(See below in the Comments Section for some good resources, including The Domestic Violence Hotline and several other web resources for people seeking to understand, free yourself from, and/or heal from the effects of toxic relationships.)
Withholding can be an toxic-normal, emotionally and mentally abusive interpersonal tactic, when it’s a chronic pattern and tactic used by someone to harm, demean, or otherwise abuse a person with whom they’re in relationship.
How some abusive individuals can use the simmering silent treatment or cold shoulder that leaves us (or others) “gaslighted,” wondering what the heck happened, what we did wrong (even if we didn’t actually do anything wrong and sort of know that), and feeling confused and off-kilter as a result.
Interestingly, withholding is a tactic that many empath-sensitives who have been on the receiving end of verbal, emotional, and mental/psychological abuse in a toxic relationship have experienced.
When used in a toxic-normal way, it’s also one of the tactics I saw often during the many years that I consulted on difficult (or worse) interpersonal and communication dynamics in various groups or organizations where people were ready to mutiny, sabotage, or just stop working well together (or already had).
Since we’re talking about human interpersonal dynamics and old, ingrained, conditioned toxic-normal habits, though, it’s timeless.
Let’s be clear here, first, that in this article, we’re talking about toxic habits … withholding as a ‘toxic-normal’ habit and tactic used by Narcipathic, dysfunctional types to manipulate and work their funky head games.
We’re talking about these interpersonal approaches used in a patterned emotionally or psychologically abusive way by individuals who are, unfortunately and for whatever reason, prone towards those patterns.
We’re not talking about instances when remaining silent or otherwise “withholding” a response may be a perfectly normal or healthy tactic.
What is Withholding?
There may be other definitions and examples of withholding as an interpersonal dynamic strategy, but here’s a quick snapshot of how I’m using the term here.
I wrote the following excerpt ten years ago about withholding in an article on subtle yet common word-violence tactics in organizational, interpersonal, and group dynamics:
“An unhealthy withholder may elect to withhold praise, feedback, agreement, or information — or any type of communication at all — for the purposes of gaining some measure of control or having some specific (and often malefic) impact on you.
It can escalate from lower-impact (though still damaging) word-violence to a form of mental and emotional abuse.” (J.W., from the former award-winning Ivy Sea Online.)
In its most simple definition, withholding is just that — withdrawing or holding back communication, response, feedback (particularly positive feedback), agreement, acknowledgement, acceptance, and generally giving what’s often called the silent treatment or the cold shoulder.
In face to face interactions in its more punishing or abusive expression, it may be accompanied by visible ‘disapproving’ body language and facial expressions used by an abuser to specifically manipulate and control. In electronic communications, it’s pretty much just sudden radio silence or ghosting, until Mr. or Ms. Toxic needs to hoover you back into their web.
Whether withholding is a toxic-normal or an abusive communication tactic, or is an innocent or even healthy one, depends on the purpose and intent, and it’s often easy to tell the difference between the two.
(For insight into your personal circumstances and questions, consult the web resources listed in the Comments section or connect with a psychologist or therapist who is a specialist in untangling and healing from toxic relationships).
For now, let’s take a look:
When is What Seems to be ‘Withholding’ Actually Innocent, or Even Healthy?
Withholding may not be a toxic-normal subtle-abuse tactic; sometimes it’s unintentional or innocent, or even a healthy adjustment in what has been a toxic relationship pattern, like in situations like these examples:
1. Let’s say Mel is waiting to hear back from Joan about something, based on a previous agreement, and some time goes by and Mel doesn’t hear a word and wonders what’s up. Joan, for her part, hasn’t yet gotten the information so hasn’t communicated to Mel. In her mind, she’s waiting and when she gets the info she’ll get back in touch with Joan about it.
The skillful, considerate approach would be for Joan simply to give Mel updates along the way, letting him know she’s still waiting for the info and will pass it along. So while Joan might not have been particularly considerate or intuitive by holding back rather than giving an interim update, there’s no malicious intent here.
2. Another example of when withholding is innocent is in a situation like this: Let’s say Sam says something quite sudden and quite hurtful, although unintentionally, to Susan, and Susan literally can’t speak for awhile, she’s so caught off-guard.
To Sam, it seems that Susan is ‘giving him the silent treatment’, but to Susan, she literally can’t speak and needs a short period of time to recover before feeling like she can respond. In this instance, it’s not malefic intent that’s behind the perceived silent treatment but a matter of being wired differently — neuroscience (you’ll find a lot about this in a web search, so we won’t go into more depth on it here). The gist, though, is that it’s situational and short-term.
3. A third example of how what seems to be withholding can actually be healthy is if someone is or has been in a relationship with a more narcissistic–type (or other anti-social, dysfunctional) personality and has been used as a source of narcissistic supply.
Once the person who’s been unwittingly used as supply sees the pattern and decides to make healthier adjustments and disentangle from toxic patterns, he or she may withhdraw from the toxic relationship by pulling back or ceasing participation via his or her presence, attention, ‘audience’, energy, reactions to provocations, etc. from the toxic person/relationship and refocus that energy and attention on healthier areas and relationships.
To me, this is more of a healthy, intentional withdrawal from a toxic relationship dynamic, rather than the more toxic expression of withholding, so I’ll distinguish between the two by using these two words.
You’ll also find a good roster of the various toxic interpersonal (and energy-psychic) patterns (and basic healthier strategy tips) at the Out of the Fog site; and the excellent article Five Ways Abusive Narcissists Get In Your Head offers a good overview of key mind-spinning and manipulation tactics.
Additionally, there are also instances when we might withhold information because we’ve promised someone our confidentiality, or it just isn’t our place to be in a particular conversation or revealing certain information. That’s a matter of discernment and good judgment.
When Does Withholding Become a Toxic and Even Abusive Tactic?
Over years of consulting on communication challenges — and just being human and having lived awhile and experienced different types of relationships — I learned that the difference between withholding or the silent treatment being relatively innocent and it being a toxic-normal, manipulation tactic is the intent.
When withholding is used, even unconsciously (due to conditioning), as a type of punishment and/or to manipulate and control, it becomes just such a tactic of emotional and mental (versus physical) abuse, bullying, and interpersonal violence. It’s often one in a whole repertoire of well-practiced and thus effective toxic tactics.
How Does Withholding Work (as a Manipulative Tactic)?
Just as other forms of toxic-normal behavior and communication tactics and strategies do (see some of the other Empaths & Sensitives articles on leveling, offloading, scapegoating, baiting, hissy fits, etc. You’ll find the link below.).
This tactic turns toxic when a person withholds (even if unconsciously) communication, information, agreement, positive feedback, generosity, warmth, or affection in order to punish or manipulate another person for violating some (even unspoken or small) rule or preference that the withholder has.
The intended effect is like other bullying or emotional/psychic vampire tactics, which is designed to put the other person on edge or off-center, feeling confused or unsure of what’s happened, and thus returning to the manipulator energetically as well as apologetically to ‘make things right’.
These are power-over type of tactics used wittingly or unwittingly by personality types that sometimes fall into the narcissistic, passive-aggressive, sociopathic, antisocial personality, and/or energy/psychic vampire behavior categories.
As with the other articles shared in the Empaths & Sensitives Series, the biggest purpose is for us to recognize toxic-normal habits that we’ve been conditioned with, or conditioned to complement, tolerate (habitually), or consider normal in some way.
(Empathic-sensitives are often conditioned early on to be supply for those with little to no empathy, so it can come to feel normal, even though it’s toxic.)
Once we’ve recognized a pattern, we can see it more easily in action and make choices about how we’d like to participate with it, or not, going forward.
It does take practice, because it’s deeply ingrained as normal and thus we may fear others will be angry or ‘not like us’ when we begin simply to require respectful interactions and communication rather than abusive, toxic, or disrespectful interactions.
Taking a deep breath when it comes up, not responding (reacting) immediately or instantly, taking a break for some distance if we need it in the immediate-term, and using skillful communication approaches (like conflict resolution, nonviolent communication, etc.) are all possibilities if and as appropriate.
Here’s a ‘communication skills for tense moments‘ tip sheet from the Ivy Sea Online archives to give you a bit of confidence for the more run-of-the-mill scenarios.
One caveat: Know that person doing the withholding, etc., will likely be very accustomed to using these more dysfunctional, toxic-normal strategies and have them work well; they tend to be good at it, having been at it most of their lives. So he or she may not respond to skillful communication responses, but continue to use habitual tactics to provoke, withhold, hoover, ‘love-bomb’, and otherwise re-engage.
So we may have to let them have their hissy fit or tantrum now that we’re aware of the pattern that’s in play, as we go about our business and choose to respond in healthier ways, or be elsewhere rather than being the projection screen for someone else’s habitually abusive, toxic behavior, or psychic vomit (no matter how subtle it may seem — we know the difference between what feels respectful and what feels toxic).
And as with the other articles in this series, this isn’t to point the finger of blame or put ourselves or other people into victim-perpetrator category boxes, nor is it intended or offered as psychotherapeutic counsel; you’ll see that requisite disclaimer in the Series Intro.
It’s about us recognizing unhealthy boxes and toxic-normal patterns, and intending to more and more skillfully unbox ourselves and disentangle from abusive, toxic interactions and treatments that we may have been conditioned to consider normal.
While we can’t change someone else’s behavior or modus operendi, we can change our own awareness and what we do and do not participate with or tolerate, and that’s empowering.
If you’re in an abusive relationship, contact The Domestic Violence Hotline for good resources and a.s.a.p. assistance!