“…and the greatest Withhold is love.” – Victor Baranco

Withholds are an important and powerful emotional communication tool that is still, despite its unusual effectiveness, relatively unknown and unused. I will present here a version of the technique that is derived from Victor Baranco. The practice is also related to psychologist Harville Hendrix’s “Is there more” exercise, and is fully compatible with NVC, although not officially part of the NVC model.

What is a Withhold?

A Withhold is any emotion or response to another person or to an event that has not yet been expressed. Withholds can be positive or negative. Positive Withholds are the failure to appreciate people and tell them how much we care for them, while Negative Withholds include the failure to express a feeling or an unmet need.

Withholds, whether they be positive or negative, kill intimacy. Have you ever seen couples who simply don’t talk to each other any more? The reason is likely that they have let Withholds accumulate. The more you let Withholds accumulate, the harder it is to communicate anything at all, because any kind of request or negative feedback that you give will start an avalanche of counter-claims and resentments. You will both give up the attempt to share anything important at all, and your relationship will be dead.

Do not let this happen! Clear your Withholds with your partner immediately, in the moment the distressing feeling occurs, whenever possible. In cases where something happens but you are not able to respond immediately, clear it later.

Withholds are a way to clear Emotional Charge, which has been defined in Chapter 14. Emotional charge is just raw, unprocessed emotion. “Unprocessed” means that the emotion has not been subjected to a process of discernment. It simply exists in your gut and the fact that you have not said it is creating distance and unsettling you. You know that you will feel better once you have said it, but you can’t bring yourself to do it. Maybe you are afraid of hurting your partner or making them angry, or maybe you are ashamed of having the feeling or need in the first place, or you judge it as wrong or “not nice.” But you have the feeling, and it won’t go away. You are suffering. The inability to express this feeling is making you feel distant from your partner and causing you to shut down emotionally. You have to do something because the situation has become unbearable. You feel the relationship is at stake, if not your sanity. What you can do to resolve this situation is to deliver a Withhold.

Many people are simply overwhelmed by the negative feelings they experience with their intimate partners. They don’t even know where to begin, and are afraid of saying anything at all lest it lead to anger or reactivity, and make the situation worse. But the more you fail to speak your truth, the worse it will become. Sometimes in relationship, you just have to leap, and trust that things will sort themselves out. The relief you will experience will be in direct proportion to the pain you were feeling before. Open your heart to your lover. You may get hurt, or hurt your partner, but most of the time you will both feel better at the end, maybe hugely better. Indeed, you may find this process addictive once you get the hang of it. You may kick yourself that it took you so long to start sharing yourself honestly with another human being – especially the feelings that you think you have no right to have, or that you judge as unkind, selfish or immature.

Fortunately, Withholds are quite easily cleared. The structure makes it safe to say whatever it is you have not yet spoken, and is a fantastic way to begin to resolve the underlying emotional need.

How to deliver a Withhold

You say: “[their name], I have a withhold, are you willing to hear it?”
They responds: “Sure,” or otherwise give you permission to share.
And then you tell it: “I felt stupid when you said that last thing.” Or whatever.
They end the cycle with a simple, flat “Thank you,” and that’s it.

A Withhold can be about you, about them, about anything. It can be big or small, life-changing or utterly trivial. You would be wise to avoid assigning blame or shame in your Withholds – in general, try and give the least harsh message that fully communicates the emotion – but you are allowed to say whatever you want. Do not censor the emotion, nor be overly concerned with hurting your partner’s feelings or making them angry. They will have an opportunity to respond later, if they choose.

One of the agreements in delivering Withholds is that your partner should only respond with your permission… that is, in the form of another Withhold to you. You would both be wise, however, to let a Withhold sit for a few minutes before responding to it, or else respond at another time. Even more so if the Withhold is big.

If the issue has been going on for some time or you are feeling really triggered, you can ask your partner to Pull Withholds from you. You may ask them for 10 to 15 minutes of their time, or longer. If they agree, you would deliver the first Withhold, and your partner would say “Thank you, is there more?” This would continue until you are done or until the time is up. Afterwards, you might invite your partner to do the same.

Withholds can be about anything and can be delivered to anybody with whom you have the agreement. You can also deliver them to non-present third-parties or social groups: “Mom, there is something I’ve withheld from you,” or “Social Security Office, I have a Withhold.” Your partner would then represent the missing person or entity, and respond in the standard way: “Thank you, is there more?”

The agreements to give and receive Withholds

There are two important agreements in giving Withholds.

  • First, your partner must explicitly give permission to hear the Withhold. That is why you always ask for permission before delivering a Withhold. If your partner is not available in the moment, they could say so and come back to you later.
  • Second, do not consider any Withhold as the truth, or even (and especially) as a mature emotion. This agreement must be in place for the structure to work.

With these agreements in place, both partners may find it immensely freeing to be able to say something to the other with the understanding that it will not be judged, nor even necessarily responded to. Remember, a Withhold is in the nature of a raw emotion or a need. When used in the best way, a Withhold communicates an intention to let go of your emotional charge around an issue or problem. It is an invitation for collaboration around the need that underlies the emotion. For this reason, giving Withholds is a fantastic way to open a negotiation. It will likely cut in half the time of any negotiation you take on with your partner, if you simply begin by sharing Withholds.

Withholds can be thought of as an emotion that has been attached to a judgment or belief system. You deliver the Withhold not sure either of the maturity of the emotion nor of the accuracy of the underlying belief system. When you express a Withhold, you are implicitly stating that what you are saying could be false (i.e. a false belief system) or, at best, not necessarily your truest or deepest feeling on the matter. In essence, you are “trying out” the feeling in order to find your deepest truth, or else to let go of the distressing feeling altogether by putting it out there.

Because you are opening a communication with the assumption and prior agreement that you could be totally wrong, and that what you are about to say is probably entirely your own stuff, your partner may be less defended and more open to you. You are inviting your partner’s non-judgmental listening around an emotion or a need that you are experiencing. Together, you might be able to reach clarity on this need soon, and with pleasure. In fact, the process can be pleasurable for both people. Giving and receiving Withholds can be thought of as the purest form of love exchange, because you are trying to let go of your make-wrongs towards your partner, and because you are asking them to help you by listening non-judgmentally and non-reactively. As already stated, when you ask someone for help, and are genuinely open to receiving it, you are giving them the opportunity to love you, thereby making both yours and their life more wonderful.

Fundamentally, a Withhold is a request for attention and collaboration around an emotional issue. It is possible to resolve a great many emotional issues rapidly in Withholds even before beginning any kind of negotiation. Withholds are a variation of “you don’t need to get what you want if you can express what you want” (see Chapter 40).

You would both be wise to give Withholds well before the tension on a particular issue rises to the point where a fight is likely to occur. Some couples have pre-set times for sharing or pulling Withholds – once a week, or even every day at an agreed time.

Withholds are one of the most powerful tools in your communication arsenal. Use them well, and you will preempt many, many problems.

Giving Withholds vs. “Sharing Feelings”

The distinction between Withholds and ordinary “sharing of your feelings” is important and easily misunderstood, and worth exploring. It is actually the source of all kinds of problems in communication between people, and especially in communication with women.

Sharing your feelings with another person, say in a normal conversation, can be a beautiful and loving thing to do, a way to connect more deeply. The problem arises when you need to share negative feelings.

According to NVC, negative feelings that you have towards another person are often, and maybe always, related to an unmet need of yours. The issue is that in sharing your raw emotion with them, it is easy to make them wrong. This means it is all too easy to throw in judgments or demands into the communication. Once the other person feels attacked or blamed, it becomes more difficult for them to hear you and less likely that your need will be met. It is, unfortunately, human nature to make people wrong when they don’t meet our needs – and it virtually guarantees that they will continue to not meet the need going forward.

Continue reading on Kindle…