Shutting Down Emotionally in a Relationship

shutting down emotionally in a relationship

Close relationships and meaningful connections with ones we love are some of the most rewarding experiences we have as humans. It can come as a halting surprise when the relationships that mean so much to us become a source of disconnection, stress, and hurt.

We’re going to break down one of the common patterns, shutting down emotionally in a relationship, that can lead to conflict.

Instead of simply calling out this pattern and all the reasons we “shouldn’t” do it in relationships, I’m going to break down on what’s actually happening on an intrapsychic and relational level with emotions in a relationship.

Grounded with this context, based on Emotion Focused Therapy, you can understand your partner and respond to one another in a new way.

Shutting Down Emotionally in a Relationship

One pattern that can lead to disconnection is shutting down. Shutting down, or “Stonewalling” is one of the four negative horsemen of the apocalypse as described by Drs. John and Julie Gottman.

Some common examples of stonewalling include:

  • Pull away from an interaction when conflict comes up
  • Shuts down emotionally
  • Stops responding, instead tuning out or distracting

Though it can be painful, confusing, and extremely difficult to heal, it’s a common issue in relationships, and it can lead to further conflicts.

If you are on the receiving end of stonewalling, and you are someone who doesn’t stonewall yourself, it is so natural to feel hurt and confused seeing this response.

Understanding what is really happening in these moments for someone who is shutting down can help you from taking the response personally and to work with your partner to manage the situation in a healthy way.

What is Stonewalling in a Relationship

In different people, stonewalling may look different on the outside:

  • Difficulty communicating
  • Appearing unresponsive
  • Emotional and physical distance
  • Go to a distraction

But what is happening on the inside?

When someone shuts down in a relationship, it can be confusing for a person who is activated and feeling overwhelmed, because on the outside, it looks like they do not care about the situation.

However, shutting down in a relationship is actually evidence that someone cares a lot. The withdrawal behavior is actually evidence of the activation of the attachment system, meaning that their nervous system was impacted by the threat of disconnection they sensed with the rising conflict and tension.

Because they have become so emotionally flooded and overwhelmed by the conflict, they rely on the only option that they think will help:

  • Emotional shutdown to avoid even further pain or disruption.

They may think they can’t make things better, but they can prevent making them worse.

People shutting down may also have a fear of rejection, causing them to hide or suppress their feelings under stress to avoid being abandoned.

When you understand the strategy of shutting down this way, it is easier to see that the behavior is a coping mechanism to handle stress, born out of the belief that the person cannot do anything to improve the situation, and that to pull back and prevent further damage is the best they can do.

Shutting Down Emotionally in a Relationship

Effects of Stonewalling In A Relationship

Without working to heal this pattern, continued stonewalling can lead to adverse impacts on the relationships they are used in.

There are two typical responses to stress: fight or flight.

If you are someone who fights, you might few turning up the volume under stress as your way of showing you care, of advocating for the relationship.

Not understanding the mechanisms behind stonewalling will leave you feeling confused about the signals you receive from your partner.

When someone stonewalls, they typically have reached their emotional capacity for the moment. Because both people are so emotionally flooded, the interaction gets shut down before the actual root of the issue was addressed.

Plus, the partner who received the stonewalling may feel hurt and decide they want to stop bringing up important issues out of fear of pushing their partner away.

This can lead to a dynamic where partners avoid one another and become disconnected emotionally over time.

When negative emotions and communication styles take over a conversation, the real content fight usually becomes lost. People become so angry or upset they forget what they were arguing about in the first place.

Since the real issues that need to get addressed keep getting lost in the fights, needs of the partners may continue to go unmet. Unmet needs are a sure way to build up resentment in a relationship over time.

When couples do not have feel emotionally safe, they stop feeling the safety to explore with one another in a sexual way. Meaningful intimacy requires a safe space.

Even if couples do continue having sex when they are emotionally disconnected, the intimate encounters do not feel as meaningful and may leave both partners continuing to feel empty inside.

How to Stop Stonewalling in a Relationship

Now that you know what’s going on for someone who is stonewalling, here are some tips for how to work with them so you both feel heard in your interactions .

The first step to changing any behavior, in a person or within a relationship, is to slow the chain of events down enough to figure out what is happening.

When you start entering a heated conversation, instead of reacting, see if you can slow down and notice everything that is happening in the conversation.

  • What happened right before I got upset
  • What happened right before I felt the tension build or energy shift
  • What sensations do I feel in my body

Start to notice the conditions leading up to those painful moments.

Stonewalling In A Relationship

Once you slow down the interactions and observe what is happening, the second part of changing the behavior is understanding why the behavior is happening.

This part requires some individual work of both people. Figure out what happens inside you when the tension that leads to stonewalling starts to build.

Ask yourself:

  • What did I hear my partner say that made me upset (AKA trigger)
  • What meaning did I make of what they said
  • What does what they said say about me
  • What do I do when I become upset
tips for shutting down emotionally in a relationship

Now that you have done some internal reflection, it is important to share these triggers with your partner. Have a productive conversation about these patterns when things are calm.

Your triggers may have to do with things your partner is doing, or they may be hitting on parts of you that have been hurt emotionally in the past.

In the same way, hear your partner’s triggers. Be open to hearing what happens for them internally before your partner shuts down. Be curious about what they see in your actions that dysregulate them.

Having these conversations openly and honestly are key in managing how to date an avoidant attachment style.

stonewalling in a relationship

Usually, couples have fight patterns that feel familiar. You start communicating in a certain way, feel the tension building, and already know how it will end.

During those moments, set boundaries and allow time outs. Call out that you feel things escalating and take a twenty minute break where you both regulate yourselves. Then see if you can come back and unpack what was so upsetting about the moment.

set boundaries

In anxious and avoidant relationships, couples typically develop a communication pattern that falls into a theme:

  • Withdraw/ withdraw: Both people pull away or stonewall
  • Pursue/ withdraw: One person becomes escalated and fights, the other pulls away
  • Pursue/ pursue: Both partners activated and approach one another

One you understand your relationship communication style, you can use that information to let go of your own tendencies and create a new, healthy pattern.

shutting down emotionally in a relationship

Tips 1-5 are incredibly important, but they can be really difficult to do on your own. When you are part of a relationship that means a lot to you, it’s only natural that it’s upsetting and hard to see things clearly when things aren’t going smoothly.

Seek professional help. You will save so much time and further conflict and heartbreak.

A neutral, systems-trained therapist will work like a consultant in couples therapy to show you where the break downs are happening, compassionately listen to your hurts and needs, and guide you to a more secure relationship.

They will help you understand and have compassion for one another, and yourselves, on a deeper level.

online therapist

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