What to Do When Your Partner Shuts Down

What to Do When Your Partner Shuts Down

Ups and downs, periods of conflict, and times when one partner is giving more than the other are all perfectly normal in relationships. Sometimes, partners will either become reactive or emotional shut down in response to stress.

Partners who shut down may actually be employing an unconscious defense mechanism. Shutting down may be used as a way to cope with the stress and psychological overwhelm of conflict. Rather than actively trying to shut out the other person, they attempt to shut out unpleasant emotions and sensations brought up by the stress.

Shutting down emotionally in relationships could look like:

  • Physically turning away, becoming distant, or silent treatment
  • Staring off blankly and not engaging in eye contact
  • Preferring to be alone
  • Avoiding, ending, or withdraw from the conversation
  • Claiming they “don’t even care” or not be affected by the relationship
  • Using logic or trying to solve the problem
  • Passive aggressiveness

When the other person sees their partner shutting down, they may take this response personally, feeling frustrated and hurt (understandably!). While they may try actively to work through conflict, they see their partner move away from it, which leaves them feeling like they don’t matter.

Navigating this situation can be difficult, complex, and exhausting for couples. When they persist the pattern can feel frustrating.

I am going to share practical tips on how to approach the situations when your partner shuts down emotionally (i.e. how to date an avoidant attachment style) so that you can prevent further damage and work toward meaningful connection.

don't blame your partner

what do do when your partner shuts down

The most important initial step at the first signs of conflict are to take a moment to focus on and regulate your own emotions. Remember, relationship dynamics are two-way streets, and the first step is to focus on your half of the interaction.

As difficult and threatening to the relationship as it can feel to watch your partner shut down, remember to acknowledge yourself as a separate individual from your partner. Remind yourself that you are safe as an individual, even though you are temporarily disconnected from your partner. Take note of any sensations in your body when conflict takes over (e.g. increased heart rates, sensations of heat or tension, etc.) Use any other skills that work for you to manage your tough emotions and discomfort, such as grounding exercises, guided breathing, or body movement.

The thoughts that you have in the initial stages of noticing your partner’s shut down are important. However, they may be emotionally charged and not yet formulated in a constructive way.

Writing down your feelings is a great way to further process and regulate your own emotional state, while capturing the pieces of this conflict that are particularly upsetting or stressful for you. Once you have written those thoughts down, you can more easily organize them and share them in an effective way with your partner later on.

When your partner is shutting down, it can feel hurtful, upsetting, and even threatening to the relationship. Often, partners respond to shut down by trying harder to get their partner to hear them or engage in the conversation by doubling down, talking louder or more verbosely to get the point across.

These attempts, while well-meaning, are likely to push the shutting-down partner further away. This is because the shut-down is their threat-response to feeling overwhelmed. A partner that approaches them more, when they are already emotionally at capacity, will increase the overwhelm and increase the response of shutting away.

Giving your partner space to deal with their own psychological state and self soothe on their own is a great way to break the habitual pattern. Try agreeing on a timeframe that works for both people to regulate yourselves and come back to each other when you are ready to tackle an effective conversation together.

During moments of conflict, it’s only natural that both partners seek to have their voice heard by the other. However, instead of approaching the conversation as an opportunity to “win”, shift your goal to increasing your understanding.

By asking questions about your partner’s experience instead of placing judgement or opinions will allow them to open up and share with you.

When they do, you will have an opportunity to understand their shut-down and the parts of the conversation that led to their overwhelm. This understanding is necessary to move forward.

While you are asking questions, resist the urge to place blame or judgment on your partner for the fact that you are in a quarrel by saying something like:

  • You always shut me out
  • It’s your fault we can’t deal with any of our problems
  • You never deal with things maturely

If your partner feels criticized, judged, or singularly blamed, the level of overwhelm and defensiveness will likely increase, placing your both back into the negative cycle of shut-down.

Instead, stay open to acknowledging that both of you hold responsibility for the state of your relationship and that together, you can create a healthier way of dealing with stress.

When you ask your parter about their experience, be open to hearing a perspective that is different from your own. If you ask them to share with you, it’s only fair to staying open to hearing what they bring forward.

As you hear your partner’s perspective, acknowledge the validity of how they feel, even if their experience is different from your own. Your perspective is still valid and true, however, you are expanding your perspective to also include their perspective as valid and true.

The more you can acknowledge their feelings, the more likely they are to keep showing you their feelings and the less likely they are to shut their feelings out and away from your in the future.

Asking questions without blame and acknowledging your partner’s feelings can be difficult steps, but you will likely feel closer to them through the increased understanding you gain.

Offer your partner the same understanding of your experience. See if you can refer back to the notes you wrote down when you were upset and share the vulnerable side of the impact conflict has on you.

This could sound something like:

  • “It really scares me when I see you pull away. It makes me feel like you don’t care about me, which hurts because I care so much about you.”

The key here is to speak from your own perspective (e.g. “I feel …”) and to speak from vulnerability as opposed to anger.

This way of communicating will allow your partner to see the impact their shutting down has on you. Hopefully, seeing this hurt will move your partner to not want to shut you out anymore.

If your partner has shut down, repressed or numbed emotions, and avoided conflict their entire life, it is going to be really hard for them to do something differently, no matter how much they love and care about you.

Be patient as you start sharing more with each other. It’s going to take practice and repetition for things to start to feel different, and it’s not going to be perfect right away.

Gradually, with more frequent communication, you can continue working toward a pattern that works for both of you.

Most couples have a negative cycle of communication, or a pattern of dealing with conflict that happens regardless of the topic.

Maybe one person always shuts down while the other always gets angry and vocal. Maybe both people shut each other out until you can’t ignore the problems anymore.

Understanding the patterns that happen on both sides of the relationship will allow you to both take accountability for your own side of the dynamic and to finally create a different way of dealing with conflict that actually gets you somewhere helpful.

Click here for an assessment to determine your typical pattern.

All of the steps so far sound simple, but they are very hard to do when we are in the heat of the moment. As Sue Johnson, the creator of Emotion-Focused Therapy, says, learning communication skills is typically not enough because in the moment that you need the skills, people don’t use them.

Because these dynamics are so complex and emotionally charged, working with a therapist in couples therapy counseling can expedite your progress in creating a healthy dynamic, while guiding you to look at the current situation in a neutral, balanced way.

A couples therapist can guide complex situations, such as anxious and avoidant relationships, and provide a safe space where both partners are able to understand their own experience and that of their partner.

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