Just recently, I experienced someone withdrawing from relationship with me.
This was a significant relationship. It had been a close relationship. The reason for the withdrawal was one I understood and respected, and was not permanent.
But it still hurt.
Not only did it hurt in the moment, and the days of moments which followed, but it tapped into past experiences of withdrawal. It tapped into the pattern of relating in a long-term relationship where withdrawal was a tactic used to keep me and my concerns at arm’s length – so that valid issues did not need to be addressed. It tapped into another relationship in which a friend would withdraw until they sorted things out – and only then, if I was lucky, would I find out what some of the concerns might have been.
We’ve all experienced withdrawal, and it always hurts. We felt it in childhood when a good friend wouldn’t ‘play with us anymore’. We experienced it in adolescence when young love is not reciprocated or our boy/girlfriend ‘drops’ us for another. We sense it in intimate relationships when our partner is not ‘with us’ even though they may be physically present.
And the reason withdrawal hurts so much is that feelings of rejection usually come along for the ride. We question ourselves, our worth, and our ability to love and be loved. Everything about us is called into question – because there must be something wrong with us or why else did the other person withdraw? Right?
I didn’t quite go there, because I know I’m OK – not perfect but quite OK. But what I really wanted to do was withdraw myself, harden my heart, and distance myself from the situation.
But I had a new path to take.
I have started reading some of the writings of Franciscan friar, Richard Rohr. He wrote, “Our experiences of ordinary life will transform us if we are willing to experience them fully.” He went on to say that “We see this ‘ordinariness’ in the…sin and war, adultery and affairs, kings and killings, intrigues and deceit, and the ordinary, wonderful and sad events of human life.”
Rohr concluded his reflection by noting that it was into this ordinariness that God stepped in the person of Jesus – the implication, for me, was blinding.
I was not to withdraw from the ordinary messiness of the situation I was in. I certainly had to allow my friend the space they needed but, even though I was hurt, I was not to withdraw – I was to stay engaged.
Withdrawal is part of my backstory. Those experiences of withdrawal had the potential to keep me in a pattern of behaviour – you withdraw, I withdraw. But now, I had the chance to turn my backstory of withdrawal into a superpower of engagement.
That decision to stay emotionally engaged did not take away the pain, but gave me purpose. It shaped how I responded to the next few weeks. It shaped my attitudes and my actions.
What had the potential to keep me stuck, and anchored to past ways of behaving, became a sail to catch the wind so that I could move into the future of this relationship freely and lightly.