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What to do When Your Partner Shuts Down

What is Stonewalling?

By Laura Silverstein, Certified Gottman Therapist

You may not know the name for it, but most of us know how it feels when we are trying to get through to someone, and bump up against nothing but a stone wall. What do you do when your partner shuts down?

It usually happens after a fight, but not always. Sometimes you have no idea why your partner has stopped engaging with you, and it is infuriating. You try to ask what’s wrong, to which the reply is “nothing.” You start to feel like a monkey, pulling out all your tricks. You try being sweet and understanding, nothing, you try asking questions, nothing, you try changing the subject and start chatting about another topic, but that doesn’t work either.

You are stuck in a pattern that is very common in relationships. Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotion-Focused Therapy calls it the pursuer-distancer dynamic, and Drs John and Julie Gottman, founders of the Gottman Method, call it stonewalling.

One thing is clear, it feels rotten for both people, and it is toxic for your relationship.

You Probably Think He/She Doesn’t Even Care

It’s a reasonable assumption from your point of view. When someone has shut down, they certainly look like they don’t care. The facial expression is usually neutral, there is little to no expression of emotion, and voice tone becomes monotonous. Answers to questions are short, and you begin to interpret all of this as indifference.

When it looks like the person we love most in the world doesn’t care how upset we are, the urgency begins to rise, causing us to knock even harder on the door, desperate for reassurance that we are loved. And the harder we know, the taller and more solid the wall becomes.

What is Actually Happening

What we know from 4 decades of research is that the conclusion that your partner doesn’t care probably couldn’t be further from the truth.

You and your partner are engaged in an unpleasant, but very common dance. One of you needs to connect for reassurance that everything is okay, and the other needs space for reassurance that everything is okay.

When you are the pursuer in this situation, the most important thing to remember is that what you see on the outside does not reflect his/her internal experience. Most likely, your partner is completely overwhelmed with emotion, feeling like a deer in headlights with nothing safe to do or say. The defenses of fight and flight are much easier to recognize that the freeze defense.

We know from the research that when people shut down like this, their heart rates are usually well over 100 BPM, they have lost access to the part of their brain capable of complex reasoning, and have even lost their peripheral vision. It is easy to miss the reality that your partner is in a heightened state of physiological arousal, that just might look different than yours, but the experience of panic is equal.

What to Do When Your Partner Shuts Down

This is one of those times when the concept of what to do is quite simple, but very difficult to implement.

You need to take a break.

The conversation will only get worse if you attempt to keep talking when one or both of you are in a state of physiological arousal. There needs to be a cooling off period so that you can each catch your breath, let your heart rates level off and slowly and gently find your frontal cortex.

Here is the problem. It is extremely difficult to give someone space when they are distancing themselves. Perhaps there is a fear that if you don’t talk about it now, the conversation will never happen, or it feels like you might lose them as you see them appearing further and further away.

Paradoxically when you give your overwhelmed partner space, you are actually more likely stay close and connected. But there are two very important things that need to happen to avoid emotional disconnection. If these two things do not happen than trust will be eroded and it will become increasingly difficult for you to give your partner what they need, thus also not getting what you need from your partner. In order to establish trust, this is what must happen:

  1. The person asking for space must commit to reconnecting at a specific time and place
  2. The person asking for dialogue must give his/her partner the space that is being requested

What Does it Look Like?

Sam has become completely flooded by an argument he was having with Sarah. She is asking him questions and he is not responding to her for fear that it will make things worse. She thinks he doesn’t care how important this is to her, and he is doing nothing to contradict her fear. He knows this at some level but feels dug into ditch so deeply that he doesn’t know how to get out of.

Here is the Ticket Out:

Sam: I’m totally maxed out Sarah, and don’t want to say anything that is going to make this worse. I need a time out right now, but I promise to continue the conversation after I’ve calmed down.

Sarah: Okay but we’ve said that before and then don’t always follow through.

Sam: You’re right, how about we sit down and have a cup of tea together to talk about this in 20 minutes. That will give me time to take the dog for a walk and take my shower.

Sarah: Okay, so, so that will be at 7:25 then?

Sam: [looks at his watch] Yes, we’ll keep talking then

Or More Likely it Will Look Something Like This

Sam: OMG, Sarah, back off, I’m losing it!

Sarah: You don’t get it! I’m just trying to talk to you, will you please listen!?!

Sam: I can’t right now, I’m trying but I can’t.

Sarah: Okay, let’s take a break and try again in 20 minutes

Sam: Okay, thanks, I’ll take the dog out and meet you at 7:25 in the kitchen

Sarah: Okay

How to Use Your Time-out

Whether you decide on a 20 minute time out period, or 24 hours, the way that the time is spent is crucial to the outcome. It is important to remember that the purpose of the separation is for each partner to self-soothe. By calming your body first, you will be able to re-ground yourself. This will allow you to truly understand what you are thinking and feeling in order to decide what to do or say next.

When your thoughts are focused on relaxing your body you are less likely to be hijacked into self-righteous indignation in which you are obsessing about all the horrible things about your partner (which is counter-productive to building closeness). Perhaps you already have a strategy that you know works for you. Here are some ideas that have worked for others:

  • Mindfulness exercises
  • Progressive Relaxation (here is a link to a 7 minute progressive relaxation)
  • Gentle exercise
  • Prayer
  • Changing your body temperature (for example a hot shower or a brisk walk outside)

Resources

Dr. John Gottman led a research team in a 40 year longitudinal study allowing him to be able to predict divorce with 90% accuracy. Through this research he operationalized 6 predictors of divorce. One of theses 6 predictors has been labeled the “4 Horsemen of the Apolcalypse”, which includes Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling.

The good news is that not only did Dr. Gottman identify the predictors of divorce, he also provided the antidotes for these problems so that couples can learn the skills turn their relationships around. In other words the research is based on couples who did not receive help, so now we know what to do instead. This blog is providing the antidote for Stonewalling. Soft startup is the antidote for criticism, taking accountability is the antidote for defensiveness, and building a culture of appreciation is the antidote for contempt. Please take a look at my other blog posts:

Antidote to Criticism (How to Avoid a Fight)

Antidote to Defensiveness (How to Stop Being Defensive)

 

 

 

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