Why Do We Withhold (Our Love)?

Why Do We Withhold (Our Love)?

Several months ago, a student of my summertime yoga and writing workshop gave me a thank you card with a powerful, mesmerizing quote cut from the final pages of a insightful book, Range of Motion, by Elizabeth Berg. (*See quote below) When I reread the quote to a group of writing students recently, the book was entered into my Must Read list. Here’s why:

Berg tells the story of Lainey, a 30-something mother of two who’s husband gets knocked unconscious from a random ice berg falling from a rooftop while on his lunch break. Now, he lay in a coma, and life is turned upside down for the young protagonist. Her deep love and appreciation for her husband compels her to stay faithful that he will one day awaken. It also makes her acutely sensitive to relationships around her, like that of her neighbor and friend, Alice, and Alice’s husband, Ed. She notices one day, through her kitchen window, that when Alice sits down on their porch next to Ed (whom she cannot seem to warm up to for some reason), he instinctively pulls away from her. Lainey is deeply disturbed by this physical disconnect. She says if she had to put a name to it, she would call it ‘withholding’ - “one of the worst kinds of poisons that exists in human relationships.

Withholding. Given that the human heart longs for connection and love, why do we withhold?

In my first serious relationship, I had my first palpable feeling of withholding. I didn’t like it. It kept coming to forefront time and time again, and I kept making excuses for it. Was I asking for too much? I felt guilty for wanting too much. It was only years later that I realized, with great compassion, that we all have different needs, and it’s more about being matched correctly than blaming someone for not being able to give something that they never wanted to give in the first place. It would be best to negotiate this before a big commitment occurs, but this would mean that we would need to understand our own needs, and sometimes we don't understand that until we are left holding an empty bag.

I was in my 20s, and I wasn’t quite self-aware enough to realize that I, too, was withholding. But it was all too overwhelming, all too murky to even begin to understand this powerful, subtle human dynamic. I withheld because it was easier. It’s easier to carve out these safe little shelters we call relationships and hide out in them, taking refuge, selling out for a sense of security, no matter how illusory or empty that security becomes.

Yet, what is the real reason we withhold? This is one of those questions that can be a bit easy to answer at first, then get incredibly sticky. We withhold because we are afraid. Simple. Next. Ok, we withhold because we don’t trust the other person. Ok. Next. We withhold because we’ve never been taught to go this deep, to let go of the shore, and to trust the currents of a deep ocean. It’s so unfamiliar, we not only don’t trust it, we think it’s a trap. Sure, we’ll do it, but then we’ll be standing there on our own holding that empty bag. Been there. Ok, now that’s a bit better. Next.

We withhold because somewhere deep inside us it feels like madness. Not figuratively, but actual madness. To love so completely feels dangerous. Why? Is it hubris? Do the Gods get angry if we love someone or something more than we love Them/It? Perhaps. I have thought this after my Great Loss. But then that has me pegged believing in a vengeful god. I do not choose to live in a world where there is a vengeful God. Ok. So, then what?

We withhold because it is what we were taught. We withhold because love is a slippery slope no one wants to slide down alone. But we withhold because what if we both decide to not withhold? What then? How deep can we go? Are we willing to suffer through madness to get to the pure, divine heart? I hope so. Even after it all, after all the loss, for me it was all worth it.

What will we do with our one wild and precious life? This is our time on the planet. It is our time to have our legs to walk the Earth, our time to feel our hearts which can love the world into balance. Let the world do its dance, and listen to the beat of your own invisible drum. But above all, be willing to release withholding of your own divine, resilient, gorgeous self.


*I am living on a planet where the silk dresses of Renaissance women rustled, where people died in plagues, where Mozart sat to play, where sap runs in the spring , where children are caught in crossfire, where gold glints from rock, where religion shines its light only to lose its way, where people stop to reach a hand to help each other to cross, where much is known about the life of the ant…where the star called sun shows itself differently at every hour, where people get so bruised and confused they kill each other, where baobabs grow into impossible shapes with trunks that tell stories to hands, where rivers wind wide and green with terrible hidden currents, where you rise in the morning and feel your own arms with your own hands, checking yourself, where lovers’ hearts swell with the certain knowledge that only they are the ones, where viruses are seen under the insistent eye of the microscope and the birth of stars is witnessed through the lens of the telescope, where caterpillars crawl and skyscrapers are erected because of the blue line on the blueprint— I am living here on this planet, it is my time to have my legs walk the earth…I am saying that all of this, all of this, all of these things are the telling songs of the wider life, and I am listening with gratitude, and I am listening for as long as I can , and I am listening with all of my might.

Berg, Elizabeth (2012-03-27). Range of Motion: A Novel (Kindle Locations 2672-2674). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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