Sophie and Paul came to couples therapy to work on their communication. When I asked them to be more specific about the problem, Sophie said, “I try to communicate all the time but Paul just doesn’t talk.” Paul didn’t necessarily disagree. “The thing is I’m a great communicator at work, but Sophie just gets so angry, it’s impossible to have a conversation with her.” At which point Sophie got angry, ‘It’s impossible to have a conversation because you don’t talk! That’s what makes me angry!”
Although this happened in the first few minutes of our first session, I let it play out (couples therapists need to see how couples argue in order to understand what goes wrong). Paul said nothing for a few moments, then he turned to me with a ‘you see what I mean?’ look. At which point Sophie rolled her eyes and turned to me with her own, ‘you see what I mean?’ look.
I saw what both of them meant.
A very common communication snafu happens when one member of a couple shuts down emotionally during an argument and stops talking. This can happen at any point in the discussion and often occurs rather rapidly as with Sophie and Paul. While Sophie viewed Paul’s silence as a willful refusal to talk, in most cases, something else is going on.
Specifically, some people get easily overwhelmed during arguments with their partner. Paul was right that he communicated well at work. But discussions at work are rarely very personal and therefore they are less emotional. Paul ran into problems with Sophie because the discussions with her were both personal and very emotional and that made him become overwhelmed and emotionally flooded, which led him to shut down.
I asked Paul to describe to Sophie what happens to him when he shuts down, “It’s like my cup is full and you’re trying to put more water in it, and there’s just no room in there. I just can’t think in that moment.”
Paul’s explanation was a pretty good description of what happens in these situations. The shutdown is not voluntary or willful but a feeling of being overwhelmed. Regardless, it is always very frustrating for the other partner who feels stonewalled and thwarted whenever they want to talk about something important. They then try to get their partner to talk but everything they say just makes their partner retreat further into silence.
What to Do When Your Partner Shuts Down
The title of this article might indicate it is only meant for the partner of the person who shuts down but it is meant for both. In my experience, the person who shuts down rarely looks for solutions to their predicament, often because shutting down is associated with feelings of helpless, so I decided to ‘pitch’ it in a one sided way but again, it was written for both members of the couple. Indeed, you will need to work together to break this difficult dynamic. Here are specific recommendations for each partner. To be clear, these will work only if both members of the couple follow the guidelines I suggest.
Guidelines for the Partner Who Shuts Down
1. When you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, let your partner know (e.g., Can we slow this down a bit? I’m getting overwhelmed).
2. If you missed the warning signs and feel yourself shutting down, ask for time to calm down and gather your thoughts (e.g., I do want to talk but I need to calm down and clear my head first).
3. If you ask for time, try to specify how much time you need and when you might be able to resume the discussion (e.g., I need 30 minutes or can we continue the discussion in the morning?).
4. Understand that if your partner agrees to the delay, they are doing so despite feeling VERY frustrated about it. Therefore, it is your responsibility to restart the discussion at the time you specified and to reassure them you will do so.
5. If your partner was doing anything specific in the discussion that made you shut down (e.g., raising their voice, raising too many complaints at once, being too harsh and accusatory) let them know, once you resume, that those things make you feel overwhelmed so they can try to steer clear of them.
6. If during the resumption of your discussion you feel overwhelmed again, repeat the process of asking for a time out.
Guidelines for the Partner Who Does Not Shut Down
1. Understand that when your partner gets too overwhelmed, they will not be able to absorb what you say no matter how right or justified you are in saying it.
2. If they ask for time to collect their thoughts, give it to them but remind them to specify how much time they need if they forget to do so and remind them that it is their responsibility to restart the discussion at that time.
3. Understand that something about your approach made them feel overwhelmed. This does not mean you did anything wrong, as some people get overwhelmed very easily in emotional situations. However, if they are able to articulate anything specific you did that contributed to their getting overwhelmed, try to avoid doing it when the discussion resumes. Again, that does not necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong, just that they can’t handle it.
4. If you find it is difficult for you to control your frustration, or you find that your partner keeps shutting down no matter how you approach them try the following: Suggest you write them your concerns via email/text and that they respond to each of them in the same format—and then use that exchange as the starting point for resuming the discussion (itemizing ‘concerns’ helps here—although each discussion should be about one ‘issue’ only).
5. As a general guideline, try not to talk more than your partner does. Try to be concise in what you say and then give them the ‘floor’. If their responses are too short or uninformative, ask open ended questions such as, “Can you tell me more about what you think/feel? Or “I’m sure you have some concerns too and I would love to hear them”.
6. Do not interrupt your partner when they speak, hard as that might be to do, as interruptions are one of the most common causes of shutdowns.
Remember, this dynamic is frustrating to both of you but it can be overcome if you work together. These suggestions require each of you to go outside your comfort zones so it will not be easy. But if you can improve your communication it will benefit both of you tremendously.