since the attack, but I'm further than I'd ever thought.

December, 3 2017 at 7:26 am

For 30 years my husband had almost no libido. There is no medical reason for this, he just rarely wanted intimate contact. I always this was weird. Now that I've realized how abusive he was to me, both emotionally & psychologically, the withholding of sex makes sense-he did not want the closeness of that or the vulernabilty it entails. Im so glad i am finally free of him!

November, 3 2017 at 6:58 am

I live with relatives who are frequently psychologically abusive. I withdraw out of self defense. They don't listen to what I say anyway. When I have tried to share they: interrupt, talk over me, act dismissive, minimize, or counter what I say. It is emotionally exhausting to be around them and I feel like I always have to keep my guard up.
So what is the difference between withdrawing to protect yourself and withdrawing as a form of abuse? I can tell that they are sometimes annoyed that I withdraw, but it is the only way I get a little peace. Even then, they are sometimes so loud that avoidance does not give me peace.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

November, 3 2017 at 9:17 am

Hi Jenna,
As someone who is highly sensitive and introverted, I can relate to what you're saying. Sometimes I feel the need to withdraw, even from people who I love dearly. However, there is a difference between giving yourself the space that you need and withholding contact without explanation to establish dominance.
I understand what it's like to feel emotionally drained by friends or relatives, and I think you have every right to take that space for yourself, but I am talking mainly about romantic relationships here. I think when you enter into a relationship with a partner, you have a responsibility not to withhold information or contact from them so long as you're still together. It's a grey area, sure, as there are going to be times in any relationship where one person doesn't want to talk or cuddle, and that's totally fine. It's all about the way you deal with those situations as a couple without one person assuming conmplete control.
When I need space from my partner, for example, I explain to him, "I love you very much, but I just need to be on my own for a couple of hours. I hope you understand" and that works out great. Similarly, if he does something to upset me, I tell him, then explain that I need time and space to think it over, but that I will communicate with him when I'm ready -- normally within a few hours as I'm not one for dragging things out. On the contrary, my partner who was verbally abusive would just take off without telling me where he was going, when he would be coming back, or what I had done to cause him to disappear. He would turn off his phone and cut all contact, making sure I felt as anxious as possible so he was the one in control. He also withheld comfort and affection without explaining why. See the difference?
I hope that makes sense. My colleaugue Emily has just started writing for HealthyPlace, and her blog is going to focus on verbal abuse from family and friends as well as in romantic relationships. You may find her posts helpful, too. Good luck!

November, 4 2017 at 5:50 am

Thank you. That helps. It is largely about the motive, the type of relationship, and if it has a damaging impact on someone.

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