How To Withdraw Graciously

By Greg Baer M.D.

May 24, 2017

One of the most common mistakes people make in relationships is to keep talking when conflict is developing. When people are afraid—always an element of conflict—they become quite insane, and the conversation can only become increasingly destructive.

We must learn to recognize, therefore, when we're becoming afraid. Use all the synonyms you can think of to help you identify this condition. You're afraid if you're feeling anxious, tense, frustrated, irritated, or nervous. In fact, if you're simply not feeling peaceful, you're probably well along the path of fear.

The moment you identify this feeling, stop the conversation. Withdraw. Every military strategist knows not to continue fighting when defeat is certain. Under such conditions he or she withdraws or retreats, making it possible to regroup, rethink, gather information, increase strength, and so on. We all must develop a similar common sense in our relationships. Regrettably, most of us leave difficult interactions in a way that would more accurately be termed running, rather than withdrawal.

Running and Withdrawal

What is the difference between running and withdrawal?

When we run:

  1. We are motivated by fear.
  2. Our reaction is mostly involuntary, like a knee-jerk reflex.
  3. We have no plan other than to get away from pain.
  4. We blame the other person for how we feel and what we're doing.
  5. We're thinking of our own welfare, not loving the person from whom we are running.

When we strategically withdraw, on the other hand:

  1. We are not afraid, or at least that is not our primary motivation.
  2. We're motivated by a careful consideration of the benefits and disadvantages of staying in the interaction versus leaving it. We're making a conscious choice not to increase the pain in our lives and relationships.
  3. We're admitting our own inability to love in this situation, rather than blaming someone else.
  4. It's the first step toward formulating a plan that will bring us closer to the other person.
  5. We explain to the other person exactly what we're doing.
  6. We're recognizing that more harm will be done by staying in the interaction than leaving it. And because we explain what we're doing, and we're thinking about how to return in a more loving condition, our withdrawal is both wise and loving.

On occasion running and withdrawal could appear similar from the outside, but the motivations and feelings involved are vastly different. Running is fearful, while withdrawal is courageous. Running is selfish, while withdrawal is loving.

What to Say when You Withdraw

Once you have made the decision to withdraw from a potentially destructive interaction, what exactly can you say?

  1. "I'm not listening to you very well right now, and that's not your fault. I'm distracted by other things, so let me collect my thoughts here for a few minutes (or hours or whatever it takes for you to regain a loving perspective), and I'll be in a better place to really listen."
  2. "What you're saying is important, and I need some time to think about it. Can I come back to you about this in a few hours (or minutes, or the next day) and talk some more?"
  3. "I need to finish this a little later. Would 3:15 work for you?"

Notice some characteristics of these expressions:

  1. You are taking complete responsibility for withdrawing from the conflict. You must avoid any hint of blaming your partner for your withdrawal, even though it may seem quite justified. It can be very tempting to say, "I just can't talk to you when you're like this," but then you're not simply withdrawing from a conflict; you're attacking your partner. People hate being blamed.
  2. You're expressing a need that you have. You need some time to prepare to be a better listener, to be more loving. In the middle of a conversation, if you said, "I have to go to the bathroom right now," would anyone insist that you stay and finish the conversation? Of course not, because it's obvious that you're so distracted by whatever is going on with your body that you can't fully participate in the conversation. Similarly, when you express a need to leave a conversation, you're saying that you have a need to eliminate the distractions that would make a productive interaction impossible.
  3. You're promising that the conversation will continue—at a later time. People don't like to be cut off or ignored, and you're making it clear that you're not doing that. It's quite loving to always specify exactly when the conversation will resume.

Why Partners Resist Our Withdrawal

You'd think that our partners would be pleased on the occasions we withdraw from a conflict, thereby putting out the fire, but often they resist our withdrawal. Why? First, they're afraid that we're just running and are not willing to listen to—love—them. Second, because they have a lot to gain from the conflict.

With their Getting and Protecting Behaviors they seek safety, power, and the sense of worth that comes from being right. When we decide not to participate in a conflict, we're often taking from them the morsels of Imitation Love they want, and they may not like that. They might insist on continuing the conflict that feeds their need for a sense of power.

Your partner might call you names or otherwise become abusive. You might have to repeat the above responses more than once. Sometimes the best response is to say nothing at all. That might be uncomfortable at first, but eventually, if you refuse to be involved in the conflict, your partner will run out of steam. You might even have to leave the room or the house.

No matter what happens, do not continue to participate in a conversation where anger and conflict are developing. Nothing good can come from it.

Avoiding Conflict

One way to avoid conflict is simply to refuse to argue about things that don't matter. In the end, very few arguments matter at all. One powerful way to end a conflict is simply to say, "My mistake." Admit that you're wrong. When our partners are angry and criticizing us, we have a natural tendency to defend ourselves. As soon as you demonstrate an insistence on being right, however, your partner will sense that you're also saying that he or she is wrong. People do not like to hear that they're wrong—because then they feel powerless and less lovable—so they naturally defend themselves from that accusation, direct or implied. You can often defuse all that if you simply say, "My mistake."

But what if you're certain you're right? Get over it. You can always find something you're wrong about. Like what?

  1. If you were defending your position and not genuinely listening to your partner, you were wrong. Anytime I'm not contributing to the love and happiness in my own life and in the lives of others, I'm wrong.
  2. If you were irritated, you were wrong.
  3. If you didn't notice that your partner was empty and afraid—and therefore unable to discuss the issue you were eager to pursue—you were wrong.
  4. If you have a need to be right, you will spark and perpetuate conflicts everywhere you go. How could that be right?

In a war, nobody wins. Nobody wins in a conflict either. So, stay out of them.

Don't know where to start?

Start here:

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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