Back to all posts
May 23, 2024

Avoid the 'Withhold, Withdraw, Project' Cycle and Build Better Relationships

Create your own user feedback survey

Relationships at any given time are either dying or deepening. I’ve watched many relationships end that started with great promise and hope. 

I’ve seen it when a new teammate is welcomed and seems to be just the right fit both for the job and culture. Six months later, the manager is having second thoughts and the new member is questioning their decision. In another few months they’ll be gone. 

I know of many founding partners who were passionately aligned around a great vision and devoted to each other and the mission only to crash on the rocks of relational conflict and ultimately break up.

I’ve worked with many couples who believed they had found their true intimate partner, their soulmate, only to move from romantic bliss, through chaos, to coldness. Ultimately the relationship ends either by breakup or by growing distant, functional, and often bored. 

In all these situations I see a common pattern: the death spiral of relationships. Without attention and commitment, all relationships drift into this spiral. With attention and commitment, we can choose to deepen relationships by doing the opposite. 

The death spiral: Withhold - Withdraw - Project. 

The deepening dive: Reveal - Connect - Own.

The Death Spiral: Withhold, Withdraw, Project

Understanding Withholding

The first choice that determines which path a relationship is on is the choice to withhold/conceal or reveal. In every relationship issues come up. We humans have thoughts, feelings and desires. At the beginning of a relationship, we tend to share our thoughts, feelings, and desires openly. Trust is solid, or at least hasn’t been broken, and we are pretty open and honest. Our openness is often met by the other listening and wanting to know and understand. This free sharing, a hallmark of the honeymoon phase, is wonderful and to be enjoyed for as long as it lasts. 

Usually it doesn’t last. An action or word (or inaction or words unsaid) leads to a slight ouch or offense. The effect is that we close up a bit. Instead of sharing the thought (opinion, judgment, belief) we keep it to ourselves. We have a feeling and it feels too risky to share it. We muffle our desires and wants. 

Instead of saying, 

  • “I didn’t like the way you talked to me in the meeting” or 
  • “I wish you’d given that project to me and not to Sarah” or 
  • “I felt sad that you didn’t call last night” or 
  • “I want to spend the weekend relaxing and not doing anything”  

We don’t say anything, we withhold it. 

Withholds are natural and normal. We all have them. We fear revealing ourselves because we believe the other person might get upset, hurt, or angry. They might go away. Conflict or a fight might occur. At a deeper level, we don’t believe that we’d be accepted for being who we are. We fear rejection. 

Again, this is just part of being human. Humans hide. 

What counts as a withhold?

We define a withhold as anything you have thought, felt,  wanted, or not wanted three or more times and not shared. We all have passing thoughts, feelings and desires; the one-offs. Withholds aren’t one-offs. 

Another way to understand a withhold is it’s anything you haven’t shared because you’re scared. When you think about revealing it, you feel fear. You imagine how the other person would respond and you don’t want that. 

At a deeper level, withholds are our attempts to control ourselves, another person, or a situation. Withholding is a control move. That’s not bad or wrong. It just is. We’re scared to be out of control and to have others be out of control. We feel safe when we’re in control. 

When we have withholds we are at a choice point in the relationship. We can either conceal or reveal. 

Revealing will always feel risky and scary. This never goes away. The definition of a withhold is that we’d be scared to share it, so of course it will be risky. We risk conflict, the other being upset, getting messy, being rejected, losing control. These are real risks. 

So, why risk it? Why not just play it safe? 

Because withholding leads to withdrawing.

Withholding Leads to Withdrawing

The second step in the death spiral of relationships is withdrawing. It often starts subtly with a slight closing, a small step back, just a little less engagement and trust. 

But one withhold usually leads to another, and another. A small withhold is often followed by a bigger one and a bigger one. The spiral has begun: withhold - withdraw. 

Now, I’m in two relationships at once. I’m in one relationship with the person in my mind; what I’m thinking, feeling, and wanting but not saying. And another relationship in the open. Because the relationships are different I have to pretend. I’m choosing not to be truthful, so I start relating from a facade. The real me is no longer in the relationship. Over time the relationship becomes more and more of a pseudo-relationship. It starts to feel bland and boring. This is withdrawing. 

Periodically, when the pressure of pretense builds up enough, I might have a real conversation. But because my withholds have built up and my heart has closed, these conversations are usually filled with blame, criticism, and defensiveness, which only strengthens our belief that we shouldn’t share our withholds and we can’t risk being honest. So, we withhold more and withdraw more. 

We withhold because we don’t want to risk hurting the relationship, but by withholding we’re actually destroying the relationship and its potential for closeness. 

The spiral doesn’t stop at withholding and withdrawing; it speeds up as we project. 

Projection Intensifies the Death Spiral

The third step in the death spiral is projection. When we withhold, we often start  believing our thoughts about the other person and look for evidence to confirm our beliefs. 

For example, if I have the thought, “I wish you had given me that project instead of Sarah,” and I don’t share my thought, I start to believe something about you, my manager. I might start to believe that you are unfair, don’t value me, or like Sarah better than me. From a place of withdrawing, stepping away, I start to believe my thoughts about you. Now I consciously and unconsciously look for evidence that proves you are unfair, don’t value me, or like Sarah better than me. 

And guess what? What I look for, I’ll find. My mind will find evidence to confirm my beliefs. Minds work that way, especially when we are contracted in fear, trying to control, and not risking revealing. 

Now the spiral gets more intense, because when I find evidence that you are unfair, I withhold that as well. More withholds lead to more withdrawing which leads to more projection. 

After a while, my relationship with the other is almost exclusively occurring in my mind, where I am believing all my beliefs, finding evidence to prove them, and protecting myself even more by withdrawing. I am actually not relating to the person any longer but only to my projections about the other person. 

The relationship becomes more distant, less trusting, more stale and boring. It will be periodically be punctuated by conflicts and blow ups until finally I give up, quit, get divorced or, even worse, stay in a dead relationship for years. 

The Path of Deepening: Reveal, Connect, Own

The other path offers us another option. If we risk revealing—and remember, it’s always a risk—the possible upside is closeness over withdrawing. It involves sharing those withheld thoughts and feelings, even if it leads to conflict or discomfort.

By choosing to reveal, we open the possibility for real connection. We move away from managing perceptions and start engaging genuinely, appreciating both our own vulnerability and the other’s.

When it comes to how close we are to other people, there are only two factors that are under our control. The first is how much of ourselves we reveal. The second is how much of the other person we accept and love. You can reveal courageously and accept completely and the other person might choose to not be close. This is reality. You can’t control the depth of your relationships. You can control you

Owning and Eating Your Projections

If I choose to risk revealing and to do what I can do to create the possibility for closeness, then I can get the real gold of conscious relationships: I can eat my projections

Remember, projections are my beliefs about the other. I look for evidence to prove I’m right about my beliefs. The turnaround is that the beliefs I have about the other are really beliefs that are quite likely true about me. Instead of looking for evidence to prove that my beliefs about my manager are true about my manager, I look for evidence to prove that the belief is true about me. This is owning (or eating) the projection. 

If I believe my boss isn’t respecting me, instead of looking for evidence to prove that, I look for evidence to prove that I’m not respecting my boss. Instead of looking for evidence that my partner doesn’t appreciate me, I look for evidence of how I don’t appreciate my partner. Rather than look for evidence that my coworker is jealous, I look for all the ways I’m jealous. 

When we eat/own instead of project, we have turned the relationship into a master class for personal growth. We get to use the relationship to discover all of our blindspots and shadow parts. 

The spiral of a deepening relationship continues, because I can then reveal to the other what I’m learning about myself. You can say to your boss, “I used to believe that you didn’t appreciate me, but as I look deeper I see that I haven’t been fully appreciating you. I want to change that.” You can say to your coworker, “I used to believe you had issues with control, but as I look deeper I see that I am often trying to control you. I want to own that.” 

This vulnerable reveal will lead to the possibility of closeness and the chance to own even more. 

The Choice is Yours

You are always in one of two relational spirals; death or closeness. What you choose to reveal or withhold can determine the path you follow. The challenge is to embrace the risks of openness for the reward of deeper, more meaningful relationships. 

What’s your choice? 

More Resources

To further explore the concepts of candor and openness in relationships, consider the following resources:

  • Candor video: Learn why people are afraid to reveal and the cost of concealing in the workplace.
  • Speaking Unarguably Guide: Learn to reveal what is true by revealing what is unarguable through physical sensations, emotions, or thoughts.
  • Eat Your Projections: Use this handout to recognize that our critical judgements about others are pointers to the parts of ourselves that we either don’t acknowledge or fully accept.
  • Shift an Issue by Revealing coaching video: Watch a coaching session on how to use candor to shift an issue you are dealing with in your life.  
  • Candor meditation: This 12-minute guided meditation will help you to practice candor on issues in your life. 

Related posts