* These are ongoing reflections on the topic. They are updated from time to time.

29 March 2014

Safran and Muran (2002) are, I think, writing with the relational psychoanalytic perspective, and they call attention to two “rupture markers” in the relationship: withdrawal and confrontation. Relationships rupture and connections between persons break in myriad ways, and even the most sensitive of us cannot notice the when and why of all ruptures. But there are some signs that flag these ruptures and draw our attention to them. They say denial, minimal response, intellectualization, and disengagement are ways persons withdraw within their interpersonal realtionship. Here it’s not so much that minimal response puts distance between two persons, but more that minimal response is itself a response to some comment or gesture, some failure in attuned responding that brings about the minimal response. On these relational terms, we might deny or respond minimally or intellectualize or disengage not because we’re defending against uncomfortable content, but because there’s been a breach in relation, in connection, in attachment. So when one notices withdrawal in the forms of denial, minimal response, intellectualization, or disengagement, one might consider an alliance rupture.


Nancy McWilliams (2011) represents the Ego Psychologist perspective on withdrawal, attending to it as an intrapsychic defense. As an intrapsychic defense, withdrawal is an automatic, instant, non-reflective withdrawal into a different state of consciousness that protects the psyche against threat. So there is some overlap with the relational perspective here. In withdrawal we substitute the stimulation of an internal fantasy world for the stress of relating to others. Michael Eigen talks about this in terms of hallucination, suggesting that when we withdraw we hallucinate alternative fantasies. For him, this highlights that our Ego, our conscious self, is to some degree psychotic. We frequently see infants who feel overstimulated or distressed all of a sudden fall asleep, withdrawing into a different state of consciousness. Adults do the same, but we have more hallucinatory equipment, more withdrawal equipment. We substitute the stimulation of an internal fantasy world for the stress of relating to others by withdrawing not just into sleep and dreams, but into chemical abuse, for example. Even without the help of chemical lift off, we hallucinate ourselves into different worlds, fantasizing sex or vacations, conspiracy theories, or worship services, for instance. McWilliams observes that persons with sensitive dispositions are more prone to defensive withdrawal, and she also acknowledges object relations and attachment theorists’ insights that this sensitive tendency to defend through withdrawal is often owing interpersonal patterns in early childhood, such as a caregiver repeatedly intruding into the child’s world, or also conversely neglecting or isolating the child. In both circumstances, the child learns to to withdraw, to hallucinate, into a seemingly safer world devoid of such threats.

McWilliams links defenses to personality constitution, suggesting that schizoid personalies are the outcome of reliance on defense of withdrawal. While some see extreme withdrawal as negative or maladaptive in that it removes the person from active participation in interpersonal problem solving and involves a psychological escape from reality, it requires little distortion of it. Persons who withdraw don’t console themselves by misunderstanding the world; they retreat from it. Some will accuse them as emotionally indifferent, but they may actually be highly perceptive of feelings. Schizoid persons often demonstrate remarkable creativity: artists, writers, theoretical scientists, philosophers, religious mystics, and others whose ability to stand aside from convention usually allows for original commentary.

McWilliams, N. (2011). Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, Second Edition: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process. Guilford Press.

Safran, J.D. , Muran, J.C. (2000). Negotiating the therapeutic alliance: A relational treatment guide. New York: The Guilford Press.


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