Relationship Conflict: The Difference Between Withdrawing and Disengaging

"Isn't withdrawing from conflict just running away?" you might ask. Yes, it is. But there is a huge difference between withdrawing and disengaging. The difference is about your intention.
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My narcissistic mother was a screamer. Since my dad was numbed out, she got no satisfaction out of screaming at him. As an only child, I become the object of her screaming.

Even though I had learned early to be a very good girl, my mother would scream at me anyway. I could never quite get what I had done wrong, but when she screamed at me, I believed that I must have done SOMETHING wrong.

I wasn't allowed to walk away when she was screaming at me. Tears would roll down my cheeks, but if I even tried to look away from her raging, she would scream even louder, "Look at me when I'm talking to you, young lady." Talking? I would have loved it if she had talked to me!

So, of course I learned to stand there and take it. It wasn't until many years later that I realized I didn't have to take it when someone was angry and blaming me.

I ended up marrying a man who was angry like my mother and numbed out like my father. Before I realized that I could walk away, I would try everything I knew to comply. I didn't realize that compliance was a form of control -- the same form of control I had tried to use with my mother. My belief was, "Maybe if I try to do everything right, he will love me or at least not be mad at me." However, this didn't work any better with my husband than it did with my mother.

Through years of trying to understand how to deal with conflict and what it meant to take care of myself in the face of another's anger and blame, I discovered that there are only two healthy ways of dealing with conflict:

  1. I learned the hard way -- uselessly complying, defending and explaining -- that conflict cannot be resolved unless both people are open to learning about themselves and each other. If I think the other person will be open to exploring the conflict, then I open the door to learning, with an invitation like "I don't want to be yelled at and blamed, but I would like to understand what you are upset about. Can we talk about it?"
  • If the other person doesn't open, or if I know ahead of time that once this person is angry, he or she will not open to learning with me, then I will say something like, "I don't want to be yelled at and blamed. Let me know when you are ready to talk about this." Then I lovingly disengage.
  • "Isn't withdrawing from conflict just running away?" you might ask. Yes, it is. But there is a huge difference between withdrawing and disengaging. The difference is about your intention.


    When you withdraw, your intent is to control the other person by punishing them. The underlying message of withdrawal is, "You are doing something wrong and I will punish you by withdrawing my love. Then maybe you will stop what you are doing and be how I want you to be." You might even stomp away angry. You have closed your heart and shut out the other person. You might be ruminating about how terrible the other person is and how dare they treat you this way. You might feel hurt and angry, and you are blaming the other person for these feelings, believing it is their attack that is making you feel angry. You feel like a victim of their behavior.

    Lovingly Disengaging

    When you lovingly disengage, your intent is to take loving care of yourself. You do not get angry, shut down, close your heart, punish or blame the other person. You merely get yourself out of the line of fire until things calm down.

    Once you disengage, you go inside and do some inner work. First, you make sure you are not taking the other person's behavior personally. Then you compassionately embrace the deeper core feelings of loneliness, heartache and helplessness over the other person -- feelings that are inevitably there when someone is being unloving to you. You keep your heart open to yourself -- to these deeper core feelings that you likely have learned to cover over with anger or numbness. We all experienced these very painful core feelings as we were growing up, but we were too young to manage them, so we covered them over with anger, withdrawal, numbness, and various addictions, which, as adults, are now forms of self-abandonment. It is our own self-abandonment -- closing our heart in order to not feel the authentic core pain -- that may then cause anxiety and depression.

    When you get angry, either with yourself or the other person, the core pain gets stuck in your body, often resulting in feelings of anxiety and depression. When you lovingly disengage and compassionately embrace the core painful feelings of loneliness, heartache, heartbreak and helplessness over the other person, these feelings move through you in just a few minutes.

    When lovingly disengaging, you keep your heart open to yourself and to the other person, so that when he or she does open, you are not angry or shut down. Now the two of you can talk and resolve the conflict.

    Even if the other person never opens, you remain open to learning about what you need to do to further take loving care of yourself, even in the face of the other person being closed.

    There is much to learn from conflict when both people open to learning about themselves and each other, but nothing ever gets resolved through anger, compliance or withdrawal. Everything changes when you become aware of your intent -- either to control others and your own feelings, or to love yourself and others.

    Margaret Paul, Ph.D. is a relationship expert, best-selling author, and co-creator of the powerful Inner Bonding® healing process, recommended by actress Lindsay Wagner and singer Alanis Morissette, and featured on Oprah. To begin learning how to love and connect with yourself so that you can connect with others, take advantage of our free Inner Bonding eCourse, receive Free Help, and take our 12-Week eCourse, "The Intimate Relationship Toolbox" - the first two weeks are free!

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